13 years ago US natives Matt Earley and Mike Moon started working intermittently in the Chiapas region of Mexico. The men were there to support the Zapatista movement underway, but their involvement quickly took on a new and specific form. Seeking ways to improve economic stability, the little coffee communities around Pantelho, Chiapas organized into a coffee cooperative called “Yachil Xolobal Chulchan” and asked Matt and Mike to help them find a buyer in the US. So they went home and told several roasters about these revolutionary coffee farmers. All the roasters and importers they encountered said, “No,” because the cooperative did not yet have fair trade or organic certification and because their coffee would be more expensive than coffee bought on the “free market”. All the group had was the story of cooperating together to produce a quality product.
When Matt and Mike delivered the bad news, the farmers in the new co-op were not worried. “That’s ok,” they said. “You can buy it.” And so Matt and Mike did. Even though the only thing the men knew about coffee was that they liked to drink it, the pair spent a few days learning about small businesses, importing and roasting. They then agreed to find a way to bring Yachil’s raw beans to the US and, thus, Just Coffee was born.
Just Coffee has grown up into a successful cooperative of its own. From branch to cup, they function at the center of a web of cooperatives. Purchasing coffee from fourteen coops around the world, the company imports through Cooperative Coffees, a network of twenty-four roasters in the US and Canada. The affiliation allows Just Coffee to control transactions and ensure an appropriate price to its producers. After roasting, they sell much of their coffee in cooperatively owned grocers throughout the United States.
Just Coffee Co-op continues to expand. Last year the roasting co-op did over two million dollars in business, despite the economic recession that has harmed many small businesses. As their company grows, however, Matt and Mike have remained committed to the farmers that produce the coffee. More radically, they ask Just Coffee customers to do the same. The company relies on a belief that, if given the opportunity, every customer has the capacity to care about the products they purchase. Rather than relying on fair trade labels, Just Coffee offers consumers transparency about its business practices. They publish purchasing prices, information about producer coops and the deep concerns they have about trying to run an economically fair company. More than that, they bring coffee farmers and coffee drinkers face to face. Each year Matt and Mike invite producers to visit the US and customers to visit the places where their coffee grows. Just Coffee continually seeks new ways to help consumers want to spend more than a few seconds deciding what products they will take off the shelves and into their homes.
Just Coffee is proud of the delicious coffee they roast and distribute. They are proud of their careful, deliberate, focused and ethical methods. However, they have come to realize that, while the communities of growers that they work with are doing better, the people continue to live in poverty. They have heard farmers say, “Fair trade is not fair,” and they agree. They have started a non-profit arm of Just Coffee dedicated to supporting infrastructure development for the communities where they purchase coffee.
Many of these communities, including Yachil in Chiapas, could not afford to buy the coffee they produce, the coffee that Just Coffee sells. Demanding transparency instead of certifications and labels, as well as using their committed, involved cooperative to support their fellow cooperatives, Just Coffee Co-op continues to strive for coffee that is truly just.