Coffee and Sustainability: Are we Having the Impact we Intend?

By Tracy Ging

Sustainability has been part of the discourse in the specialty coffee industry almost from the beginning and certainly for a better part of the past two decades. Early on, with vision and leadership bordering on radical, the industry made sustainability part of its mission.

The SCAA also encouraged total quality, inclusive of quality of life, quality in the cup, and quality of the environment. To achieve this, the organization outlined more than 40 supporting attributes and actions to guide its commitment to sustainability—an inspiring but, no doubt, broad set of tasks. In 2005, the SCAA set an even more ambitious goal by signing the United Nation’s Global Compact, joining the fight to eradicate global poverty. Specialty Coffee was, and continues to be, determined to make a significant difference.

With sustainability firmly ingrained in the value structure, many forged ahead—building schools, digging wells, committing to certification programs, developing partnerships and engaging in a host of other activities. Larger players developed private standards and say what you will about those approaches, the concept of self-regulation is pretty remarkable in comparison to other industries. Specialty coffee was also among the first to embrace market-oriented labels, a handful of not-for-profit organizations emerged and have since grown considerably, and it seems nearly everyone has a project. Specialty coffee has inarguably been vocal and prolific on issues of sustainability, yet there are big, looming questions about impact—are we doing good, are we doing enough, and how do we know?

To some extent, those questions are unanswerable because as a collective, we simply don’t know. Certainly there are exceptions within specific program and projects, but as a whole, specialty coffee has lacked strong metrics and tools to gauge its impact. In all fairness, that is a state not unique to coffee. The world has struggled with this issue, but that is changing. There is an increased focus on metrics and organizations are dedicating themselves to the task. The Committee on Sustainable Assessment (COSA), a volunteer-driven, global consortium of institutions using participatory methods, is pioneering the scientific measurement of sustainability in agriculture. Other organizations such as People 4 Earth are also developing frameworks. Also, the launch of SCAA’s Sustainability Tracking and Reporting Tool (START) will bring six-figure technology to specialty coffee and profoundly address the tool side of things. It seems the industry is well poised to get a better picture of how well it’s doing with regard to sustainability.

Regardless of the findings, I think we all know the job is not yet done. Given price trends over the last decade (with the exception of this year), relatively low market adoption of certifications (estimated at less than 10 percent according to The North American Organic Coffee Industry Report, 2010), and studies about hunger in the Coffeelands, we will likely confirm there is much, much more to do. With complete reverence for what has been accomplished, this is also an opportunity to reassess. What have we learned? How can we be better? If we really wanted to get our act together around standards, what would that look like?

It is important to look at what new partnerships can be forged, examples that can be modeled, and what new goals should be established. As one example, SCAA’s Sustainability Council is examining the beer industry on the heels of an announcement by British brewers, committing to reduce CO2 emissions by 17.5 percent and increase water efficiency by 11 percent by 2020. Another potential model is the wine industry, which is now studying use of certifications and addressing consumer education, trying to reduce their confusion over the plethora of choices/claims relating to sustainable wine and strengthen access to market for certified wines. And, of course, our own foray into deeper research through the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative will likely unlock many new opportunities where sustainability is concerned.

While there is cause for optimism, if for no other reason than the idea that issues as challenging and complex as these need a dose of faith, it is also important to be honest and open to the possibility that maybe specialty coffee didn’t know enough about sustainability and development to engage in some of the activities it engaged in, that we set out on a very big task without a proper definition of success, that some businesses co-opted the message without making due sacrifice, that our definitions are murky, and that maybe we are in not position to suggest what a farmer needs. These are the tough questions we’ll be addressing at this year’s Symposium in order to—as Peter Giuliano referenced already in this issue—break down so we can break through.

With more than 15 years of marketing experience, Tracy Ging has spent the bulk of her career in the coffee industry, where she has worked on both sides of the supply-chain, developing a deep understanding of the market and the trends driving it. Tracy currently serves as Deputy Executive Director of SCAA.