Grounded in Kindness

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At Dean’s Beans, doing good takes precedence over doing well.

Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Co. has the look, vibe and operating culture of a nonprofit. But its web address ends with a .com, not an .org. And with annual sales of $6.5 million and 10% annual growth, the Orange, MA company is unmistakably a profit-making enterprise.

To hear founder Dean Cycon tell it, he started the company in 1993 as something of an experiment after a long career as an environmental and indigenous rights lawyer. The idea, he says, “was to prove that a for-profit business could create meaningful change through ethical business practices rooted in respect for the earth, the farmer, our co-workers and the consumer.” As Carpenter Group sees it, making the world better isn’t ancillary to Dean’s Beans’ brand. It is the brand.

It is hardly a surprise that Dean’s Beans coffee, wherever in the world it is sourced, is 100% organic and Fair Trade. But this is a company that takes its Fair Trade designation with an almost fervent seriousness. The company’s Fair Trade approach, set forth in its website, comprises several non-negotiable mandates:

“We purchase coffee directly from the coops and farmers who grow it, rather than through middlemen.

“We pay as much for that coffee as we can—then we sell it to the public as low as we can, so everyone has the opportunity to be a part of socially-just trade.

“We co-design and fund people-centered development projects with each of our coffee cooperative partners that are managed by the farmers themselves.”

On the Indonesian island of Timor, Dean’s Beans sources its coffee exclusively from a farmers co-op in the tiny village of Atsabe, a departure from the more common practice of buying beans blended from multiple farming areas. “This has allowed us to create a meaningful relationship with the farm families in Atsabe, see the kids grow, and go deeper year after year,” Cycon says.

Past projects in Atsabe focused on maternal health, but when that was taken over by the government, Cycon listened to the local farmers, who identified education as the next critical priority. “There is little government support for education in remote coffee villages in Timor,” says Cycon. “The local high school didn’t even have desks and chairs!” Dean’s Beans addressed that need, and also donated notebooks, pens, chalk and other supplies for the students and the teachers.

Similar stories can be told all over the coffee-growing world—in Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. In Nicaragua and Mexico, Dean’s Beans is working with local partners to mitigate roya—a type of rust bacteria that destroys coffee crops. In Sumatra, a water buffalo eco-management program is making organic fertilizer and weed control affordable for local farmers. In Peru, an innovative reforestation program is regenerating indigenous woodlands for sustainable timber, food and medicine harvesting.

In Ethiopia, the company is working with the nonprofit Grounds for Health to develop a community-based cervical cancer detection and treatment program. “Cervical cancer is a nearly 100% treatable disease, and yet in the next 15 years it could kill almost 4.5 million women—85% of whom will live in developing countries, where our coffee comes from,” Cycon says.

Remarkably, Cycon has built the company and its brand without seeking funding from religious organizations, nonprofits or USAID—and with only a modest investment sales, marketing and advertising.

“It’s amazing how far your coffee dollars can go when put directly into the hands of the people who are going to use them to improve their own lives,” says Cycon. That said, the company isn’t totally averse to promoting its brand. “Those soccer balls and jerseys we provided to the Atsabe high school,” Cycon says, “—well, okay, they did say ‘Dean’s Beans.’”