Ensuring the Sustainability of Coffee


By Kim Elena Ionescu

It is in the best interest of every single one of the millions of people who depend on coffee for a living to protect the future of our industry—yet, few of us feel like it’s our job. Sure, it’s important, and maybe even interesting, but who has the time? As the Sustainability Director for SCAA, I am one of the few people who gets to spend every day thinking about how to make coffee better for all of us who depend on it, as well as for the biodiversity of the ecosystems that sustain not only coffee plants, but us as a species.

Just like our coffee value chains, sustainability can only be global. Conversations that begin with a single issue—say, water scarcity—on a single farm can expand rapidly, because to understand a farm’s water use, we must take into account factors ranging from the way surrounding farms use water to the economic drivers that influence decisions. To put it more simply, everything is connected and nothing is simple.

That feeling of connectedness is never more acute for our coffee community than at Expo every year. This is where we test ideas on our peers and commit to working together. More than ever, companies, non-profit organizations, and other members of the specialty coffee community are energized to collaborate to address issues like climate change and farm worker shortage, that threaten our collective future. These joint efforts may have a local focus, with baristas representing different retail outlets organizing events to raise awareness among coffee drinkers about the farmers growing coffee around the world. They may also span countries, with multi-national coffee companies coming together to discuss how to coordinate investments in, say, food security, at a regional or national level. Despite operating at different scales, both initiatives help increase awareness of sustainability. By undertaking to do more together and communicating a shared message, we build the case for sustainability as a driver of coffee’s value to the customer, and not just an add-on. Some steps are small and some are big, but ultimately, we’re walking the same path.

It’s a tricky balance, big and small. We cannot confront the challenges facing coffee one farm at a time, nor can we allow their magnitude to paralyze us. We must be willing to take risks, but also to take care to tread a line between benefiting people and protecting nature. To strike this balance we must look outside of the coffee industry and our favorite non-profit friends, to help address major inequities and gaps in infrastructure or governance; for instance, if schools have inadequate funding for teachers, or roads wash out due to landslides in the rainy season. We will need hope and vision, but also pragmatism and work ethic. And in our enthusiasm for good ideas, we must also remember that we will need both human and financial resources. I hope you leave this year’s Expo feeling inspired about what we can do, and invigorated to work together.

Kim Elena Ionescu is the Director of Sustainability at the Specialty Coffee Association of America.