Breaking Down the “Fourth Wave”

One of the central pieces of Just Coffee Cooperative’s mission is it “help create and expand a model of trade based on transparency, equality, and human dignity.” When we started Just Coffee we thought that we could do this
by being part of a “Fair Trade Movement” that was defined by a certification model that hung its hat on guaranteeing farmers more money for their coffee.
Back then this “fair trade premium” was more substantial as the world market price was at one of its lowest points in history. However, over time the coffee industry adjusted to absorb the fair trade certification model without the depth of change we wanted to see. Watching the model become eroded by big companies who negatively influenced the certifiers and their standards while at the same time seeing the “fair trade premium” become less significant with a rising market price, we left the model and ultimately became some of its most vocal critics.

For the past couple of years we have become less vocal leaving others to critique the broken system while we have worked on deepening our commitment to the small farmers we work with. We became founding partners in a Madison-based non-profit called Outside The Bean that focuses on community engagement and education about challenges facing small-scale farmers and our very real connection to them. We then joined up with On The Ground– a non-profit connected with other mission-based roasters that facilitates community development projects in coffee communities around the world. We decided to stop talking as much refocusing our energyon helping to create the model that we wanted to see.

Talking with other members of On The Ground we have started to refer to the model we are building as “The fourth wave”– although don’t expect that to necessarily stick, become systematized, trademarked, and branded.
This term refers to the three recognized waves of the commercial coffee industry. The first wave was cheap, readily available, industrial coffee like Folgers. The second wave was the rise of a better-tasting specialty coffee and cafes that served it providing a unique “specialty coffee experience”. The third wave is the current rise of even more specialized artisan coffee that is treated like wine
in the sense of its cup quality and the way it is sourced and described.
What  “the fourth wave” means to us is a way to talk about taking the next step in creating a coffee chain that– instead of a line that runs one way from farmer to coffee drinker– connects the end user and primary producer in a real way forming a circle that benefits all involved. It also is a way to loop the idea of “quality” back to the farm level and to appreciate the hard work and expertise of small-scale coffee farmers as well as the taste of the final cup. It is the opportunity to bypass “neutral third party certifiers” and commit to directly connecting– in any way we can– to farmers, their families, and their communities. In the end it is a chance to actualize the best ideals of “fair trade” in a way that recognizes our agency and ability to do something direct.

When we started we thought that we could help “pull small farmers out of poverty” simply by paying more for our coffee– a strictly market-based solution. Now we know that small farmers will never get to where they want to be simply by receiving a little more cash for their beans, as important as that piece is. Now we see that to actualize a better “market-based solution” we have to change the way we understand the market including its basic shape and function. And we are pretty excited to build this with you one farmer community at a time because
— without your active participation– we cannot do any of this.

See what we are doing and find out how to get involved at