Date of Completion


Thesis Type

College of Arts and Science Honors



First Advisor

Teresa Mares

Second Advisor

Dan Tobin

Third Advisor

Jonah Steinberg


Coffee, Commodity Chain Analysis, Colonialism, Ethnogrophy, Sustainable Supply Chains


This thesis presents a historical commodity chain analysis of coffee, with a focus on the connection between the evolution the coffee commodity chain, US specialty coffee industry perspectives, and consumer relationships with sustainable supply chains. This paper looks to fill a gap in commodity chain literature that tends to focus more on the producer than the consumer. Analyzing the coffee commodity chain can fill this gap through evaluating the efforts made in coffee to ethically connect consumers with value chains.

My thesis explores this connection through analyzing the production and consumption histories of coffee and its evolution into its current value chain through the “three waves” of coffee production. I then offer my own ethnographic research with interviews from US specialty coffee industry members and consumers. With interviews from industry members, I gather data on each member's interactions with the value chain and their perspective and ability to address historical inequities of the supply chain from that position. With this data, I focus my commodity chain analysis to analyze leverage points for sustainable change within each employee's position and identify common themes among the specialty coffee employees. The employee’s I interviewed are situated as part of the leverage point of the “third wave” of coffee, which draws in the most value for coffee and has the most room to make sustainability considerations in their supply chain. Focusing on the third wave identifies the latest perspectives towards sustainable value chains. Problems encountered in the third wave are also likely to be quite relevant if not more relevant for other coffee industry members whose business models allow less room for sustainability considerations.

Next, I analyze interviews with coffee consumers on their relationship and meaning with their coffee consumption and their thoughts on the effects of their transaction with coffee on those further down the coffee value chain. This adds a level of analysis for unpacking the desires and interests informing consumers’ decision making in the coffee value chain and serves to evaluate consumer driven changes efforts in the value chain. Overall, my paper provides qualitative systems view into the coffee commodity chain, and a thick description of the context of this commodity chain. From this emerges an analysis of the leverage points for change, power dynamics within the coffee commodity chain and the possible emergence of more sustainable supply chains.