The Power of a Trade Association

By Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director, Specialty Coffee Association of America

Trade associations have a long and storied history in the world. The first trade associations were organized as guilds dating back to the Middle Ages. These groups organized to promote the interests of their members—ranging from craftsmen to students—and largely replaced the religious fraternities that organized craftsmen from Roman times. The term “guild” is a reference to the common fund of gold they maintained for their activities. Since these times, groups have formed all over the world to promote or protect the interests of their stakeholders in fields ranging from astrophysics (The National Astronomy and Astrophysics Association) to zoo keepers (American Association of Zoo Keepers). The US has been particularly prolific, with some 90,000 legally incorporated non-profit trade associations operating in 2011. Why do we like the trade association model so much? What does a trade association do that businesses cannot do for themselves? How can we realize the benefits of an association? What will our association do for us now and in the future?

The most basic driver for the trade association is that together we can accomplish what cannot be done single-handedly. By uniting our resources, we can leverage them in many different arenas in ways that no single company can. To that end, trade associations have traditionally engaged in lobbying and guiding governmental regulation of their industries; in developing standards and best practices; in providing education and professional development for those employed in their industry; in promoting the products of their industry to the public; and in acting as a watchdog for negative impressions of their industries.

For coffee in the US, the regulatory and governmental affairs functions by a trade association have long been the purview of the National Coffee Association. The NCA has done yeoman’s work over the last century to minimize trade barriers, keep the regulatory climate for coffee positive, and to keep the bureaucracy that tends to grow around the import and production of food and beverages in check. Similar efforts have been undertaken by other nationally based trade associations in other countries, with the European Coffee Federation, the German Coffee Association, the All Japan Coffee Association, and the Canadian Coffee and Tea Association all actively pursuing their national interests in coffee. The SCAA has played a supporting role whenever needed to support NCA’s efforts in this arena, adding its voice and the voices of its members where and when it could benefit the industry, at both national and state levels.

The SCAA has from very early on taken up the mantle of setting standards for coffee, working to develop and promote standards for quality, brewing, grading, and water as the industry has strived to understand how to best deliver a great coffee experience to the consumer. Much of the work of the SCAA Standards Committee has focused on identifying and codifying these standards and best practices, and providing a clear path to good coffee for the trade. The SCAA works through its Standards Committee to support these efforts, and also leads the ANSI Technical Advisory Group for Coffee, participates with the International Standards Organization (ISO) on coffee, and works collaboratively with a wide range of groups on standards and practices. The SCAA Cupping form, the sample roasting and cupping protocols, the Water Quality Standard, and programs such as the Golden Cup and the Certified Brewer are all the result of the SCAA’s commitment to the development and promotion of standards.

Education and professional development are key activities for the SCAA. From the early days of the association, there was a concerted effort to educate those interested in the colorful history of coffee, the diverse locales where coffee is grown, the impacts of coffee trade on the lives of people, and the ways in which coffee is traded, processed, and presented. Since those early efforts around education, the SCAA mission has grown to include a rigorous program of professional development for coffee people from green grading and purchasing to roasting to coffee preparation. The SCAA offers education, practice, and certificate programs in all of these aspects of the coffee business. It utilizes the resources of professional adult educators, subject matter experts, and administrative staff to maintain and grow highly focused programs aimed at increasing professionalism and job performance throughout the industry. The SCAA Professional Development Committee, paired with the SCAA staff and SCAA Guild leadership, creates and disseminates a vast array of coffee education. Another important role for the trade association is to promote the use of the product or services it represents. The SCAA has acted as a voice for the industry in countless articles about the unique place that coffee occupies in the fabric of our lives, and has advocated for the gustatory pleasure of great coffee, as well as coffee’s place as part of a healthy lifestyle. While we have never launched a “Got Coffee” campaign, we have presented a positive image of coffee as an affordable and rewarding “luxury” in our lives. The SCAA has also undertaken consumer studies, data compilations, and market assessments as a benefit to its members and will continue to work in these areas.

One traditional function of an association is to aggregate knowledge for stakeholders across a relatively narrow band of interest. The American Beekeeping Federation, for example, provides access to a wide variety of publications on beekeeping, links to beekeeping supplies, and training classes on beekeeping. Of course, the internet has made much of this aggregation function less challenging, but people still want to meet folks with experience and interest in their fields, to gather together to work for the common good, to get updated on news and trends in their fields, and to share knowledge and ideas. The SCAA, like many other associations, provides these kinds of networking opportunities to its members and to the coffee community.

The future of our association will undoubtedly include all of the activities described here to one degree or another. Certainly advocacy, standard setting, professional development, and community building are core activities that will be integral to our progress. Our future will also include a broadening of our community, as more and more stakeholders in the coffee supply chain have joined our ranks. Today, over twenty percent of SCAA’s members are international, and with coffee consumption growing in markets around the world, we will continue our efforts to be inclusive and broadly based. We will also continue to support and advocate the activities of coffee focused organizations like World Coffee Research, the Coffee Quality Institute, the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, and the NGO’s working to benefit the coffee industry globally.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1835 opus, Democracy in America, noted, “…I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object to the exertions of a great many men, and in getting them voluntarily to pursue it.” One of the compelling attributes of associations is their embodiment of the best values of self-government. The active participation of members in creating the vision, overseeing the activities, and guiding the governance of the association is necessary to the health and relevance of the organization. The SCAA has a compelling history of active volunteers, and all members are invited, encouraged, and welcomed as participants in the future of the association.

Ric Rhinehart is the Executive Director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.  He has more than 20 years of experience in the specialty coffee industry and has designed, developed and produced a wide range of coffee and tea products.  He has considerable experience in developing manufacturing and packaging capabilities, and has traveled extensively as a green coffee buyer.