Matt Smith's End of the Spectrum

Melbourne-based writer and journalist. Purveyor of finally crafted radio plays. A Muppet of a man.

Large coffee, hold the middle-class guilt

First published on The National Times on 12th August, 2010

Like many people in Australia, I feed a mild caffeine addiction on a daily basis. The early morning kick has become important to my daily routine, and a social interaction as well. Being a relatively innocent coffee drinker, I never thought that a beverage choice could carry so much social stigma, but now I find myself getting disapproving looks with my morning cup of joe.

I might as well just admit it. My name is Matt Smith, and I don’t buy fair trade coffee.

Fair trade is, in principle, a great concept. By paying a little bit more, you can have a product that has been made under fair processes, and those involved have been given a fair wage. So if they want us to buy it for reasons other than guilt, why can’t they make it taste good? Is it too hard to ask that I drink my coffee without a cringe?

Pandering to middle-class guilt has become a major selling point of everything that alleges to make the world a better place. For example, like many others in the Gen X bracket, I struggle to remember the good times when slip ‘n’ slides, garden sprinklers, and showers more than four minutes were the norm. It’s because of middle-class guilt that we drive green cars and recycle. It even has an effect when we buy a copy of The Big Issue from a homeless person on the corner.

And fair trade coffee has jumped on the middle-class guilt selling bandwagon. Here’s some quotes: “Fair trade coffee tastes even better when you know it’s helping restore justice and eradicate poverty.” “Fair trade coffee will linger on your taste buds long after your last sip.” These coffee beans sound like magic; surely we can’t lose.

Let me tell you now that “acquired taste” doesn’t begin to describe the experience. Fair trade coffee might taste and smell like it’s been made using yesterday’s dishwater, but at least you’ll be able to clutch your mug (which you bought yourself so they don’t have to use a disposable cup) safe in the knowledge that, although you mightn’t enjoy it, it’s now made fairly. At least they weren’t exaggerating when they said it would linger on your taste buds long after your last sip. The memory will last for days.

I’m not saying that the inequality in the world is right, but I can’t help but feel that now that we’re paying fair trade coffee growers more, they’ve started to let go a bit and drop their standards. While your lighter conscience might get you past the aftertaste, coffee is the one thing that should remain sacred: it’s become a ritual in our culture, and those need to be respected. There are other options out there for us, and there are organisations such as Kiva and World Vision that both need and deserve our support. And middle-class guilt is no reason to drink bad coffee.

Now that I’ve justified myself, I’ll have a large coffee to go, thanks.

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3 comments on “Large coffee, hold the middle-class guilt

  1. Angus M
    August 20, 2010

    I get scoffed and criticised for not drinking any coffee. As far as I am concerned, it all tastes like hot water and dirt. Smells nice though. So no middle class guilt here about fair trade coffee for me, though I have had supposed fair trade chocolate offered to me by a client once, it tasted very powdery and dry. Fair Trade is great, on paper but not in practical terms.

  2. AshleyThomas
    September 7, 2010

    Ah but then the next question is…do you bring your own mug?

    • Matt Smith
      September 7, 2010

      Actually, I do. I was even going to put a picture of my mug in the top banner, if I ever get around to editing it again…

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This entry was posted on August 17, 2010 by in lifestyle and tagged , , .
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