Sunday Herald (UK), June 19, 2005, by Julia Fields

Why Mark Darcy is full of beans for the latest fair-trade coffee venture
Julia Fields finds out why the darling of the Bridget Jones generation, Colin Firth, has emerged as the celebrity backer of a chain of fair-trade cafés


There’s something slightly unsettling about watching Colin Firth repeatedly spit into a little white sink.

This is after all the man that made the entire female British population swoon with his sexy pond plunge as Mr D’Arcy in Pride and Prejudice and caused a second pull on our heartstrings as Bridget Jones’s constantly perplexed love interest, Mark Darcy.

But here Firth is, spooning brown liquid into his mouth and squirting it out. And in a few minutes, the 44-year-old actor will be posing for pics with a foamy white mouth.

It’s all part of his latest role as celebrity frontman for Progreso, the world’s first chain of fair-trade coffee shops launched last year by Oxfam and Scottish coffee merchant Matthew Algie.

Firth has flown into Glasgow for an afternoon to study up on his beans at Matthew Algie’s factory and headquarters. The spitting is coffee sampling protocol and not unlike the deep sniffing, swirling and spitting familiar from wine tasting. Firth hopes this knowledge will come in handy when he gets behind the counter this month at Progreso’s site at Portobello Road in London.

“I’ve never made an espresso before,” he admits sheepishly. “I’m going to get a lesson and maybe sell a few coffees.”

The publicity stunt is well timed with fair trade at the heart of the Make Poverty History campaign, which has been widely publicised by Oxfam and leads up to the G8 summit at Gleneagles in July.

Progreso aims to redress the gross imbalance that has emerged in the coffee industry, which sees a handful of roasters and multinational coffee retailers raking in hundreds of millions of pounds while the world’s 25 million coffee growers typically make 1p on every latte sold.

The company buys its coffee from growers’ co-operatives in Honduras, Ethiopia and Indonesia at a price which covers production costs. The co-operatives also own 25% of Progreso, which means they share in profits; and a further 25% is ringfenced for investment in disenfranchised growers that haven’t been able to set up their own co-operative.

The first coffee bar opened in London’s Covent Garden in November; and a second in Portobello Road in February. Matthew Algie was a natural partner for the venture with fair trade already accounting for 25% of its coffee sales. It supplies ethical products to Marks & Spencer and Pret A Manger and through its long-term contract with Gleneagles will be the brewing specialist for the G8 summit.

David Williamson, managing director of Matthew Algie, is seeking to raise capital for further expansion of Progreso in London and eventually for sites in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Firth, however, has also been part of the venture since its conception two and half years ago and contributed a five- figure sum to the £300,000 used to set up Progreso, along with Matthew Algie and Oxfam.

Why become involved? “I’m increasingly uncomfortable about being part of a problem, which is just gross unfairness. We are complicit.”

Until now, Firth has kept his involvement quiet. This is his first interview on the subject, and the brown-eyed charmer almost appears embarrassed about using his celebrity.

He has arrived in Glasgow with no PR minder or Hollywood-style entourage and seems terribly afraid of being seen as “some luvvy” telling people what to think. In between films, Firth has thrown himself into learning about the industry and travelling to Africa to see the co-operatives first hand.

“I don’t particularly like just being a mouth on a subject,” he says. “I felt more useful putting some money into it and getting involved with the business, so I’m on the board of directors,” he says. “There are people I met in Ethiopia, who should be editing newspapers. They are incredibly articulate, they have first-hand experience of everything. They’re the people that should be speaking, but they don’t get heard. They don’t get interviewed. So NGOs are imploring celebrities to come and help. I’ve been doing this for a few years and tried to do it quietly, but in the end I realised that profile is too useful to leave unused.”

Through Progreso Firth believes he can spread a powerful message abut the true value of the beans originating from the third world. As he sees it, this isn’t about hand-outs; it’s about the right people making the money they deserve.

In Ethiopia, Firth visited the Kaffa region and was led through the forest to the fabled birthplace of coffee. According to legend, it is here that a farmer was alerted to the caffeine properties of the beans by the hyperactive nature of his goats, which had been munching on the plants.

“This was the angle they were giving me. That it was exotic and natural and had a wonderful history,” Firth recalls. “It wasn’t could you help us with some money please, can you pay for a clinic, can you solve our problems with Aids. They just said: how can we get a better price for our coffee.

“Someone said that one of the problems Ethiopia has is that people perceive it to be a drought-stricken country. It’s not. It’s lush and green and opulent in terms of what grows out of the ground. And they want to be promoted on the grounds of their quality not on the grounds of their suffering.”

Williamson believes publicity from Progreso has already had benefits. It opens doors for the co-operatives to land better deals with other countries and it shows high-street retailers that there is a viable market for fairtrade coffee.

“Our cafe at Covent Garden used to be a Starbucks. Anecdotally we’re doing more business than they used to and the Portobello site is getting busier. But the stores have to be successful because of the quality of the coffee, the staff and the atmosphere. And they are.”

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