Jim Ngokwey on a Clearer Definition of "Ethical" Coffee

Jim Ngokwey on a Clearer Definition of "Ethical" Coffee

What do words like "ethical" and "sustainable" really mean in coffee? In this audio extra, Jim Ngokwey discusses the ambiguity of common buzzwords.

Hi folks! Here’s a little audio extra from my conversation with Jim Ngokwey of Mighty Peace Coffee. Usually, I send these audio extras to paying subscribers, but this one is going out to everyone since we’re skipping our usual Thursday post (even though Thanksgiving is a terrible holiday, I still try to rest and take breaks when I can).

Next week, I’ll publish one more long-form piece, and then we’re off for the month of December and republishing the best interviews of the year in our December Rewind! I’ll also publish a few one-off stories—and I might do a gift guide like I did last year. Get ready to revisit old favorites, and we’ll see you with some fresh new episodes in January!

Ashley: I have kind of a controversial question to ask you, and we can kind of go in whatever direction this takes us, but one of the things that I've been really grappling with is what defines specialty coffee. So, if you go to the Specialty Coffee Association's website, they broadened the definition to essentially include coffees—because for a long time, there was a very linear definition of a score determined specialty coffee, so it was pretty much driven by quality.

Now, I believe the Specialty Coffee Association has extended that definition to include coffees that somehow promote a better future, or somehow support others in doing something better than the systems that were before them, and I wonder, if a roaster isn't doing that, are they specialty anymore?

I would argue they are not. Even though the guise of specialty has been so much driven both by quality and, I would argue, by aesthetics, that we are often tricking people, I think now, especially in 2022, you live in New York City, like you've probably seen coffee shops that look like specialty shops, but have no claim to that definition of specialty coffee.

So I wonder: Should we be more … not litigious, ‘cause that implies something legal. But should we be more discerning of this? Should we be like, ‘No, you're not specialty because you're not doing this stuff?’

Jim: I think specialty, ethically sourced, sustainable—I think we should definitely agree on a definition—

Ashley: And we should be stricter about it!

Jim: Yeah, and that's hard to do because again, there are people that are neither specialty nor sustainable, but they can claim it because there's no standard definition, right? So I think we definitely need to have a standard that we all abide by, but even that, you know, it's—I dunno that like it can happen, you know? Because there's so many incentives to be able to say specialty, sustainability, even if you don't match those standards.

That's definitely gonna be a challenge to get to that point where we all agree and stick to that definition, to one definition, right? So that's definitely gonna be a challenge.

But you're right. I think the aesthetics—it’s almost become an aesthetic thing. Sometimes I even feel like the quality may not even be a priority—most of the aesthetics and the branding. So that's a tough question.

Ashley: It's a tough question. It's something that I've been really thinking about. I don't know a lot about their buying practices, but again, you're in New York, so I'll just name them just because there was an article about them in the New York Times and I've been thinking about them a lot.

Blank Street—I think Blank Street 100% co-opted the aesthetics of specialty, but I have absolutely no understanding of how they buy coffee. Maybe they buy coffee really ethically. I have no idea—the fact that I don't know, and I'm an interested coffee person and I can't find that information very readily, is a little bit concerning to me.

But I wonder if, because we have spent so much time viewing specialty and selling specialty to customers as an aesthetic choice and almost as something that's quality-focused, but quality-focused in a very myopic way, that we've maybe forgotten what actually makes [something] specialty, if that makes sense.

Jim: No, it definitely does. Definitely does. And I think especially even ethically, you mentioned, I don’t if it's ethically sourced, who decide what's ethical? Because which standards do we go by?

Ashley: Because we don't have those standards really.

Jim: We don't. Anybody can really say they source ethically and unless they show you their books and their processes, you can't really say whether it's true or not. It's definitely tough.

I think there's a lot of nebulous definitions out there and that opens the door for people who may not follow those traditional guidelines to make claims that can be verified.

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