What does it mean to produce sustainably?
Until the global Pamela Anderson, I had never given much thought to ~the supply chain~ and where the things I buy come from—I kinda just took it for granted that I’d have 12 different almond butter options every time I wandered down Aisle 4 at my local King Soopers.
And when you’re knee-deep in the “Financial Independence/Retire Early” world, there’s a heavy emphasis placed on attaining the things you need as cheaply as possible.
Unfortunately, being able to purchase something for a single dollar in the US usually comes at a cost to another human being somewhere up the chain, and as consumers, we’re more or less shielded from exposure to exploitative labor practices, especially globally.
This week, I wanted to explore consumption habits through the “personal finance” lens. We invited Sana Javeri Kadri, an entrepreneur in her twenties who’s revolutionizing the Indian spice trade from the inside out, to join us for the conversation.
Sana (who recently closed a $2 million funding round) is proof that equitable business models are better for everyone from the farmer to the end consumer.
To learn more about our sponsor, Vin Social, check out http://vinsocialvip.com/.
Episode transcripts can be found at https://www.podpage.com/money-with-katie-show/.
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Katie: If you asked me, a personal finance content creator obsessed with financial independence, whether I would buy a $5 T-shirt or a $50 T-shirt, my answer might surprise you. It's for the same reason I think most of us can opt for $12 spices versus the generic labels. Buying the cheapest option isn't always the best one, especially when it comes to quality, ethics, and the chance to align our dollars with our values. Does that mean we should spend the absolute most on products instead? Arguably, no, but there is a balance we can consider. Let's get into it.
Welcome back to The Money with Katie Show, #RichGirls and Boys. I have got a fun one for you today that weaves together a few interesting threads with a very interesting guest, Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Diaspora Co., a single-origin spice company based in Mumbai. We'll be talking about ethical consumption, building equitable businesses, and how sometimes the pursuit of the lowest-cost option means supporting a means of production that you probably wouldn't be very proud to partake in. This entire episode is basically one giant subtweet to myself for being an Amazon Prime customer who buys basically everything I need with two-day shipping.
So with that said, let's begin with a question: Do you ever think about where the things you buy come from? If you're anything like most Americans, including me, you probably didn't give it much thought until two years ago, when supply chain issues impacted your shopping habits. In my own life in four different cities, I'd always been pretty confident that when I went to the grocery store I would have an abundance of choice, different brands across different price points. For the most part, I've taken this completely for granted. The last time I went to my local King Soopers, I counted 12 different kinds of nut butter. We are spoiled with abundance, and we often don't think about the supply chains, logistics, and labor practices that culminated in the 12 slight variations of peanut-less peanut butter staring at us on aisle seven. But the pandemic laid bare the truth about just how interconnected our world and supply chains are, and how issues in the supply chain half a world away have astounding ripple effects. There are an estimated 450 million people—that's about 120 million more people than live in the US, for context—working in global supply chains across industries like clothing, mining, food, jewelry, automobile manufacturing, and more. And the majority of them live in China, Korea, and the EU, due to outsourcing, which—let's be clear—happens so that corporations can save money on labor costs.
When you start learning about personal finance, though, there's often a focus on buying things as cheaply as possible. In one particularly humorous episode of Ramit Sethi's podcast, I Will Teach You to be Rich, he interviews a man with a net worth of $8 million who refuses to buy batteries anywhere but the Dollar Store, because he doesn't want to overpay. This leads many of us with the positive intent of saving as much money as possible to buy the lowest-priced option in any category, whether that be the suspiciously cheap paper towels on Amazon or the store brand spice jar with questionable origins. On its face, there's nothing wrong with shopping frugally, especially with food at home prices having increased more than 12% in the past year, according to the USDA. For many American families, buying the cheapest version of, well, anything might be an economic necessity, but for others, like our pal with an $8 million net worth, it's not about buying cheaply because we have to. It's about stretching our dollars as far as possible, so we can hoard the rest, even if we have no shortage of dollars. Unfortunately, much like those who have looked into fast fashion with any degree of curiosity are aware, producing goods extremely cheaply usually comes at a hidden cost to someone else. More often than not, it is the workers powering the supply chain whose labor is being exploited, making the seemingly impossible rock-bottom prices on your shelf possible, and in case it wasn't obvious, resulting in products that are often lower-quality than alternatives that are produced sustainably.
Advances in platforms like Amazon Prime introduce other hidden costs. Consider the carbon footprint of millions of people taking advantage of two-day delivery, which can cost significantly more than standard ground shipping, both environmentally and financially. The need for brands to offer free shipping and returns despite those low costs, or the mass production of goods using cheap materials, potentially unsafe conditions, or with exceedingly low wages (and this doesn't even take into account the seedy underbelly of the global markets that are fueled by child labor). On the flip side, that's not to say that simply spending more on something will guarantee that it's produced equitably, and the abuses don't always stop with humans. For example, high fashion retailer Hermes came under fire in recent years for crocodile farming for its most expensive crocodile skin products. We are talking handbags that cost over a hundred thousand dollars. I mentioned that example to clarify something: I'm not suggesting everyone needs to go buy designer, just that there's likely a middle ground between Hermes and Shein that can provide the best of both worlds for consumers and supply chain participants alike. And also those poor crocodiles. Ugh. We will be right back after a message from the sponsors of today's episode.
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Katie: Anyway, this is not intended to be a depressing litany of human and animal atrocities. Instead, I wanna talk about building ethical and equitable businesses, and more importantly, talk to someone actually doing it—because let's be real, your choice as an individual consumer can only go so far. We need deeper change than that, because while most of us will probably try to make purchase decisions more consciously as we learn more about where everything from our food to our clothes to our cars come from, there is one young entrepreneur who's on a mission to change her industry from the inside out, and she has a lot of wisdom to share with us all.
Are you ready for a masterful pivot? Let's talk about the spice trade. Wait…spices? Huh? Stick with me. Let me lay the foundation. 400 years ago, the British colonized the Indian subcontinent in pursuit of the spice trade. Access to spices was seen as a status symbol in Britain at the time, and it's not hyperbolic to say that the spice trade was built on slave labor. Bon Appetit reported that today, a similar supply chain persists. The vast majority of the money from spice cultivation goes into the hands of corporate food companies and various middlemen. So think auctioneers, processors, wholesalers, while the actual farmers in India are not fairly compensated. As a result, many farmers who make up a large chunk of India's labor force live in poverty. For context, about 60% of the country lives on less than $3.10 a day, the World Bank's median poverty line. And more than 250 million people survive on less than $2 a day. Between volatile commodity prices, a glut of middlemen, and the inability to access pre-harvest financing, farmers very rarely have anything left over to invest back into their farms. When we consider that India is the largest exporter of spice items, raking in more than $4 billion annually, there should be enough wealth to go around.
And again, as a side note, this kind of discrepancy is seen across industries like fashion, tech, and more. It's not just India that grapples with this, but after seeing this play out in her home country of India, Sana Javeri Kadri founded Diaspora Co. at 23 years old with the intention of building a radically new version of the spice trade. Her promise to consumers is to bring fresh spices to market directly from farmers who use regenerative growing practices. And today the brand sources 30 single-origin spices from 150 farms across India and Sri Lanka, and pays their farm partners an average of six times above the commodity price. She considers it an investment in the kind of leadership and land stewardship that will build climate resilience and more delicious food systems. And if you think running a business in this way is just altruistic or pie in the sky compared to its colonial roots, consider this: Forbes reported in July that institutional investors have taken notice, and Sana recently closed a $2.1 million round of financing to expand her supply chain and build her team. Remember how we talked about equitable businesses creating better products, and how many Indian farmers were unable to reinvest in their farms due to poverty wages? Diaspora Co. spices are 100% pesticide- and chemical-free. They lab test every harvest, and all of their partners are regenerative natural farmers who now do have the bandwidth and financial support to make the switch to more environmentally friendly practices.
For those of you like me who have never set foot on a farm, despite the fact that I grew up in rural Kentucky, regenerative farming focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil. It's one of the only currently functioning technologies available for drawing down greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, according to the world's most prestigious source, Wikipedia. I bet you didn't think you were going to learn about the spice trade and regenerative farming on The Money with Katie Show today, huh? I am like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.
So while a 2.38 ounce jar of Simply Organic turmeric from King Soopers might set me back $5.49—that's $2.30 per ounce—the Diaspora version of the product, 1.77 ounces costs $12, or $6.77 per ounce. That is roughly three times as much. So on the surface, someone really concerned with reaching FI as quickly as possible might opt for the cheaper product. But for those with the financial means to opt for the product that's both higher quality and more equitable for its farmers, the approximate $6 cost differential will likely be inconsequential to your bottom line, but have a really big impact on supporting those producers.
And if you're concerned about the higher cost in investment pieces like clothes, shoes, or jewelry, consider a “cost per wear” model. While a $5 tee may get you through one season before it's plagued with holes and rips—say 10 wears for 50 cents per wear—a $50 version of the same tee made with more sustainable, durable fibers will be the same or even cheaper in the long run—10 wears per season for 10+ seasons averaging out to the same or cheaper with more wears. Of course, you could make the case that spending three times as much across all of your purchases for the more equitable versions of them, assuming they're available, may not always be financially possible, but it is an opportunity to align our spending to our values. And ultimately it's important to support entrepreneurs who are working to shift these practices way further than just that individual consumer level. We'll be right back after a message from the sponsors of today's episode.
Sponsored content: Paid non-client of Betterment. Views may not be representative. See more reviews at the App Store and Google Play Store. Learn more about this relationship at Betterment.com/MoneywithKatie. Today's Money with Katie episode is brought to you by Betterment. I would never dismiss your concerns surrounding market volatility. What I will tell you is that personalized investing was built for days like these. Betterment can help you make a plan tailored to your goals to help you make the most out of your money. They offer expert-built portfolios that you can select based on your interests and the issues that matter to you, like social justice or innovative tech portfolio. And with automated rebalancing, your portfolio can stay diversified at your chosen risk level. Sign up in minutes at betterment.com/MoneywithKatie. That's betterment.com/MoneywithKatie. You’ll thank you later.
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Katie: While I was impressed with the noble mission and complex backstory at play here, at my core, I am also a capitalist feminist who loves the entrepreneurial angle of stories like these. And Sana’s story amazed me. I can tell you what I was doing at age 23, and it was not attempting to revolutionize an industry with a deep history of colonization and exploitation, that is for sure. And because Henah, my senior editor, loves Sana, she is going to conduct the interview today. So I'm just gonna sit here in awe and learn alongside all of you. With that, let's welcome Sana and Henah to The Money with Katie Show. Thank you both for being here. Henah, please take it away.
Henah Velez: Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity, Katie. I'm so excited to be here. Sana, thank you also so much for joining us. I've been a longtime follower of Diaspora and I have loved watching you grow as a fellow Gujarati woman. So I also really love your transparency and authenticity with, like, your online presence, and you just radiate joy, honestly. And so I'm really excited to chat with you. So if anyone's unfamiliar, can you share a little bit more about Diaspora and how it differs from any other spice you could find at the supermarket, beyond just a difference in quality?
Sana Javeri Kadri: Well, first of all, I'm very excited to be here. I love the Morning Brew. I love this show. All of the above. So the fandom is very mutual. Yeah, my name is Sana Javeri Kadri, I am the founder of Diaspora Co., which…you know, we've been saying that we're a single-origin spice company, but that just sounds like a lot of big words. So I feel like what I'm really trying to say is that we're a new kind of spice company that is taking the old system, which was a system that gave customers stale, unfresh, not delicious spices that were bought from farmers at prices that were usually predatory, and, like, kept them in a cycle of debt, and took a very long time to get from farmer to customer. And we’re trying and working our hardest every day to turn that on its head and basically pay farmers equitably, prioritize that first. Also partner with values-aligned farmers who are experts, who are, like, changing generational cycles and shifting to regenerative farming, and like, really responsible stewards of the land.
They harvest their spices, we try to get it to America as fast as humanly possible so that customers can get fresh flavor. And then we're rooted in culture. So like, we're wanting to tell the stories of these spices. How does our pragati turmeric farmer use this turmeric? Like let's talk about that. How does my nani use this turmeric? Let's talk about that. Because so often stories of the spice trade have been stories of, I guess, just from this like Western white lens, rather than stories from the place of origin. So that feels exciting.
Henah Velez: I love that. I know I've seen your stories with your nani and how she makes [Hollywood], so I love that. And I guess as a sourcing expert, what is your supply chain experience—I know you've worked with like 150 different regenerative farms—taught you about businesses and what workers and producers are going through, and can you share a couple of the more inequitable practices that you've seen?
Sana Javeri Kadri: Yeah, so you know, when we first started working with our turmeric farm partner, he was constantly giving us shipments late. Like they were delayed constantly and I didn't know why. About six months I was starting to get frustrated. I was wondering whether we had to find a different partner. And so I just picked up the phone and sort of asked him. I was like, what is going on? Like I'm literally, your turmeric is beautiful but it's never on time and there's always crazy delays. And he explained to me that essentially when he works with the external mill, like the turmeric mill that's been a turmeric mill for several generations that everybody mills their turmeric with, he has to pay bribes the entire drive from his house to the mill. Anybody sees his truck full of product, they're like, “Oh, we'd like a cut of that. Oh, it's for export? Oh we'd like an even bigger cut of that.” And then he gets to the mill and then, just in order to like get the machines cleaned, he's paying out bribes. So much of the old system…and when I say old system, this is a system that the spice trade has existed for thousands of years, but like the spice trade as we know it right now was really built by colonizers. And so it was built for profit, it wasn't built for like beautiful fresh turmeric powder. It was built for, how much money can we extract outta this system and how quickly can we upsell it? So this big realization happened is that even if we're working with the most magical farmer who deeply cares, as long as he's having to work within the old system of millers and freight agents and all of these things, he's still gonna struggle. And so we actually realized that we have to put a mill onto his farm and give him full processing control and basically allow him to get that turmeric to us with no interruptions.
Similarly, you know, at the height of the pandemic I had to essentially like shame the spice board officials in India, because they were all like, “Oh, give us like Covid wages” and that just means give us a bigger bribe because it's Covid. Again, they're used to export of spices, meaning “Great, we can like have all of our palms greased in this transaction because quality doesn't matter. Markup does.” And I had to just kind of sit at that office and be like, I'm gonna embarrass you guys. You're gonna have a young woman like sitting in your office for several days until you feel shameful and then you'll get our product through. And that's what we did.
I don't know, those are some of the anecdotes, but essentially like we're still working within the old system in a lot of ways. Like import/export is an old man's game, and we're trying to figure out how we can do it in ways that are different and equitable. Sometimes we really succeed, and you know, sometimes we're still working in the old system and it fails.
Henah Velez: Yeah, but I love that you're trying to like reform the system from the inside out. So I think that that's really incredible and I think India is like the number one spice export trader in the world. So I think what you're doing has this huge ripple effect. You know, I've watched a couple interviews where you said you can pay between six to 10 times the commodity price for spices from the Diaspora team versus what other farmers are able to get. So why has this been so important to you? Kind of piggybacking off of, you know, making sure that those farmers can feed their families and not just pay out bribes.
Sana Javeri Kadri: I will clarify, thanks to the beauty of inflation, it's now three to six times the market price, not six to 10. Commodity prices fluctuate really intensely. So we're tracking every quarter, kind of what is the commodity price and therefore how does our equity pledge price relate to it? So I just wanna clarify, but I think from the get-go there was this feeling that, you know, in the Bay Area where I live half the year, there's these incredible farms. There's Masumoto Family Farm that does peaches, there's Full Belly Farm that does produce, and they charge what is fair and what they need to charge for really gorgeous, delicious produce. As a result they're able to grow their farms, they become brand names, and we know them and love them. What I found when I moved home five years ago was that there is a similar generation of farmers in South Asia right now who are doing things differently, who are growing things differently, but because the only market they have access to is the auction houses and the commodity market, they're not getting a price that makes it viable for them to do high-quality work. So the only way we could change the market is to say, throw the commodity price out the window. Let's look at your water bill, let's look at your labor bill, let's look at what you're actually buying seed for, because you're buying these beautiful heirloom seeds, therefore what is the price you need to charge?
So it's completely, like, disentangled from commodity, and for me I think it's important that that price is set by the farmer, because it allows them to, you know, year one, not be in debt or work their way out of debt. Year two, send their kids to better schools, give their kids options. Year, well, year two, they also buy a smartphone usually, 'cause they're like “Ooh, nice photos,” and they're able to WhatsApp with us. And then year three, we really see the effect of them starting to invest in their workers and then being able to basically unplug from this cycle of saying, you know, we'll just pay our workers daily wage only when we have work. We're not gonna tie up our cash in labor if we don't need them. But once they have a guaranteed buyer, they can say, actually, we need reliable labor and we need to invest in our labor, their needs.
And you know, year three and four is really when we're starting to see this transformation at the labor front that we wanna now grow and improve our social impact on. So I think that money means that this new generation of farmers can do the work that we've always dreamed that South Asia could do, and that we kind of were robbed of, because colonialism, and you know, the 150 or the 75 years of sort of struggle since then.
Henah Velez: I feel like you really touched upon this point of, so, the sustainability of the work and making sure that you're not, that they're not biting off more than they can chew, but making sure that, you know, all the producers are able to have a sustainable, like, predictable income.
Sana Javeri Kadri: Exactly.
Henah Velez: I've seen you share on your personal accounts kind of like the different challenges that the business goes through. I saw that you just got over $2 million in funding, so congratulations. You've also talked about the limited release of certain products even when there's a higher demand, and saying, like, this is what we have, and we can't do more than that 'cause that's not a reasonable expectation. So you know, as the CEO of this rapidly growing company, how are you ensuring that the business continues to stay equitable, scalable, and transparent, while also kind of like respecting the needs and the sustainability of everything that's happening?
Sana Javeri Kadri: Oof. It's really hard. It's really hard.
Henah Velez: I'm sure.
Sana Javeri Kadri: You know, I have an example of our Guntur Sannam Chillies. So they have been grown by the Narne family for us for the past five years, but the Narne family has been growing it for over 70 years. So it's a second-generation farm, and for the past two years they've had 100% crop loss—nothing to do with them, it's just been like fungus attacks and like back to back. They've really, really struggled. It's been devastating. We got really lucky in that we helped them buy a mill three years ago. So what they've been able to do is essentially now source chillies from farms that meet our quality standards, and become the millers. So they've recovered their income by becoming the milling hub for the region, essentially. I've just felt so lucky that that was set into place before the crop loss, 'cause it would've been so devastating otherwise.
But we realized we have 30 spices, right? Like we're, we don't have eyes on like the exact copy of every spice every week. And we noticed last week that the copy on the Guntur Sannam Chillie jar was still mentioning that it was grown by the Narne family, not by Sujata Mem, who's this new wonderful woman who's growing it and then giving it to the Narne family to mill. And that felt like, oh, for us it seems like such a tiny little shift that we need to communicate to customers. It's not too big of a deal. But at the same time I can also see that, you know, it's actually not accurately representing where these chillies are coming from and not telling the story, the complicated story of like crop failure and loss and like how do you manage when that happens, and how do we continue to give farmers income when that happens? So it's actually going forward gonna be, you know, a point of deep storytelling, of telling the story of this relationship between Sujata Mem and the Narne family and how they've worked together.
So there I think we're learning every day of how do we communicate honestly, but also on the back end, make all of this work. I also think when it comes to growing our supply chain, a lot of our original farm partners are so ambitious, like so passionate, and are willing to become like community hubs for us, almost. So that's the piece I'm excited about, that like we're almost creating these like micro co-ops in regions, and the work that my sourcing manager Kamud is working really hard on right now is, how do we maintain quality within those micro co-ops, right? Like our pragati turmeric is so magical because it's from one farm and like Prabu grows it himself and he's on the farm every day. When we get to a point where the pragati turmeric's coming from three farms like Prabu and his two cousins, how will we make sure that it's just as delicious? It's a challenge, but it's also exciting because it brings more of the community together and into this work.
Henah Velez: Yeah, and it means that you're growing and it's working, right? Like the business model you set out to do from the inside out is working, which is amazing. What can we as consumers do, then, to help invest and support these kinds of businesses that are more of the world we want to see, whether that's fair trade in organic spices, or ethical clothing brands, or brands that give back to like your local soup kitchen, you know—what can we all do?
Sana Javeri Kadri: Yeah, so I mean, I think, you know, the line that “You can vote with your wallet” is true, but I wanna add a caveat to it, of like, the responsibility doesn't always fall on consumers. Like it has to fall on industry and on like food systems. And so actually I think the role that the consumer has is to push and is to say “Actually, I deserve better.” Or like “Actually, why doesn't my spices have a harvest date and a best buy date on it? You know, as a consumer I can only afford to spend $8 on my spices, but why isn't it that all spices, whether they cost $5 or $12, have the quality standards that are best?” So I think what I tend to encourage is, buy the best of what you can afford. I know that what we offer is expensive because we're trying to do it a very specific, equitable way, but more consumers realizing that they have power to shift the industry and shift, you know, how the rest of the spice sphere, which is a big bad industry, does business. We’re the little guys.
Henah Velez: Yeah, I love that. And even in a personal finance world, there's only so much that we as individuals can do without also looking at the system. So thank you so much for that both philosophical and tactical takeaway. But thank you, Sana, so much for being here. This was so informative, and this was like a dream come true. So thank you.
Sana Javeri Kadri: Thanks for having me.
Katie: Welcome back to Rich Girl Roundup. As a reminder, we will take listener questions about every month. We'll put out a call for questions on Instagram. So follow Money with Katie on Instagram if you're not already. We'll pick one that feels interesting and widely applicable, and will answer it. As my standard disclaimer, I am not a licensed financial professional. This is not financial advice; this is just “What would Katie do in your situation? How do I think about these types of things?”
Paid non-client of Betterment. Views may not be representative. See more reviews at the App Store and Google Play Store. Learn more about this relationship at betterment.com/MoneywithKatie. This segment is brought to you by Betterment, the online investing platform that gives you the tools, inspiration, and support that will help you become a better investor.
Here's this week's question, from Ashley. “I'm in my early thirties and I've learned to budget and I've become a big saver and investor. I've let the urgency to buy ‘things’ go. I'm currently financially secure. I'm very grateful for this, and I have three kids. Lately, my husband has asked me to ‘invest in myself’ and splurge on luxury items, but I cannot bring myself to spend a thousand dollars and then some on these high-end brands. What makes these luxury brands worth the value? We all deserve a little treat sometimes, but even if you're financially comfortable, should you buy designer stuff just because you can?”
Wish I could relate. It is a brute force effort of willpower to not stop in the ladies’ shoe department every time I hit up Neiman's. But I'm keyed in on the phrase you used regarding your husband's urging, which was “invest in yourself.” Sounds to me like you two are in a place where you could splurge on luxury goods if you wanted to without really detracting from your financial security, which is a great spot to be. But if that's not your bag (pun intended), I absolutely would feel no pressure to do so. He may just assume that that's what you want to spend the money on. I don't know that luxury goods have any inherent value that makes them more valuable. It could be that investing in yourself for you takes on a totally different form than what your husband has in mind. You said you have three kids; maybe you would like to spend a weekend in a hotel relaxing on your own or as a couple, and pay for a trusted babysitter or nanny to stay with your kids. Maybe you would like to get a new certification or start getting monthly massages. And finally, as a reminder, there's no right way to splurge. And while some of us like fancy handbags or shoes, I wouldn't force yourself to go along with it because it feels like it's something you should do now that you're in a position where you can.
Conversely, it took me a while to get over my own extreme frugality and allow myself to splurge on luxury items that I did actually want, 'cause I was still clinging to this idea that anything beautiful and expensive was inherently frivolous, even if I could afford it. So I try to remind myself that once my financial goals are met every month, that leftover money is meant to be spent. There's no prize at the end of life for dying with the biggest pile of money, just like there's no prize for having the most designer handbags.
All right y'all, that is all for this week. I will see you next week, same time, same place, on The Money with Katie Show. Our show is a production of Morning Brew and is produced by Henah Velez and me, Katie Gatti Tassin, with our audio engineering and sound design from the talented Nick Torres. Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia and additional fact checking comes from the lovely Kate Brandt. Sam Cat is our VP of chaos and Beans is our chief bark officer.