Does Quality Ensure Sustainability?

By Lily Kubota

As with all industries, specialty coffee has a number of long-standing premises that, founded or not, are often taken as something akin to gospel. One of these premises is that better coffee equals higher prices (and therefore, economic sustainability for producers), and that economic sustainability can drive other facets of sustainability.

At the 3rd Annual SCAA Symposium, Kim Elena Bullock, sustainability and producer relations manager for Counter Culture Coffee, gave a provocative talk on this perceived relationship between quality and sustainability. As part of a session titled “Testing Assumptions”, Bullock questioned the premise that producing higher quality coffees ensures economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Additionally, she explored a common assumption on the part of consumers, as well as of many in the industry, that if a coffee is of high quality then it must have been sustainably produced. Bullock noted that the issue is not what companies themselves are explicitly doing or saying, but rather the fact that many operate under false (or uncorrected) assumptions. She spoke about her observation that consumers praise her company on the sustainability of coffee she knows is not necessarily produced in the most sustainable way, but they assume this because they enjoy the taste of it and have a high level of trust in the company they bought it from.

Bullock went further, challenging the idea that coffee companies should be held responsible for how sustainability practices are measured and portrayed by coffee companies. She asserted that we, as an industry don’t have to be experts in everything. Acknowledging that there are people outside of coffee who know more about sustainability than coffee companies, she suggested standards should be put in place by organizations that specialize in this realm, in order to introduce some objectivity to how coffee is portrayed and marketed.

When Phil Beattie, director of coffee at Dillanos Coffee Company, first entered the industry, organic coffee was just starting to take off. He observed that many roasters who had not yet adopted organic buying practices would dismiss criticism of this fact by making claims such as, “If the coffee tastes good, it had to be grown with organic practices” or “Most coffee farmers don’t have access to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, so they have no choice but to grow organically.”

Beattie believes that, “Over time the public became wise to this, and today, I don’t think these false pretenses are accepted.” He asserts that we are going through a similar transitional phase now with the relationship between quality and sustainability. He also questions how this relationship can be clarified or quantified if we have not yet defined what the term “sustainability” means in the context of our industry. Beattie goes on to say, “Sustainability has to incorporate economic, social, and environmental aspects. But, inevitably, I think that sustainability has to be linked to a time frame as well. Is it sustainable for a year, five years, a lifetime?”

When we talk about sustainability in coffee today, it can have many different connotations. When we refer to a coffee being sustainable, we are often referring to the environmental impacts of production. Additionally, it can refer to the economic sustainability of the producer and, in turn, social sustainability of the labor force, such as access to education and health care for coffee-producing families. Ultimately, all of these factors are related to the sustainability of the specialty coffee supply chain, which is at the core of our livelihoods. The dynamic between these various facets of sustainability is very complex, as is their relationship to quality.

Ryan Gonzales Johnson, lead roaster at Portland Roasting Company, provided his insights on the subject, saying, “It certainly seems that better quality coffee results in higher prices paid, but I’m not convinced that the drive in quality necessarily creates economic sustainability. The risks of environmental factors and market fluctuations have the power to throw the idea of stable higher prices for quality out the window. Otherwise, it does seem to contribute to a somewhat sustained benefit to folks growing high quality coffees, so long as their relationships can remain strong and trustworthy.”

Johnson believes that economic sustainability can lead to positive environmental and social impacts, but that ultimately, “A higher price to a grower is no guarantee that they will then spread the wealth to the community or work to make a more environmentally sound operation. These things may come naturally to some, but it’s not safe to assume that it will happen.”

Although Beattie concludes that quality alone does not ensure sustainability, he goes on to say, “When quality is combined with the trust involved in a long-term relationship there can be great success. At times like this when the market is high, the buyer reaps the benefits of a stable relationship by paying a reasonable price while maintaining the quality of their product. When the market goes down the supplier reaps the benefits through a reasonable premium that is again linked to the quality of the product. This relationship model is more difficult to pull off with a cooperative, but seems to work well with the estate model where both parties by using long-term planning can remove the volatility of the market from their isolated mini-supply chain.”

To Bullock’s original question of who’s responsible for development standards, we can ask if it’s something that’s better left to a third party market rises, more well-established farmers may find the added labor involved [in adopting additional quality checkpoints] to be more of a burden than the few cents extra are worth,” he says.

The practice of direct trade, or relationship coffee, has allowed roasters to become more involved with harvesting and sorting practices. However, in this market when a farmer can get the same price for “mediocre” coffee as they could for “great” coffee just a year ago, Beattie questions whether this extra effort on the part of the producer will be worth the premium paid to the mill for traceability and extra sorting.

As an industry, we recognize that in order to ensure a sustainable supply of quality coffee, we must put practices in place to ensure the sustainability of the farms and producers themselves. As labor shortages and land-use tensions become more of a threat, we must address these concerns and ensure that we are operating within a healthy, sustainable supply chain.

Additionally, the altruistic nature of the coffee community has manifested itself in the development of programs and organizations that work to improve the lives of coffee producers by providing access to education, basic needs and additional, sustainable sources of revenue. All of these factors lead to a sense of responsibility with regards to the different facets of sustainability.

Rick Peyser, director of social advocacy and coffee community outreach for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, has worked for many years on issues pertaining to sustainability and currently serves on the SCAA Sustainability Council. He offers his insights on the responsibility of coffee companies with regards to sustainability efforts, saying, “Ultimately farmers are responsible for their own economic and environmental sustainability. They are closest to the challenges, and know better than anyone the right responses to the challenges that threaten their sustainability.”

Although it may not be the responsibility of coffee companies to ensure the economic sustainability of coffee producers, Peyser notes that it is certainly in their best interest. “What many small-scale farmers lack are resources: financial, technical, and above all else, access to information that may assist them in making appropriate choices in selecting strategies to ensure their long term sustainability. This is where coffee companies may have a role, in ensuring not only the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee farmers, but their very own.”

He goes on to discuss the factors leading to labor shortages, such as migration to urban areas, and the implications of this. Despite the access to quality improvement techniques and logistical support provided by many cooperatives and coffee companies with direct trade relationships, he notes, “Studies have shown that even the most advantaged farmers—those who are selling certified coffees which command a market premium—are struggling with basic needs including food, clean water, adequate shelter, accessible healthcare, and education for their children.” It is becoming more difficult for a young person to justify staying on the family farm, to deal with scarcity and health issues, when a better life may be found in the city. Peyser believes that the resources for positive change and long-term supply chain sustainability are in the hands of coffee companies. He warns that “without investments to help coffee farming families improve the quality of their lives, the rural exodus will continue.”

The complex and delicate balance between quality and sustainability shall be explored for years to come. But, as an industry, we recognize that it is important to have a dialogue between representatives from all aspects of the supply to ensure that specialty coffee is sustainable, in all its glorious facets, for years to come.

Lily Kubota began her career in coffee at age 15 with her first job as a barista and became increasingly interested in coffee and café culture over the years. As communications specialist for the SCAA, she has been privileged to observe and reflect on the intricacies and nuances of the coffee industry on both the consuming and producing side of the supply chain and gain a deeper understanding of this exciting community.