Re:co Symposium: Building a Shared Understanding

By Jimmy Sherfey

Re:co. It’s a just a name, but it’s a good one. It’s a play on memo speak, the email shorthand which most efficiently expounds on a shared understanding. The constant drive to reach an understanding, to share information that is best of our knowledge—this what Re:co is about.

While the act of convening is simple, real progress once we’re under the same roof may not be such an easy concept; we are a complex, sprawling industry that wishes to gain a deeper understanding of itself. That happens by inviting more people into the discussion to share diverse, often competing theories and unique individual experience. Thought leaders sit down at the same table as those just beginning to think more deeply about coffee. People of different backgrounds, both socially and professionally, standing level with one another, figuring out how to most effectively solve coffee’s most pressing problems, while expanding quality and efficiency so they can exist in harmony.

But really, what the symposium is about is getting out from behind our devices and our online personas, letting go of our laurels and opening our minds to face the very real dangers threatening this beautiful crop that is the livelihood of attendees and so many thousands of people not present.

SCAA has built a level playing field for us to share tools, resources, and build networks. But at the end of the day, it’s about the people of coffee. There are people working in coffee who are unable to attend our annual get together and engage in this democratic discourse, to quite simply converse. What Sustainability Manager Kim Elena Ionescu conveyed in her Re:co presentation is that the farm workers, for all the attention shifted to coffee’s origin, remain absent from the conversation.

Much worse than lacking a voice, there are farm workers in 2016 being subjected to slave-like labor conditions. Michael Sheridan’s presentation revealed the results of a two-year investigation proving this. Working in concert with human-rights watchdog organization, Reporter Brasil, they have confirmed that forced labor and degrading and dangerous working conditions still exist in the coffee supply chain, even in the country known for having some of the world’s most progressive labor standards. Furthermore, even the working safeguards against labor abuse are vulnerable and precarious. Rather than shying away from the unfortunate truth, we need to “lean in,” as Michael puts it, and understand more about the problems that plague the industry.

The importance of multi-stakeholder engagement came up more than a few times from varied people who think a great deal about equity in the supply chain. We are the stakeholders to address the problems: As Hanna Neuschwander of World Coffee Research reminded me at the climate change discussion salon, there are no silver-bullet solutions.

The best we can do is to define the complex web of problems that coffee faces, by bringing our best ideas and questions to the table. Using the tools available—the software, the applications, the analytics—we must we bring our individual experience as unique human beings to enhance our shared understanding. Re:co, let’s strengthen the human connection that too often gets lost in the business of coffee.

Jimmy Sherfey is a journalist who writes for coffee industry trade journals such as Roast Magazine and culinary websites such as Eater.com.