Column: It’s (just about) the same thing

How much coffee is “enough?”

I’m going to try to answer this exact question.

Earlier this week, theatlantic.com published Lindsay Abrams’ “The Case for Drinking as Much Coffee as You Like,” which cites more than 20 different scientific studies, concluding that coffee consumption is inherently good and leads to longer life.

I agree that coffee does great things, and I will continue to drink direct trade blends and support nonprofit coffee growers in developing economies.

But is there a place where this goodness ends?

This week the Starbucks Coffee Company started serving its new ultra-premium luxury good, a $7 cup of coffee, in several dozen stores throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Comic and late night show host Jimmy Kimmel scoffs at this new bump in price.

“I feel like this is a test to find out just how stupid we are,” Kimmel said during a show this week. “Although, while it’s ridiculous to spend $7 on a cup of coffee, it’s actually not that much more ridiculous to spend $4 on a cup of coffee.”

I think coffee is delicious and am excited at the premise of its scientific benefit, but the reality is there’s a huge markup in coffee pricing and I believe we’re falling victim to a society based on conspicuous consumption and marketing ploys.

Considering that a $7 cup of coffee probably won’t be seven times better than a $1 cup of coffee, hedge your bets. I may consider myself a coffee gourmand, but often a cheaper coffee is not that far off from an expensive blend. Yes, it may taste better, but just like wine, a $100 bottle of an aged Chaton-terroir-or-something-or the-other is not going to taste 50 times better than a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.

One analyst cites that a coffee shop’s cup might only cost 55 cents, and the markup of upwards of $3.50 by most brewers can gross profits of upwards of $500,000 in prime locations.

Is this perceived convenience, artificial ambiance, and alleged quality that premium coffee shops provide make for something worth all of that money?

You have to ask yourself — the obvious luxury and probable benefit of the tasty caffeine drink you have is one small dime in a large interworking of a corporate system around coffee.

The barista works for a shop, who likely bought roasted beans from a distributor, who likely bought beans from a roastery, who likely bought beans from another distributor, who likely bought beans from a middleman who likely bought beans from a co-op who likely bought beans from a farmer.

If you put the $2.95 taken by the barista and the shop aside, that’s still a lot of people who are leeching off of the 55 cent cost of coffee.

The coffee shop pays likely around $9 per pound for its coffee but the farmer who grew it will see just on average of 50 cents per pound, and even less in some parts of the world. This means the café selling a $3.50 coffee has an insane markup.

Coffee is the second most valuable commodity exported from developing countries, only behind petroleum.

For many of the world’s least developed countries, including Honduras, Ethiopia, and Guatemala, coffee exports are sometimes as much as 50 percent of foreign export.

Yes, it costs money to ship, distribute and market goods, but at what price? You, the coffee consumer, should be concerned with where your stuff comes from because this is often a very obvious form of extortion.

By buying fair trade you shouldn’t feel smug like you’re a Toyota Prius-driving, Toms shoe-wearing vegan whose carbon footprint mirrors the co-op farm’s plants that they eat.

You should go on about your day, humbly, knowing that, in collection, small decisions made on a daily basis might help the overall life of someone halfway across the world.

In the grocery market, fair trade goods are almost always sold alongside regularly listed products. At places like Target, Cost Plus World Market, and even Starbucks, the “fair trade” good is often the same exact price as the non-fair trade good.

At many coffee shops, one of the three or four blends served daily will usually feature a “fair trade” blend available at the same price as the other drips.

So make a small decision this holiday season — choose your coffee (and for that matter, any goods produced abroad) wisely: Together, we just might be able to make a healthier economic system when we choose to make ourselves healthier with another cup of coffee.