Sourcing from Origin with Colleen King: A Coffee and Fiber Conversation

By Geana Sieburger |

Geana: Today we’re chatting with Colleen from the Sourceress podcast, among other things, about the meaning of sourcing from origin. So excited for this talk, it is something that is dear to my heart. I’m super influenced by everything that’s going on in the food world, especially in coffee, and that is Colleen’s field of expertise. So we’re going to be having a really fun conversation about what sourcing from origin means for both of our industries and from both of our perspectives.

Colleen, you probably heard me say several times in all of the videos I've been posting and tagging you in, I'm super excited about this conversation and it’s a topic that I can speak on for a while. But, it'll be really cool to hear and see where the parallels are between fiber and coffee.

Want to start with a quick intro?

Colleen: Sure! My name is Colleen, I am the co-founder and co-producer of the podcast Sourceress and we cover trade systems in specialty industries outside of commodity trading. 

Geana: Cool, alright so can we just jump right in? Can you give us a high-level introduction to what sourcing from origin is?

Colleen: I love this question because I think it is thrown around quite a bit.  Basically sourcing from origin is choosing to source from a place and making a commitment of trade there. And then making sure that the people and practices at the place align with the values of the customer and the business itself. Only then, this is a key component for me, can we truly understand what it costs to do business there equitably.

Geana: What’s the alternative to sourcing from origin in the coffee world?

Colleen: That’s a great question. The way that most coffee companies work is that they contact an importer. I've worked at a very large trading house so I have a little experience in this. You'd basically call on the phone or email and they'd say “oh it tastes like this and this is the price” and in the background there are people making phone calls and trading these commodities. So they might have a connection with an exporter that is also on the phone, but there’s a lot of things at very large volumes so there’s not as much care. You can tell by the way they speak about the coffee and the trade, it’s very capitalist, fundamentally. That is basically how most of the coffee is traded in the world. Large volumes, very little traceability, and it’s based on features so it’s maybe $1.00 or $1.10 and they add the premiums. So, it's very transactional. Customers call the importer with an idea of what flavors they are looking for - possibly the country they want the coffee from - but the traceability of the coffee is very minimal because it's faceless and driven by numbers, to be honest.

Geana: It’s really similar on the textile side of things in terms of traceability. Especially depending on who you are dealing with, there’s very little information that you can even get about, for instance, where the fiber is grown. Forget that [laughter].

Colleen: Isn’t that wild? It’s the very basics.


Geana: Most of the time, there is no way to know where the fiber is grown. There are no documents that stay with a textile through all of the hands that it goes through. The supply chain can get so long, so removed from the origin, that most of the time there is really no way to know.

Colleen: And for you, in that industry you are not as worried, you could tell me, about it fading in terms of flavor. So without the perishability aspect, I wonder if that adds to the lack of transparency because it’s not as necessary for quality assessment. Is that something that can be true?

Geana: Yes, true. I mean there’s some obviously. It’s not perishable but fabrics could be exposed to light for too long and get damaged. You know, they are sensitive to the environment, but of course not like coffee at all or most foods. A fabric could be in the world for a decade or longer before it’s made into something–and sold between many people during that time. I've definitely found pieces, antique rolls of fabric, that haven’t become anything. In the case of an antique piece, the mystery is super exciting. But for the most part, a lack of demand for more transparency leads to there being no systems for preserving information. If you want to know, and you want to communicate to your customers where your materials came from, you’ll have to buy straight from a manufacturer or manufacture the fabric yourself.

Colleen: That’s really wild.

Geana: The other question I had for you, and we can unpack this from both sides also, is who benefits from this method of sourcing?

Colleen: This is a good question. I am speaking to specialty industries right now, and I think that’s an important component of this, but you can really say basically everyone in the chain. If it’s set up equitably, everyone should be benefiting from this way of sourcing. So if we start with a farmer for example, a lot of farmers in the world, and this includes farmers in the United States actually, do not really understand the value of what they are growing and they have a lack of access to specialty markets. When you are sourcing from origin and you have this cultivated relationship of knowing where it’s coming from and that traceability, it increases their understanding of “is this worth planting for my livelihood” and that’s a huge blindspot in terms of farming around the world. Not only that, but understanding the true value and having it pre-booked and knowing that you have a buyer is very uncommon. It’s very uncommon to have someone to pre-book something so you know exactly where it’s going and I imagine that’s very true in the fabric world. That is one component. 

On the business side you can really expect fluctuations in quality and price because you are having that communication. I’m wondering if that was true with you at all during Covid? That there were going to be kinks in the supply chain because of this issue and it felt like everyone had that, but whether or not you have the heads up since you have that connection with your farmer or supplier can be the difference between communicating with your customers or not. On the customer end they can request things, they can give feedback and you can bring that all back to the farmer and you create this clearer understanding of what’s expected. Also pricing, and what is understood to be a true cost of something.

Geana: I mean I feel like you really hit the nail on the head for the fiber side of things also. The interesting thing about the farmers, the cooperative of farmers, that I work with is that they're at this scale that is challenging. It would be really great for them if they were at a scale where they could commit to a larger company, say North Face, for example. For North Face to be able to rely on that fiber every year the cooperative would have to produce a minimum amount every year. But there are some years when they just don't produce enough because they are really dependent on the environment, and rainwater, and if it’s a dryer season they are going to produce less. They work with a lot of smaller companies that wouldn’t require a certain minimum yield every year. I was really surprised when I first found out about that, how tricky figuring out the scale for the customers would be. 

Touching back on who benefits, people on so many different levels especially when we are talking about working with organic fiber as opposed to conventional fiber, because those chemicals can be toxic through the entire chain–from farming, during spinning of the thread and then weaving of the fabric–a lot of chemicals can be added at that point to strengthen the yarn. So it benefits workers along the entire supply chain.

Colleen: I think that’s one thing that is missed when we are talking about the farmers and the person in the middle and that there are so many people in that chain. When we choose to be good to our earth and make sure throughout the whole process that there are no chemicals used, it has a huge impact. Think of the factories, the labor workforce is so much larger than we often understand and so it’s such a big thing to have as a pillar of your business.

Geana: I’m wondering if we can switch gears a little bit because I have a couple of really awesome questions I want to make sure we cover. One of the questions we got from customers was, “does sourcing from origin require large quantities?” 

Colleen: That’s a really good question. So I would say not at all. I mean it depends which industry that you're in, and I can only speak to ones that I am really familiar with, but there are farmers all over the world that are looking to partner in specialty industries that are growing small because they understand that it is high risk. So I work with companies that say “okay I need five bags, is there a farmer out there that is producing something with this profile? This is my price point, can you pair me with somebody?” If that’s their yield, that’s their yield. 

I think the best thing you can do when building a business is start from the very beginning doing this because I see very large companies that maybe have realized there’s consumer demand to be able to start doing things and looking at their supply chain and maybe turn it into a value chain and equity that is dispersed, which is very difficult to do once you are very large. You are also used to those margins, but starting from the beginning and knowing that you have to build your business differently when you do it this way and be able to scale is much better. If you are thinking of doing this, early is better, and it can only grow. 

Geana: It’s so funny because sometimes I think “I’m so small. What sort of impact am I making?” But that’s the idea–I have it set up and it’s ready to grow and the impact is ready to grow as well.

Colleen: And suppliers can take you seriously too. I wonder if being this conscious all the way through makes them realize you are primed to be ready to do this and I think it changes the tone a little bit as well.

Geana: Yes so on the textile side it can be a little tricky, for sure. I think that generally you do need to be ready to order at least a thousand yards of something which can seem, or it is an obstacle for most small businesses that started with their personal savings or something.

But I do want to say, I started with a 300 yard order, a promise that next year there would be a larger order and that this relationship would be a long one with many larger orders in the future. I had to make some pretty bold statements upfront and they had to know I was super committed. There are people out there that are willing to work with you and make some exceptions. It’s possible. I know it’s hard, and you have to be super committed to it. This actually leads to the next question which is “what were the first connections you made along the supply chain?”

Colleen: The first connections that I usually make are with exporters and asking how much information they have on farms that they work with and being able to meet them in person and survey the situation. Sometimes it takes a few years before we actually move into a new origin because a lot of that time is spent listening and learning if this is the right place to be. So really making sure that the person on the ground aligns with your values and is going to look out for your interests and make those clear. At least in coffee this is the first step. How about you?

Geana: I have a story to share. The way that I met the cooperative of organic farms is super convoluted. I was working with a jobber, I don’t know if you are familiar with this terminology in textiles, but a jobber is basically a middle person in the industry. They typically buy leftovers from the industry, like larger designers, and sell it to smaller designers, but they could also be buying directly from manufacturers for resale. So I was working with a jobber at the time and when I requested the organic certification on the fabric I was using I was given this paper work that was super out of date. The jobber who I was working with was a very honest person and just never really looked through the details. It was super weird that the certification was so old so I started calling around and looking. I was contacting other textile manufactures and it was just like nothing was leading to anything and then one day someone called me and confirmed my suspicion. They said there was something shady going on with the manufacturer of that fabric. She said I should contact the farmers at the cooperative to find out and to see if they truly sold that fabric to them. And so I did. I contacted the farm and had a really great conversation and it wasn't until that conversation that I realized that I could make fabric, or not me personally, but that fabric could be made from scratch for my products.

Colleen: So cool.

Geana: Yeah, all of that probably took an entire year. You know I think it continues to not be that obvious in the textile world that products can be made this way. And I am out in the world trying to remind people that these are agricultural products. All materials come from the same place, it comes from earth–plastic, polyester, coffee, grain, textiles. That is my story. I got in touch with the farm and the farm put me in touch with the only company that’s weaving as opposed to knitting textiles with that fiber here in the United States and then I launched a Kickstarter and made it happen.

Colleen: So cool, also speaking to the other question of being so early, you’re explaining your journey. People will recognize in you that you have this commitment and you are very determined and have this very specific vision. I love that. It’s still a people to people business, and it comes from the earth. Just to simplify everything and use your words,  “I can’t do it this year but next year I promise” and they think “I absolutely think this person is going to do this you know.”

Geana: I think we get really caught up with those ideas. If I believe that I need to order thousands of yards to make it happen then it’s an obstacle, and it was for me until I realized that it might actually be a possibility. 

Colleen: Yeah, I always say you can have whatever you ask for. Just ask for everything. They say their minimums are that, that’s okay. Just ask if maybe it can be different for you. 

Geana: Yes. Exactly! 

So, I know we skipped over a section that we said we were going to talk about but I feel we covered a lot already.

Colleen: Yeah, I can talk about this all day, I mean I don't know if you want to open that can of worms. It’s so nice to learn about the fabric space. We actually reached out to many companies who claim to have this transparency of sourcing and even some that claim to have a tour of their factory but it wasn't something that anyone was willing to talk about. It’s more about what that space looks like because we were so curious.

Geana: I know it’s so fascinating and it’s a parallel industry to food in so many ways and yet it operates with such a lack of transparency, and that’s the norm. It’s very, very not okay.

Colleen: Yeah but it seems like it’s changing and conversations like this are what people want to hear like when you put up that question “ask me anything” and they ask “ how did you get started” and you know “what does it really look like to put this into practice?” I'm hoping that pioneers like yourself will be leading this charge and that’s something that we talk about “can you believe we didn’t know” or “can you believe there was such a lack of transparency before?” 

Geana: Right, hopefully that’s what our future looks like. I mean it is, we are going there and there is no stopping. I hope we get there quickly.

Colleen: Yeah and it’s consumer demand right. I mean you see these big companies who are buying up smaller companies because they have this sort of power to the people mentality, that we are going to build equity. We are going to build this source properly not because it’s cool but because it is the right thing to do from the beginning and we are seeing the value become such a large factor in building companies and I'm hoping this surge is sustainable and continues. Because when you build companies this way you can scale it to be competitors with the large ones, so we’ll see.

Geana: That’s the vision!

For more from Colleen on sourcing from origin, subscribe to the Sourceress Podcast.

About Photo: Butegana, Burundi Cherry Weighing