Skip to main content

Three Important Takeaways SCAA 2016: Policy, Progress and Paul Katzeff

re:co symposium

The Re:Co Atlanta backdrop. Daily Coffee News photo.

Nearly two months have passed since the curtains closed on the 2016 SCAA events in Atlanta, but like the great Ray Charles, I still have Georgia on my mind.

Three Ps stand out in my reflections: Policy, Progress and Paul Katzeff.


The Re:co Atlanta presentation that resonates most with me from the event is not the one I thought it would be when the agenda was announced. It is the presentation given by National Coffee Association Executive Director Bill Murray.

As the curators of Re:co Symposium know well, a great speaker is more essential to a successful talk than a compelling message. When a great speaker delivers a compelling message, well, that’s magic. And I found Bill Murray to be a great speaker — humble, humorous and engaging — with a very compelling message.

He began his presentation in Hollywood, where he used to work on government affairs for an entertainment industry trade association. He won over the audience by explaining some of the trials associated with sharing a name with another Bill Murray who is decidedly better known in star-crazed Los Angeles.

He explained how hard it was to be the source of endless disappointment to studio hands who were on the other end of his phone calls. You can imagine how those exchanges went. Breathless studio officials asking time and time again with excitement, “THE Bill Murray?!?”  And the NCA’s Bill Murray letting them down gently over and over.  He started referring to himself in Hollywood in the way he signed off in Atlanta, as “The OTHER Bill Murray.”

From Hollywood, Mr. Murray went to Washington via the heartland, explaining how he helped the film industry press its agenda in Congress by demonstrating its economic value to millions of people in big cities, small towns and megaplexes across the country — the people who elect our Congressional representatives.

His humor was self-effacing and his style easy and conversational, but there was no mistaking the razor-sharp thinking behind the strategy — a strategy he has brought with him to the NCA. The climax of his presentation was the unveiling of the NCA’s research to quantify coffee’s impact on the U.S. economy — research that suggests coffee is responsible for $225 billion in economic activity each year. I suspect that was the most-Tweeted moment of his speech, but not the most important.

The most important messages were these: (1.) being responsible for more than $1 of every $100 spent in the U.S. economy gives you leverage in Washington, and (2.) the NCA is committed to using that leverage to influence policy related to the coffee sector. If and when that leverage is brought to bear to make the coffee trade more transparent, inclusive or ecologically sustainable, it may be the greatest sustainability tool of all.


In my own presentation to Re:co Symposium, on labor protections in Brazil’s coffee sector, I contrasted the country’s reluctance to abolish de jure slavery in the 19th century with its eager campaign to eradicate de facto slavery in the 21st century.

Then, the country dragged its feet on abolition, implementing a series of gradual measures over a period of nearly 60 years that forestalled full freedom for slaves.

Now, Brazil has one of the most progressive working definitions of slave labor in the world.

Then, it was on the wrong side of history.  Now, it is ahead of the curve. To me that sounds like progress.

Not that progress isn’t messy or painful. It is often both. Brazil’s definition of slavery is polarizing. Opponents argue that it overreaches, and indeed, no other country I know of characterizes debilitating workdays or degrading working conditions as slavery. But progress is often measured by our intolerance — by our refusal to tolerate today what we were willing to tolerate yesterday.

The history of advances in human rights and civil rights is filled with courageous bar-raisers who have challenged us to become intolerant—to reject the vestiges of bigotry, exclusion and oppression latent in our economies, laws, social systems and politics. This is an eternal process precisely because our collective conscience continues to evolve, mostly toward less tolerance of affronts to human dignity. As a result, we are freer today — and less tolerant of unfreedom — than at any other time in human history.

Our progress has not been harmonious or linear — it has been decidedly conflictive and uneven — but the trend line is clear. To paraphrase an ancient article of faith in the abolitionist movement, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.


I have served as a volunteer on the SCAA Sustainability Council since 2012, a space where Paul Katzeff, the founder of Thanksgiving Coffee, former SCAA President, unrepentant radical and catcher in an over-75 baseball league, still casts a long shadow.

Paul has arguably done as much as any other single individual to thrust issues of social justice and sustainability into the industry conversation. By all accounts, his leadership of the SCAA was transformational where sustainability is concerned, and the roasting company he has run for more than 40 years embodies the principles for which he has advocated tirelessly within the industry.

As SCAA President, Paul helped to create what was then called the Environment Committee. Today, it is the Sustainability Council. Paul joined a small gathering of current members of the SCAA Sustainability Council at the close of The SCAA Event and offered high praise for the way we have carried on the work he helped to start.

He said that the industry’s sustainability conversation today far surpasses even the most ambitious aspirations of the sustainability pioneers who convened the Environment Committee many years ago. Then, the term “sustainability” had little traction at the annual SCAA gathering, today, in Paul’s estimation, the entire event is “suffused with sustainability.” His comments are reprinted here with his permission.

Working for sustainability can be a tiring and thankless endeavor. The the stakes are high and the odds are long. It is easy to get discouraged. So every once in a while it is helpful to step back and take the long view. If there is an arc to the moral universe, or to the sustainability movement in specialty coffee, then Paul and the newest, youngest members of the Sustainability Council have surely walked different lengths of that arc. Bringing those perspectives together can help confirm that the arc is bending the right way. That is the source of some satisfaction, but the concern remains — is it bending far enough, fast enough?



Neal Cowan

I find it interesting when certain assumptions, premises, and prejudices are foisted upon readers, i.e. coffee industry professionals, in order to advance what I see as essentially a political narrative.

In the article, the author explicitly describes the gentleman being profiled as an unrepentant radical. The phrase “…unrepentant radical…” is itself an interesting one. It’s interesting in that it is employed by the author without ever being defined by him. At least not defined in any coherent, objective, and/or linear manner. Instead of providing clear definitions and facts, the author appears to, instead, guide readers into acknowledging what is, or what should be, obvious to any decent human being on the face of the planet: “unrepentant radicals” of a certain political bent are deserving of our sympathy and of our respect.

Similarly “…social justice…” is a phrase employed by the author to continue to blaze down the same path of painting the same gentleman in a sympathetic light. The man is a social justice advocate walking along some kind of “…arc of the moral universe…”. Who could disagree with such portrait? Only the hard-hearted.

The motivation for my composing and posting this reply is that I am interested in seeing that independent thinking is promoted in this industry. Our industry. Agree with my conclusions? Fine. Disagree with them? It’s all good. I am not seeking agreement with my opinions. Regardless of conclusions drawn, I urge readers to pay attention to process. Educate yourselves about certain facts surrounding an issue or a matter. Draw conclusions. Not my conclusions. Not the author’s conclusions. Not those of the gentleman being profiled. Draw your own conclusions.

Thank you for considering.


Hi, Neal.

Thanks for your comment. Can you help me better understand your concern? I feel like there is a really important point in there—one that deserves a thoughtful response—but I am struggling to get my head around it.

You seem to be objecting to both the content of the column and the editorial process that considered it worthy of consideration by the coffee industry professionals who constitute most of the Daily Coffee News readership. I am not entirely sure why.

I do understand you are bothered that I don’t define my terms. Among those that irked you were “unrepentant radical” and “social justice.”

Maybe this will help: by “radical” I mean unconventional or consistently outside the mainstream. By “unrepentant” I mean incorrigible, a radical who doesn’t change his ways even when told again and again that polite company demands less prickly behavior.

By social justice, I suppose I mean the sum total of secular political philosophy about just relations between states and individuals, notions of fairness in the distribution of wealth, and equality of opportunity, as well as teachings on those topics by all the world’s major faith traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judiasm. Unpacking those ancient secular and faith traditions and the different currents of thinking the influenced my column would be a tall order.

In the end, I can’t believe that your major concern is the definition of terms on social media, or that you are seriously proposing it as the standard. While defining terms with this level of precision would undoubtedly make for a more enlightening exchange, it would be exceptionally inefficient and effectively ensure precious few readers and even fewer authors ever bothered to read or write on these issues.

The bigger critique seems to be that author and editor are conspiring to surreptitiously “foist” a “political narrative” on readers. I can’t speak for the editor, but for my part as the author, I will say this piece was indeed explicitly political. The third undefined term to which you object is “arc of the moral universe.” This is not my creation, of course, but a conceptual construct of the abolitionist movement that dates to the 1850s and was reclaimed, rephrased and reified by Dr. King in the late 1950s during the Civil Rights Movement. Did I enlist it with a political motivation, to suggest that the work of sustainbility leaders in specialty coffee are part of a broader fabric of social change and in the perhaps naive hope of inspiring coffee industry leaders to move issues of social justice (see above) higher on their priority lists? Absolutely. It is a column. An opinion piece.

If your allegation is merely that I did not define my terms and that I published opinions, then I am guilty as charged. You can object to those things on Daily Coffee News, but I think it is hard to do that without also indicting the entire journalistic enterprise, which often fails to define its terms and which has always made use of editorializations, opinions and columns to shape the public discourse.

More importantly, your implicit suggestion seems to be that this column was somehow meant to end conversation and suppress free thinking, when of course it was intended to do precisely the opposite: to articulate considered opinions that provoke reflection, perhaps dialogue and ultimately better thinking and practice in the coffee sector. You disagree with my opinions? That’s not just perfectly fine, that challenge can generate debate to make our collective thinking sharper and bring the collective challenges we face into clearer resolution.

You suggest that I paint a favorable portrait of Paul Katzeff and use unobjectionable but undefined terms like social justice to make it hard for any fair-minded reader to disagree with me. Ironically, I find your suggestion that the column is meant to discourage free thinking to do precisely the same thing in the negative: is there any way a freedom-loving society to more reliably evoke a knee-jerk negative reaction than suggesting something is meant to snuff out independent thinking?

Maybe in the end I do understand your opinion. If so, I guess I just disagree with it. Which is of course what makes opinions so great to begin with.


Comments are closed.