Sustainability is Dead. Long Live Sustainability!


By Peter Giuliano, Director of Coffee and Co-Owner at Counter Culture Coffee


I was a young coffee person when the concept of sustainability became big news in coffee. In those days—the roaring ’90s of coffee—the idea of thinking in the long-term about agriculture and about industry seemed fresh, exciting and different. The concept of acting in the interest of the long haul, and looking at the bigger picture of economic interdependence and environmental impact was downright revolutionary. The organic agricultural movement—binding together farmers who treated their farm like an ecosystem and refused to damage its soil with synthetic agrochemicals—spread to coffee farmers, and organic coffees began to be widely available.

Sustainability is Dead, Long Live Sustainability!

Fair Trade, which addressed the idea of economic empowerment for small coffee farmers, was an exciting way to grapple with the nagging reality of poverty among coffee producers, and the disparities between the places that produce coffee and those that consume it. Shade-grown coffee, a technique of coffee production that mimics the natural environment as perfectly as possible, was seen as a way to preserve nature and produce delicious coffee at the very same time. It all seemed so new, so logical, so possible. 

The name that most neatly connected all of these ideas was sustainability. What a perfect conceptual construct: the idea that any action must be considered in terms of the possibility of its ability to be sustained over time. Damaging the environment is unsustainable, since a damaged environment will not produce coffee in the future. Poverty among coffee farmers is unsustainable, since any human who cannot feed his family by his labors will choose another livelihood or perish. Organic agriculture, Fair Trade, and Shade Grown—and the other exciting ideas that blossomed in coffee during the ’90s—were gathered together under this rubric of sustainability, and their sheer logic gripped everyone. So logical it was, in fact, that for the next decade the concept grew like wildfire in coffee. All kinds of coffee companies embraced sustainability in a variety of ways, and identified a new kind of consumer called LOHAS: Lifestyle Of Health And Sustainability.

In time, the backlash started. Words like “holistic,” “ecological,” “fair-trade,” and above all, “sustainable,” became pejoratives used by cynics who saw the idea of sustainability as unrealistic. The picture of the sustainability-minded as a granola-munching space case replaced the perfect economic and environmental logic of sustainability in the mind of many. The economic hardships of the past few years intensified this idea among some who saw the idea of sustainability as a luxury, or a fantasy, or a joke.

Besides, as it turned out, sustainability is really hard. Agriculture is difficult enough without also factoring in the long-term impact on the environment. Building a coffee business is complicated, without tacking on the realities of energy use, equity along the supply chain, or the waste stream of a coffee shop. It became easy for many to forsake the concept of sustainability—as attractive and essential as it is—and focus instead on the very basics of business, even those that might be unsustainable in the long run. Some have predicted the death of sustainability as a concept—whispering that it was an artifact of a naïve time in coffee, before the harsh realities set in.

The critics forget one thing, however. We really have no choice. We can either work on sustaining our industry over the long term, or watch it perish. The evidence is starker than ever: soil degradation and falling yields among chemical-dependent coffee farms underscore the need for organic agriculture and a deep understanding of soil ecology. Climate change—and the massive transformations in the coffee market that result from it—necessitate a confrontation with our use of carbon as an energy source and the way we treat our atmosphere. We will either work to preserve our natural environment or have it taken away from us: we know how, we know how fast, and we know when. The evidence is clear: to keep behaving as if our short-term actions have no long-term impact will result in the end of our industry.

And that’s the thing—as we have pursued the idea of sustainability so hard that we’ve became disillusioned with it, we have learned an incredible amount. Our frustrations with grappling with inequity through the Fair Trade movement have taught us invaluable lessons in coffee economics, and brought us closer to a real understanding of the task at hand. The challenges we’ve faced in spreading organic agriculture throughout the coffee lands have underscored the challenges of addressing soil fertility. The realities of energy use in coffee have taught us exactly where we need to go.

I learned recently that the lion’s share of energy use in the coffee chain comes not from the global transportation of coffee, nor the fiery roasting process, but from the energy used in the final step: the preparation of coffee in the kitchen or in the coffeehouse. This was a revelation to me, and it gives me the choice to focus my efforts in mitigating carbon use in coffee where it counts the most—at the last very last step.

As it turns out, even though sustainability has been a mainstream concept in coffee for a decade or more, we’re only just beginning the journey towards a sustainable industry. We’ve had that first exciting flush of excitement and possibility, and we’ve had the discouragement that comes with knowing that the path will be long and complicated. But we actually have a chance. We are learning what we need to ensure a coffee industry where all can prosper, and where the natural environment is enhanced by coffee rather than damaged by it. I’m beginning to feel the thrill of real progress—different than the excitement of possibility, and far from any sense of failure. We can actually sustain our industry if we want to. And I think we’ve never wanted it more.

Peter Giuliano is director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting company based in Durham, NC. He has worked with fine coffees since 1988. He is the immediate past president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.