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Friday, December 02, 2005

Changing the World One Cup at a Time: Higher Grounds Trading Co.

When most of us pour that first cup of coffee in the morning, we're concerned with shaking off sleepiness in preparation for the day ahead. For Jody Treter, the co-founder (with husband Chris) of Higher Grounds Trading Company, that morning "cup o' Joe" carries economic, social and environmental implications. While the big brands like Millstone (a division of Proctor & Gamble) and Starbuck's have rolled out Fair Trade-certified products designed to demonstrate social and environmental awareness while maintaining a multinational business model, Higher Grounds is a small company with a big vision: according to Treter, "We want to operate as a revenue source for groups working for systemic social and environmental change in the United States and in coffee-producing countries. I think it's important that our company act as a conduit of financial resources to civil society groups." Clearly, this isn't the typical mission of an up-and-coming entrepreneur, but then Higher Grounds isn't a typical company. As Michigan's only 100% Fair trade coffee company, Higher Grounds' commitment to a "triple bottom line" of people, planet and profit is not a marketing gimmick, but a means of getting more of us to think about the people and resources that contribute to that morning caffeine fix.

Treter's own concern over the economic and social implications of the world's second most-traded commodity (behind oil) goes back to an atypical college activity: an "alternative Spring Break" trip to Tijuana, Mexico in 1997, where she not only met her future husband (a fellow student at the University of Cincinnati), but also started to become aware of the darker side of free trade: "We learned about border issues, migration, the orphans that being left behind, and the economics that contribute to these dynamics." Jody and Chris found a common interest in peasant rebellions in Southern Mexico, and four years later found themselves married and heading to Chiapas to "witness the struggle firsthand."

Higher Grounds was born from the Treters' travels in Mexico and their desire to make a livelihood out of their passions. Like many entrepreneurs building a company around a social mission, they encountered plenty of resistance and misunderstanding. Treter remembers a SCORE counselor with a background in the oil and gas industries: "Both Chris and I got the feeling that [he] didn't completely understand our mission as Fair Traders who would shut down the business before paying a lower price for our coffee." Banks were similarly confounded, and despite a solid business plan, the couple had to seek initial financing from non-traditional sources ranging from a micro-finance program to "family, friends and fools." Started as a home-based business that contracted out roasting of the green coffee beans purchased from Mexican co-ops, Higher Grounds has grown into a separate location ("an old log cabin that once served as the offices of a hardwood mill") with its own Primo drum roaster (Chris now serves as "master roaster"). The couple has sold the coffee at fairs and farmers markets, and now lists an impressive roster of Michigan cafés and shops that carry its coffee.

Despite the company's growth, though, Higher Grounds has remained committed to its initial concept of a business devoted to supporting progressive environmental and social action. Composting, reuse and recycling are regular elements of doing business, and the company purchases its electricity from renewable sources. Jody and Chris lead regular delegations to Chiapas to further educate interested people in the hardship underlying coffee farming, and now buy coffee from farmers in Nicaragua, Columbia, Sumatra, Ethiopia and Peru. Even as revenues increase, Treter envisions the company as "a vibrant business valuing employee participation, transparency, family needs and distribution of profits to a variety of systemic change groups around the globe." If Treter has her way, we'll all recognize the social and environmental impacts of that morning cup of coffee, and use it as a means of creating a more just and sustainable world.

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg
Guest Columnist -- Greener Magazine

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