Interview with Alissa Bilfield, PhD, Author of Brewing Sustainability in the Coffee and Tea Industries

Interview with Alissa Bilfield, PhD, Author of Brewing Sustainability in the Coffee and Tea Industries

Alissa Bilfield is a faculty member in the Food Systems, Nutrition, and Health Program in Nutritional Sciences in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA. We invited Alissa for an interview to teach us a little about herself and the study behind Brewing Sustainability in the Coffee and Tea industry. Check out the full interview below.

It says that the book focuses on the intertwined industries of coffee and tea. How has coffee shaped your work and/or you as a writer?
As I got into college, and proceeded to go to grad school and get my masters degree and also my PhD. It was really coffee that got my through these critical moments. And as I learned more into the coffee industry, I gravitated towards specialty coffee and coffee company's that have a purpose either through certification or fair trade. So that sparked my interest in studying fair trade and organic certification from farmers perspective... I was really curious to think what the farmers thought about the program and how the program influenced their lives and experiences.
Community is an important value to us at Groundwork. What does community mean to you and your work?
From my work with the farmers, I came to learn a lot about what community means when we talk about food systems and sustainability. So organizations and structures like Cooperatives really help farmers to build community and that's incredibly important when we think about building adaptability into the current system. Farmers are dealing with so many uncertainty so cooperative organizations are one component of community that helps them really stay supported and be able to adapt to challenges. 

What led you to write a book about sustainability and innovation in the coffee and tea industries?
This book project stems from my PhD dissertation research at Tulane University, where I was studying gender equity in the coffee industry. I came across an innovative fairtrade coffee federation in Guatemala while I was conducting formative field research. This federation was implementing progressive trainings and organizational representation focused on gender equity, and I ended up basing my dissertation project on producer and supply chain perspectives on gender in the coffee value chain. This led me to broader questions about social, economic, and environmental sustainability in the coffee industry, and a curiosity around how this has translated into tea. These products shared an intertwined colonial history, and the book explores how this history has evolved with the development of fairtrade and the shift towards transparency and ethical sourcing within the food system.

What are they key lessons you want people to take away from the book?
One of the main lessons is around the power of institutions. From the cooperative structure to the federation, these organizational forms in agriculture have provided critical support for sustainability within the coffee and tea industries, that translates across other areas of agriculture and beyond.
Another main lesson concerns the role of sustainable business certifications in agriculture. While certainly not a panacea, in both cases presented in the book, fair trade and organic certifications have served as vehicles for catalyzing sustainability from the producer to the consumer.

The final lesson that emerged from these two cases, to quote one of the research participants, is that the supply chain is everything. The impact of the actions and activities of the supply chain are amplified through the coordinated efforts and shared values of the businesses collaborating to bring sustainably produced coffee and tea to market. Through this collective work, small-holder farmers are helping to create a new model for global commerce that has enabled the further democratization of these once colonial industries. 

What is your favorite green space in London (and why)? 
Space for buying greens: Borough Market! I lived close by when I was at LSE and even though it was much smaller then, I went almost every weekend. The market's growth and popularity in recent years is also emblematic of the huge shift in consumer preferences around knowing where food comes from, who produces it, and how. 
Green space: all of the little spots along the Thames from Waterloo Bridge to Southwark. While traditional urban parks are lovely and well-manicured in London, I prefer walking along the river and taking in all of the activity along the central artery of the city that really represents the human-nature interaction in all of the great river-based cities of the world.