Translating the Language of Sustainability


By Adam Kline, Atlantic Specialty Coffee Inc.

As specialty coffee professionals, we know we are lucky. Lucky in many ways, but especially in that our industry has developed based on the distinction of quality over the equalizer of commercial price. We realize that our unique need to protect quality—of coffee and of life—allows us to conceptualize sustainability in almost black and white terms: If healthy coffee can’t grow, or if isn’t worth growing, we lose the ground that we have fought so hard for over the last 35 years or more. Certainly, sustainability is the natural course of evolution for specialty coffee. As an industry, we are aligned as ever, but how do we share our unique insights on deeper sustainability with our customers?

For Jeff Chean, partner and “Chief Coffee Guy” at Groundwork Coffee, true sustainability often goes beyond what is perceived as sustainable by the general public. Groundwork’s stores serve only Certified Organic coffee, yet Chean notes, “While organic certification holds the distinction of being the only voluntary standard to convey a message of healthy living for consumers, we aim to help them think beyond what is perceived as simply being good for them. We want them to understand that the true aim is to help minimize negative ecological impact and promote social equity within our supply chains.” Deep sustainability isn’t simply about marketing, and it goes beyond a sale of goods. It is the industry’s responsibility to make sure that coffee consumers are not missing this point.

Counter Culture Coffee has a unique platform for customer and consumer interaction. With no less than eight regional training centers, they focus on educating their wholesale accounts as well as local coffee enthusiasts. Chelsea Thoumsin is lead of wholesale customer support at the Philadelphia regional training center. She shares the importance of highlighting the small changes we can all make to help lessen the impact of our industry. “Our lab materials typically highlight sustainable aspects such as mitigating coffee and milk waste. For labs in which we are brewing coffee manually, we emphasize the importance of weighing out only the amount of water needed to save both water and the energy it takes to heat that water. Further, we talk a lot about the importance of buying well-sourced and organic coffees, and how they, as a consumer, can choose to vote with their dollars and support more sustainable systems.”

We can have wider reaching positive impact by not only educating consumers about their purchase, but also helping them to consider their responsibilities beyond their preferred brewing method. The other half is to convey the responsibility of our consumers beyond their purchase. That is an area where we can have more positive impact as an industry. For example, Chelsea notes that at their Philadelphia Training Center, “we emphasize the importance of composting all grounds/filters/food waste in a separate container from landfill/recycling. We receive a lot of questions from students and shop owners as to how this works.” Perfect. As an industry we want more questions from our consumers, as this will lead to more holistic sustainability. Aim for more questions. We can all transfer our knowledge of origin issues and what each individual can do to support positive change in order to lessen our collective footprint.

The SCAA Sustainability Voluntary Standards Matrix, which has been evolving for some time, is a document that’s a first point of comparative reference and a high-level snapshot of independent sustainable certifications and standards. These include: FLO Fair Trade, FairTradeUSA, The Small Producers’ Symbol, IMO Fair For Life, UTZ/Good Inside, USDA Organic Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (think shade and how it helps birds) and the 4C Association. The information is meant to assist general membership and high-level executives as well as consumers.

As the coffee industry and the certification landscape have changed, the bullet-point information contained in the Matrix has evolved to be more complete, highlighting the impact that these sustainable standards have made in the last few years. Certification costs at each level of the supply chain are outlined, expense ratios per organization are highlighted, and an attempt has been made to show the effectiveness of the premiums paid through the supply chain. The previous format could no longer contain the information gathered, and it has been a task to find a means for the comparative presentation previously afforded by simpler summary. That said, the next iteration of the Matrix is close. The Sustainability Council is currently working on the next iteration of the Matrix with a goal to present this information in a format that allows for a clean comparative analysis.

9356387911_59841934ff_bKatherine Nolte of Twin Trading, and Michael Boyd of Boyd Coffee are co-chairs of the SCAA Sustainability Council’s “Drink Tank” sub-committee. This group serves as a think tank to drive consumer awareness of sustainability in coffee value chains. Katherine says of the Drink Tank: “We envision a world where the potential of every cup of coffee is maximized, the footprint is minimized and each sip is appropriately valued. We define consumers as industry professionals, roasters, cafes and their coffee-drinking clients—so we are dealing with a large and diverse audience. A key initiative has been the promotion of carbon-tracking tools to help the SCAA membership reduce our industry’s footprint. The Green Guide is a series available at the online SCAA store that is a step-by-step guide to cost-saving reduction of resource consumption. We are also working with the SCAA Professional Development team to embed green tips into our industry’s standards and curriculum. We believe informed industry professionals will lead to an informed coffee-drinking community.”

We work in an industry where we can brew many old philosophies and many new philosophies into one single pourover cup. You and I might differ at how much we like to go into explaining the passion of our day jobs during the social hours of our weekends, but I dare say that what makes coffee interesting to those asking the questions is a feeling of proximity and connectedness that only coffee can invoke. Shoot, people that don’t even drink coffee want to know all about it. The point is: coffee is special.

Nolte leaves us with one more striking piece of advice: “No matter what you are drinking, take it seriously. Whether you encourage people to look to quality, social justice, certifications, local roasters or trusted brands—a little bit of coffee talk to get your friends and family to look deeper into their morning brew is a good step towards sustainable purchasing.” As long as we keep the consumer conversation evolving, collaborative, considerate, yet provocative, then we will continue to put our best foot forward in the name of a truly sustainable coffee industry.

Kline mugAdam Kline began his coffee career as a Barista at an Independent Coffee House in Cardiff–by-the–Sea, California in 1995. He earned a degree in Latin America Science at UC San Diego and speaks fluent Spanish. In 1999, he began his trading career working with a Sustainable Coffee importer in San Diego. He moved to the Bay Area in 2004 to work as a coffee trader specializing in sustainable coffees. He joined Atlantic Specialty Coffee Inc. as a green coffee trader in 2007 and manages Sustainable certification programs. Adam is a certified & licensed Q grader, a past Coffee Corp Volunteer. He has served as the Vice Chair & Chair of the SCAA Sustainability Council and remains an active volunteer.