Participants Represented Various Stakeholder Positions
On 16 March, Wittenborg University of Applied Sciences hosted an intercollegiate debate on the coffee industry with students from the IES study abroad programme in Amsterdam. The visiting students are participating in a short-term study abroad programme and attend classes at the University of Amsterdam as well as the Free University. Wittenborg students from both the Amsterdam and Apeldoorn campuses participated in the debate.
The activity kicked off with two speakers from the IES programme summarising the readings that were assigned in preparation for the debate. After that, the students were divided into six teams representing various stakeholder positions in the discussion: farmers, big corporations (i.e. Starbucks), consumers, employees, governments of coffee-growing countries and roasters. The teams were asked to consider whether fair trade was a viable long-term solution to address sustainability and labour issues in the coffee industry and to come up with arguments to support their position.
The team representing big corporations argued for an investment in sustainable farming practices and new technology that will allow the farmers to increase their yields. The farmers argued for better wages, stressing that while fair trade does guarantee an overall higher income for both producers and their employees and supports sustainable production and women’s labour force participation, farmers are forced to pay for their certification process. They added that coffee producers often wait for five months before they are paid for their harvest.
The team representing the roasters contended that they were reluctant to give up their position as intermediaries, thus the expansion of fair trade threatened their current business model. Finally, the team representing the consumers felt that the big corporations and national governments in the regions where coffee is grown need to be held accountable for the poor labour conditions on many plantations, although the team acknowledged the consumers’ responsibility toward the producers.
During the discussion, many of the teams argued fair trade was a Western concept that largely benefited Western consumers and retailers – even the debaters who supported fair trade as means of combating child labour and improving the position of women. Some teams argued the institutionalisation of fair trade was an ineffective strategy for combatting the effects of climate change on coffee production. At the end of the debate, the Wittenborg and IES students were able to socialise over a snack of fruit, croissants and fair trade chocolates.
Senior lecture Amy Abdou has been organising the bi-annual debate since 2019. The themes for the activity are related to topics addressed in the courses Sociology and Organisational Behaviour and Management, Leadership and the Organisation. Since in 2022 Wittenborg is placing emphasis on discussing the SDGs and, in particular, the effects of our current modes of production on climate change, these were considered important factors in the discussion.
Wittenborg student Laura Serrano, who is pursuing an HBA degree in Hospitality Management, said that the topic of the debate appealed to her because, among other reasons, she is originally from Colombia, one of the largest coffee producers and exporters in the world. “Coffee is a big part of my culture and we Colombians feel proud of it. I have worked in the coffee industry and visited coffee farms, and I have seen how hard the job of coffee farmers is. Being part of this debate allowed me to share a little bit of what the concerns of coffee farmers in my country are.”
In her view, one of the activity’s key takeaways is that fair trade labels can only be effective if consumers actively support these initiatives. “Almost everyone drinks coffee or eats chocolate, but many do not know about the poor life conditions of coffee farmers or the child labour risks at cocoa fields. Through debates, students learn proactively and become more conscious of the products they buy and the companies they support, and start to care about the environment and human rights,” she said.
Serrano added that, due to COVID-19-related restrictions, this was the first in-person activity she had taken part in since 2019, and also the last one, since she has just finished her studies. “This debate made me feel very happy because I really missed interacting with other students and lecturers and the activity was fun, interesting and enabled me to meet great new people. It was also my first visit to the Amsterdam campus, since I was based in Apeldoorn, and I really encourage students to take part in these debates, especially because they help integrate students from Apeldoorn and Amsterdam.”
by Amy Abdou and Ulisses Sawczuk