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The identity politics of coffee

From the July 2017 issue.

Is coffee the next ethical front of cultural appropriation?

Jeffrey Neilson

Sometimes it’s easy to spot cultural appropriation.

Despite increasing awareness of the potential harm in borrowing symbols, traditions or language from a culture that isn’t one’s own, you can still pick out the oblivious music festival-goer sporting a feathered headdress in the name of fashion.

While Twitter and Instagram are rife with public accusations, the moral dilemma is far more complex than what the kids are wearing at Coachella. According to a University of Sydney geographer, the coffee industry would be wise to take heed.

“For many years people in the specialty coffee industry have shared intimate stories and photos from producers for marketing purposes,” said Jeffrey Neilson at the Specialty Coffee Association’s Re:co Symposium in Seattle last April.

“Sometimes with permission and sometimes without even knowing their names.”

Neilson has spent the past several years studying geographic indications in the Indonesian coffee industry, where an estimated two million rural households are involved in coffee farming.

He found that while they did not improve the livelihoods of farmers, the popularity of geographic indications within Indonesia and other coffee-producing countries raises important ethical questions that could soon change how we look at coffee marketing practices with places of origin.

“Geography is likely to become an increasingly contested moral and political arena in the (coffee) industry in years ahead,” he said.

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