The Origin Story of Dean's Beans: Doing Business as an Expression of Progressive Values

(Original post date: 4-12-1998)

Even though I had been spending half my time in the straight world of law, the thought of working in the world of business was pretty staggering. I had seen many friends start down that road with good intentions, only to end up leaving their earlier social values and commitments behind. Even today, many "socially responsible" businesses are more truly businesses that do some aspect of their work in a palatably "green" manner, while the rest of their business dynamic is mainstream, and yet, if the very people who felt they understood the dynamics of democratic capitalism could not construct a new system - who could?

I was also dissatisfied with the role of the lawyer in our society. I felt like much of the work I engaged in seemed to legitimate the very system it sought to oppose, by showing that it ultimately was "fair". At the same time, I had co-founded a grassroots development organization called Coffee Kids to do community designed projects in coffee growing villages. Our projects were designed to assist those communities in lessening their economic dependence on export coffee and to ameliorate the health and environmental impacts of coffee in the villages. In all honesty, I didn't have the courage to jump into this new way of being for another two years.

The right moment came in early 1992, after my wife, Annette, and I had returned from nine months in New Zealand, where we had been working with several Maori tribes on political and environmental rights. We returned to New Salem with no jobs, few local contacts and a new baby. I resumed part-time teaching at UMass in environmental law and working with indigenous peoples, but looked for a business to try out this new idea.

Shortly, I found a way to combine all my passions under one roof-the Bookmill in Montague, MA. Along with Peter D'errico, another lawyer/professor involved in Indian rights, I opened the World Village Cafe at the Bookmill. The Cafe was meant to be a business that incorporated social and environmental justice into its basic operation, and that would be an educational vehicle for these issues to our customers. We only purchased organic coffee from cooperatives and small farms, and only utilized coffee brokers who participated in Coffee Kids development projects. The Cafe soon became a meeting place for progressives and community organizers throughout New England. We made and helped make great connections for people, and provided information about the coffee communities and justice issues through pamphlets and a host of progressive periodicals from around the world (which did have a habit of disappearing). We considered our small business to be a model, but also found ourselves chafing under an amazing amount of state and federal bureaucracy (much to the amusement of our anarchist and libertarian neighbors at the Bookmill).

Although the Cafe fulfilled many of the goals we had set, I was not satisfied that the roasting (processing) of the coffee was out of our control. Some of our coffee came from Equal Exchange, an organization that paid fair trade prices to farmers, but they had a small selection of organics and were not involved in development work. They also didn't roast their own coffee, but had it done by a large company that I felt did not represent my social or economic values. I decided to purchase a small roaster, so that every aspect of the process was reflective of fair trade and social justice.

At the same time, Peter left the Cafe for family reasons. I set up the roaster at my farm in New Salem, and within months was approached by a number of cafes around New England who wanted to support my work with coffee communities by purchasing "Dean's Beans®" (my friends and customers came up with the name, I wanted something more heroic). The roasting grew so fast that within six months I sold the cafe to the Bookmill and gave up teaching at UMass (our second daughter also demanded a greater presence at home). We are now into our fourth year as roasters and, along with co-workers Larry Kilroy (former Director of Greenpeace, Amherst) and Kimberly Medeiros, roast and deliver over a ton of coffee each week. As we have grown, we have very conscientiously struggled to resist the dynamics of "business as usual". In a business community that often uses environmental or social language as a sales tool or to give an impression of greater commitment than exists ("greenwashing"), we have tried to structure Dean's Beans® in a way that reflects our values and supports our commitments throughout the coffee cycle.

First, we only purchase organic coffees. This guarantees that the farmer and his environment are not subject to the dangerous pesticides and fertilizers that make coffee the second most sprayed crop (after cotton). Malathion, parathion, DDT, dieldrin and other substances banned or of limited use here are sprayed on conventional coffee-mostly by indigenous workers who cannot read the labels or who are given inadequate training or equipment. We are also troubled as more information becomes available concerning the bioaccumulation of pesticides in trace amounts in breast and fatty tissues of coffee consumers.

Our respect for the environment is also reflected at home. We recyle the burlap bags our green beans come in, by selling or donating them to local farmers, gardeners and others. The organic residue from the roasting is composted along with our sheep manure. We also deliver locally in returnable buckets, which keeps costs down and doesn't contribute to the waste stream like every other coffee company in America. We ship coffee in recyclable paper (*2020 update - now our bags are 60% compostable) with glassine (biodegradable) linings. This is more expensive for us, but it is in keeping with our values.

Most of the coffees we purchase are at fair trade prices, guaranteeing the farmer a higher price than the world market. However, this mechanism is insufficient by itself to change the dynamics of trade or afford lesser reliance on coffee for the communities involved. To assist in this necessary process, we participate in development work through Coffee Kids and through our own projects. As the Director of International Projects at Coffee Kids, it is my role to meet with farmers and their communities and design programs that address their needs as they define them, Often, this means creating "women's banks" or microenterprise groups for income generation that is outside of the vagaries of the world coffee market. We have been doing this for six years, and have evolved our own model that keeps the funds revolving within the community long after our formal participation is over.

At present, we have projects in Mexico, Guatemala, Kenya and Indonesia. (*2020 Update - see all of our work here!) We have been invited into communities in Haiti, Nicaragua and Peru, as well. We are doing similar work at home. In the last two years we have co-created Cafe Habitat, the first coffee roasting operation owned and operated by a homeless community. We have also provided training, technical and financial help for the first Indian owned roaster, and several others around the country. This has also been our way of dealing with the issue of growth. Rather than let the potential of growth dictate our behavior, we have used it as a vehicle to provide jobs and dignity for others.

Growth is probably the single hardest issue for progressive businesses to deal with. It is difficult to resist new growth potential when you think it may mean more stability for your family and for your business. But the shadow sides of growth are how you treat the "competiton", your honesty and integrity with suppliers and customers, and adherence to your social mission. Growth of the business past the founder's capacities has resulted in many horror stories for so-called progressive companies. My personal belief is that after an organization grows to a certain point, it becomes less mission oriented and more concerned with self-perpetuation. Because of this, we have limited our market to New England, resisting the call to go beyond the bioregion. We are also committed to using Dean's Beans® as a vehicle for education. We issue an occasional newsletter and are currently constructing a website (deansbeans.com) that will address political, environmental and social justice issues in coffee regions, and will provide links to groups engaged in work in these areas.

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