‘No Billionaires Were Enriched Through The Sale Of This Coffee’: An Interview With Author John Green

John Green. Credit Marina Waters, 2021

Celebrity coffee brands are having a bit of a moment. Depending on your preference, you can buy coffee from A-list actors like Hugh Jackman and Tom Hanks, rock bands like Green Day and Korn, or rappers like Jadakiss and Snoop Dogg. Sadly, you can no longer buy your coffee from David Lynch.

Within this micro-niche there’s an even-micro-er niche: Youtuber coffee brands. Popular creators like Emma Chamberlain, Peter McKinnon, and the Super Carlin Brothers have all started selling coffee to their fans—Chamberlain Coffee has even received millions in venture capital backing to expand.

Some of these celebrity enterprises are purely commercial; others, like Tom Hanks’ Hanx Coffee, donate profits to causes close to their figurehead’s heart. What they all do is leverage celebrity to sell coffee to those celebrity’s fans, and much of the time there’s little attention paid to what’s in the bag.

No Billionaires Club

In the case of Awesome Coffee Club, started by writer and Youtuber brothers John and Hank Green, the emphasis is on doing good and doing so with a level of transparency that’s often missing from these sorts of companies. For over a decade the brothers have been working with Partners In Health (PIH), a nonprofit working to strengthen public health systems in rural areas around the world. They’ve raised money as part of their community-driven charity fundraisers, as well as through sales from first the Awesome Socks Club subscription service and now through its coffee equivalent.

The coffee is sourced by Sucafina Specialty from various farmers’ collectives in Colombia, and roasted by First Crack Coffee in St Louis, with all profits going to support Partners in Health’s work in Sierra Leone.

“If I'm going to be an unpaid intern for this business, I want to make sure that it's a social good,” John Green tells me. “And for me, that means not just making sure that all the profit goes to organizations that are really focused and successful at building healthcare systems, but also making sure that the coffee is farmed in conditions that are the least problematic from an environmental perspective.”

“I think that we're all trying to find ways to consume the stuff that we love, but consume it thoughtfully,” Green continues. “For me that means thinking about who benefits the most from the labor and the production. And, in the case of the Awesome Coffee Club, it's really important to us that no billionaires were enriched through the sale of this coffee.”

John Green: Reluctant Influencer

John Green is probably most well known as the author of ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, one of the best-selling novels of all time that was adapted into a smash hit movie of the same name, as well as other books such as ‘Paper Towns’ and ‘Turtles All the Way Down’. Green is also one half of the Youtube channel Vlogbrothers alongside his brother Hank, a channel which has grown to over 3.5 million subscribers and fosters a huge fan community and various spinoff charity initiatives.

One of these spinoffs is the Awesome Coffee Club, which the Greens started after the success of their similarly named sock-based subscription service. “I love drinking coffee, it's been a part of my life for most of my adulthood,” Green says. “But the ultimate reason we wanted to do this was because we saw a space for it. We felt like we could get really good beans and that we could change the way that the business works—I think other companies are doing a great job at this too—both by placing an emphasis on sourcing the beans really carefully, being very conscious of the supply chain, the labor practices in the communities where we're working, and then using 100% of the profit to to invest in healthcare systems and impoverished communities.”

While not yet as successful as the sock version, Awesome Coffee Club has quickly grown to over 10,000 subscribers and between the two companies the Greens were able to donate about $2 million in 2022, roughly a quarter of which came from the coffee club. The club’s customer base is much wider than the usual specialty coffee company, due to the brothers’ huge online following.

Green laughs when I ask him whether this makes him a coffee influencer: “I don't know about that. The initial customer base for us wasn't people who are already really excited about specialty coffee, it was people who didn't know how good their coffee could be each morning. And that's been our initial focus in terms of customers, because that's where our natural community is, whether that's on TikTok or YouTube.”

Partners In Health

Having such a large fanbase has enabled the brothers to donate over $12 million to charities and millions to Partners In Health over the years. Green explains that although their reasons for supporting this particular organization are many, a big appeal is its focus on strengthening healthcare systems more widely rather than relying on individual interventions.

“We've seen up close what can happen when organizations work in deep partnership with governments to not just deliver medicine or just service ambulances or just improve the availability of community health workers and communities, but instead really focus on systems,” Green says.

He sees parallels with how supply chains work in the coffee industry: “The fact that we're able to produce extremely fresh coffee that's sold in the United States and Canada but farmed in Colombia speaks to the quality of the systems in place. You know, the quality of the transportation systems, the quality of the systems to ensure freshness, stuff like that. And with health care, we really need to see systemic strengthening in countries like Sierra Leone, in order to reduce maternal and child mortality.”

Rather than just focusing on getting more medicines to clinics or providing more ambulances, Green says, the focus should also be on making sure those clinics are well staffed and that the infrastructure exists to allow ambulances to quickly travel from the clinic to a hospital. “We really believe in this model of building systems rather than making singular interventions. And that's why we want to support it with the Awesome Coffee Club, [because] it provides ongoing open ended support to what is a long term problem that requires a long term intervention.”

Supporting Partners In Health’s work in Sierra Leone particularly was also a conscious choice. One reason was because Sierra Leone is the epicenter of the global maternal mortality crisis—when they started the project in 2019 one in 17 women there could expect to die in childbirth. “Now it's closer to one in 23,” Green says, “but that's still hundreds of times too high, and so the first reason we wanted to help was because PIH came to us and said, this is where we see the biggest opportunity to bend the arc quickly.”

The second reason was to show that these systems changes are possible everywhere: “A lot of times the argument is, ‘well, you can't make these big changes in a place like Sierra Leone, it's just too impoverished. The systems are too fragile, they're too weak.’ And I think that's a cop out. I think that we have a moral obligation to extend the human right to health care to all people. So we felt like if we can prove that this is possible in Sierra Leone, and it's possible to radically reduce maternal mortality in the poorest region of the poorest country in the world, then we also show the big health funders out there that it is possible to do this everywhere.”

Be Dubious, Be Thoughtful

Lots of coffee companies, especially celebrity-driven brands, use a social mission and charitable giving as the main hook for their product—aside from the celebrity themselves, of course. Tom Hanks’ Hanx Coffee gives profits to veteran charities; Hugh Jackman’s Laughing Man Coffee has a foundation that supports coffee farmers through scholarships and various other projects (Laughing Man was bought by Keurig in 2015).

It’s not just the charity side of things either: much of the time with celebrity and influencer brands (and, admittedly, many large coffee companies) it’s hard to find out where the coffee comes from, who grows it, and who roasts it. Many of them have FAQ pages that assert that they “work to find only responsibly, sustainably, and ethically sourced beans” or that they are “committed to only sharing high quality coffee that’s been sustainably sourced and made” or answer the question “Is [the coffee] sustainably/ethically sourced?” with a simple “yes”.

What would Green say to someone who likes the idea of Awesome Coffee Club, but might be skeptical because of corporate coffeewashing and the lack of transparency around celebrity/influencer brands more generally?

“The first thing I would say is that people should be dubious,” he replies. “I think that's really important. There's a lot of, not just greenwashing in the world, there's a lot of talk about fair trade and healthy labor practices and supply chains and 10% for the earth and whatever else.

“PIH looks at our books and they know that we're donating all the profit, and we talk pretty openly about how much money that is and what our profit margins look like. And we talk pretty openly about where we get the coffee and who we're working with. We do that precisely because we think that people should be dubious, and people should be asking those big questions. They should be thoughtful about this, and so we try to answer that with as much transparency as possible.”

Green says that he doesn’t have enough information to criticize particular brands, but is aware that himself and his brother are coming from a different place than many founders. “I think the big difference is that Hank and I aren't making money so it's not hard to be transparent,” he says. “It's a lot harder for me to be transparent about book sales.”

Going Where People Are

Between them, the Greens have over six million Twitter followers, ten million TikTok followers, and the aforementioned three and a half million Youtube subscribers. They use these platforms to reach their fans and to promote the causes they care about. In November 2022 John Green announced that he was leaving Twitter in response to Elon Musk’s takeover and the various ways the platform has become worse since then (he still tweets about soccer from his alt). His main account, with 4.6 million followers, has been given over mostly to promoting the Awesome Coffee Club and the Project for Awesome more generally.

“I definitely only see it as a vehicle to promote the causes that I'm passionate about at this point,” Green says of this shift. “I don't think at the moment Twitter is doing a good job of fostering nuanced or productive discourse.”

Green notes that TikTok has become more important in terms of reaching fans and telling them about the Awesome Coffee Club. While that might not always be the case, “it's important for now and I've always believed in going where people are and trying not to judge the ways that they engage with the stuff that brings them joy.”

Will he ever return to Twitter (at least on his main account)? “Probably, because I'm addicted to Twitter. But I don't labor under the delusion that it's good for me or for the social order. It will not be a sad day in my life when I tweet for the last time.”

“I kind of can't resist the siren song of Twitter,” he continues, “and also more recently Tumblr, which is only better because it's smaller. I'm just having fun over there trying to sell some coffee.”