Defining Sustainability at SCAA Expo

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By Miguel Zamora

Defining what “sustainable coffee” means has been a challenge for the coffee industry. This is also an opportunity for all of us working in coffee: to define what we mean with sustainability in coffee and communicate this to our customers and consumers, while channeling our resources towards true “sustainability”.

In reality, answering the question: “What is sustainability?” for coffee might require broad participation all over the supply chain and broad consensus.  The panel supported by the Sustainability Council of the SCAA and moderated by the SCAA Director of Sustainability, Kim Elena Ionescu, discussed this question.

There were voices in the discussion that asked for drawing a line between what is “sustainable” and what is “conventional”. We are all somewhere on that line, but it might be important to define where the line crosses into the “sustainable” side. Other voices highlighted that “sustainability” might be a journey, and we should try to highlight how we are doing on that journey.

The panel discussed how we have a success story with “specialty coffee.” The term and the definition of what “specialty” means is clearer to consumers and companies now more than ever. We could build something similar for “sustainable coffee” and define and promote what we mean with that.

The panelists are working on this issue from different perspectives. Bambi Seamroc and Conservation International are working with the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, an initiative that brings coffee roasters, importers and NGO’s together to try to raise the demand for sustainable coffee and make coffee the first sustainable agricultural product. The initiative is trying to create a safe space for industry to discuss what we mean with “sustainable coffee.”

But defining what sustainable coffee means is just a step. James Barsimantov from SupplyShift highlighted that we need to be able to measure progress and compare information to have a bigger chance to make progress on making the coffee sector truly sustainable.

Felipe Croce from Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza in Brazil asked “what is the value of sustainability for farmers?” It is not necessarily financial, in practice, because farmers get to implement many of the sustainability practices that the industry demands without necessarily being properly rewarded for that work.

Consumers might be willing to pay for quality coffee but not necessarily for sustainability. There are other benefits that farmers can get from their work towards a more sustainable coffee, but having a clearer way to define, measure and identify how sustainable the practices of a farmer are, can help farmers to get more value from their sustainability efforts.

Sitting at this panel I thought about the many times I have heard (and said) that sustainability is a journey. Many people agree it can be a journey, in a way. But a journey to where? If we are not clear about what our destination is, how do we really know we are making progress? The sustainability challenges farmers and the coffee industry face will grow and be more pressing in the future. Climate change, profitability of coffee farming, the situation of farmworkers in coffee, and other critical issues will not be solved individually. They require sector-wide approaches, collaboration and participation of all the links in the supply chain. Having a clear north star and definition of where we want to go and how we measure progress is a necessary step to have a chance to get there in the future.

Miguel Zamora is the Head of Americas Region for UTZ and current Chair of the SCAA Sustainability Council. Miguel has been involved in agriculture for over 20 years. His work focuses on building and strengthening sustainable supply chains while creating opportunities for sustainable trade between farming communities and the coffee industry. Miguel is a board member of Food 4 Farmers. He holds an Agricultural Engineering degree from Zamorano University in Honduras and a Masters in Agricultural Economics from Michigan State University.