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260. Brewing change: Rick Peyser and the rise of sustainability in specialty coffee

Every year the SCAA’s “big event” plays host to countless “small events” — receptions, fundraisers, competitions, press releases, big announcements, etc.  One of the “small events” I am looking forward to most eagerly this year is the release of “Brewing Change,” a new book about Green Mountain’s Director of Coffee Community Outreach and Social Advocacy Rick Peyser.  The book, narrated by Rick and written by his friend and collaborator, the noted apiculturist Bill Mares, tracks the development of Rick’s career in coffee, as well as the rise of the sustainability movement within the specialty coffee industry.  It becomes clear early on that the two storylines are inextricably bound together.

The first sentence of the forward sets the tone for the book, even if it perhaps understates the scope of Rick’s influence.   Bob Stiller, who incorporated Green Mountain Coffee back in 1981, writes: “I didn’t realize it at the time, but the direction of our company shifted the day Rick Peyser returned from his first trip to a coffee-growing community.”  I think it is fair to say that in his persistent pursuit of justice for smallholder coffee farmers, and his relentless promotion of practices to increase quality of life at origin, Rick has also helped shift the direction of the industry.  The fact that he has done so with such humility makes him, in my estimation, a figure well worth celebrating.

Humble beginnings.

Rick wasn’t always the senior statesman of specialty coffee and sustainability he is today.  He started with Green Mountain back in 1989 — with no previous professional experience in coffee — running the company’s mail-order business.  Within a few years, he had been promoted to Director of Retail Marketing and Merchandising — a job with a big title, but lots of small responsibilities.  These included dressing up as Green Mountain’s mascot during public events, wearing a costume made from brown carpet and chicken wire that was meant to be a coffee bean.  Not everyone saw the resemblance.  Rick recalls wearing the costume during a relay race on a hot day in Burlington’s City Hall Park.  As he was sweating and racing toward the finish line, he heard a spectator cheering him on: “Go, turd, go!”

He has come a long way, indeed.  The story of the evolution of his career from carpet-covered coffee mascot to SCAA president and beyond is entwined with another story — that of the mainstreaming of sustainability in the coffee industry.

Taking sustainability mainstream.

In the book, Rick takes the reader along on his trips to the coffeelands and into meetings with other coffee-industry stakeholders.   The accounts of the early trips are narrated with an informal travelogue tone and convey the excitement of discovery, but the struggle with the disturbing realities he sees at source is never far from the surface.  Later, Rick’s travels are more assured, from the Spanish he learned to communicate more effectively with farmers in Latin America to his pointed field-level research and purposeful monitoring of Green Mountain-funded projects.

The book also refers casually to meetings that would have significant implications not just for Rick’s professional development, but for the industry’s sustainability agenda.  A partial list of some of the memorable moments Rick describes in the book include: his first meeting with Coffee Kids co-founder Bill Fishbein, who became a close friend and co-conspirator in efforts to move the industry toward greater engagement with difficult issues at origin; his providential meeting with Equal Exchange co-founder Rink Dickinson, who introduced him to Fair Trade; the SCAA meeting in Berkeley that was interrupted by activists protesting the industry’s engagement in El Salvador during the civil war; his first visits with smallholder farmers (which he did on his own time and dime to learn more about cooperatives and organic farming); a sidebar conversation with Oxfam’s coffee campaign director that pulled Rick into the Ethiopian trademark initiative; his trip to Gombe with Jane Goodall and subsequent promotion of the linkage between coffee sourcing and conservation; the groundbreaking household-level research Green Mountain conducted with CIAT into smallholder livelihoods that revealed to him the existence of annual periods of seasonal hunger in the coffeelands; and his subsequent cycle of despair, discernment and dedication to the cause of reducing hunger in the coffeelands.  These personal experiences of Rick’s all foretold significant advances in the industry’s movement toward triple-bottom-line business models that combine profitability with greater social, economic and environmental justice.  Of course, Rick was not a mere bystander in these processes.  From his advocacy for greater commitment to sourcing certified coffees, first within Green Mountain then later as SCAA president, to his impassioned engagement with the issue of seasonal hunger in the coffeelands, he has helped to drive many of those advances.

Linking private faith and public advocacy.

Early on in the book, Rick alludes to his membership in Pax Christi, a Catholic peace organization, and explains how his personal faith helped him make sense of the challenging realities he experienced in the coffeelands.  The reference is brief, but as someone who works for a Catholic agency and has carefully studied Catholic Social Teaching on issues of social and economic justice, I can see echoes of that reference throughout the book.  Rick’s enthusiastic description of his first exposure to cooperative organization during a visit with the La Voz coop in Guatemala uses language that cleaves closely to that of Church teaching on the principle of subsidiarity.  His profound sense of empathy, tied to his firm commitment to act to right injustice, is the embodiment of human solidarity.  And no single strand ties the book’s chapters together as tightly as Rick’s sustained commitment to ensure the human dignity of smallholder farmers.  In his description of his personal struggle with the results of the research he conducted into hunger in the coffeelands, and his commitment to address it, one sees his faith at work.

These values hardly belong to the Catholic Church alone.  Leaders in the industry’s sustainability movement have embraced them from many different faith traditions and none at all.  But to ignore how Rick’s private faith has informed and inspired his public advocacy would be to miss an important part of his story.

In his own words.

Rick has shown time and again his commitment to the always tireless, often lonely, occasionally courageous work of talking about uncomfortable issues and taking unpopular positions to help others see what he has seen and to move them to action.  The results of his restless efforts are impressive.  By the time Green Mountain last year became the world’s leading buyer of Fair Trade Certified coffee, Rick was several years into a campaign to bring more industry actors into the fight against hunger in the coffeelands – a campaign based on the idea that certifications alone are not sufficient to ensure sustainable smallholder livelihoods.  Rick has been (justifiably) honored many times in recent years for his work, with many voices joining in the chorus of celebration – honors he has accepted graciously but not without discomfort at the lavish praise.  The book is a welcome opportunity to hear Rick tell his story, with characteristic humility, in his own words.

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Rick will be signing copies of “Brewing Change: Behind the Bean at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters,” in the SCAA Resource Center on Friday, 20 April, from 12:30-13:30.


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