By Adam Pesce
For as long as sustainability has been a topic of discussion in coffee, people have been arguing over the best way to achieve it—with no clear right answer (but a few clearly wrong ones). Many years ago, at an SCAA Expo, I witnessed one of the most informative discussions I had ever seen about sustainable solutions for producers: a debate between organic and traditional farming. It was so informative that the fact that I can’t remember who was doing the debating vexes me to this day. My major takeaway from the discussion was the idea that there is no perfect solution. Variables matter a great deal, and trying to apply a one-size-fits-all fix for all that ails the coffee producers of the world is folly.
That idea informed my own approach to sustainability at Reunion Island Coffee Roasters. Not wanting to hitch our pony to any single one of the certifications, we started working with Fair Trade, the Rainforest Alliance, organic farmers and co-ops and, whenever we could, directly with the producers themselves. Applying those same ideals across our whole business model became my new challenge.
I first learned about B Corp certification at an AFCA Conference in Tanzania five years ago. David Griswold of Sustainable Harvest, who I didn’t know at the time, presented on the concept and my eyes opened wide. The idea of business as a force for good was inspiring, and being certified as a social enterprise by a legit third-party organization like B Lab was equal parts enticing and seemingly impossible. It felt like the progressive ideal we always aspired to, but never knew how to achieve.
B Corp certification is predicated on a holistic approach to sustainability. Sure, being a company that only buys certified coffee or has a great corporate benefits plan is nice, but to be a B Corp is so much more—and requires so much more. To achieve certification, you must first score over 80 out of 200 on a self-assessment that measures your commitment to strong corporate governance and transparency, environmental responsibility, community involvement, the welfare of your staff, the diversity and sustainability of your supply chain, and a daunting list of other variables. And while scoring 40 percent on a test doesn’t sound terribly challenging, it is on this one. It is a data-driven assessment that will challenge your outlook on so many aspects of your business and inspire you to do even more.
There is a lot of data required to properly answer all of the questions on the assessment, and much of that data is not necessarily easy to extract unless you are already measuring it for your own tracking purposes. For example, do you know how many of your staff live in low-income neighborhoods, how many of your suppliers are owned by minorities, or how much you spent with suppliers located within 200 miles of where the end product was used? It’s ok if you don’t off the top of your head, and would be a bit strange if you did, but these are the types of things that factor into your score. So if you are going to start the process, make sure you have someone on staff who either enjoys data mining or has a lot of time on their hands.
After a scan of the data necessary to complete the assessment, from collection to completion, our first go-round took just under one month. With better data tracking and the experience of going through the process once, our re-assessment (mandatory every two years) was smoother, but still took considerable time—and while it sometimes bordered on tedious, it never felt as though it wasn’t worth the effort.
After scoring above the 80/200 mark, you must still provide supporting documentation, go through a thorough audit (of your data, not your financials) and then adjust your articles of incorporation to include a commitment to sustainability. The last point is a personal favorite—by legally embedding those tenets into your company’s DNA, it ensures that the ideals of B Corp Certification live beyond you as a leader, and makes it more difficult for future executives or new owners to strip them away down the line.
One of the biggest benefits to going through the B Corp assessment and certification process was just how much we learned about our business and how to do better as a responsible company. As Noam Chomsky once said, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” For me, this was especially true when considering the sustainability of our business. I started our assessment on a lark, thinking we wouldn’t be close to the required score (the average business scores 55 their first time doing the assessment), but that it would be a good learning opportunity and that I might get some ideas as to how to creep closer to certification…someday. As I made notes throughout the assessment about the different efforts and initiatives I was looking at, and realizing that they were feasible and achievable, it dawned on me that certification may be possible.
Certain items on the assessment, such as hiring and procurement practices that reflect a progressive attitude were already part of our belief system, so all that was necessary was articulating them into actual policies. In other cases there were things we weren’t doing yet that were easy and affordable enough to enact, but that also made us more environmentally conscious, better employers, and more thoughtful members of our community. With some help from B Corp staff, Reunion Island received a score of 84 after our audit. As pleased as I was that we achieved our goal and met the certification standards, I distinctly remember being disappointed that we didn’t score higher, and improving our standing and ourselves has since become an obsession throughout the company.
The main thrust of B Corp certification is to do good, while still making a profit. B Corps occupy a space between for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations, and it is referred to as a “movement” in the hopes that this attitude becomes the prevailing one in all industries. The “B” in “B Corp,” after all, stands for “benefit”—meaning that your company has to do its thing (in our case, roast and sell coffee), while providing a social benefit. Growing your business also means expanding your impact, which is an amazing motivating factor and one that personally drives me more than just about anything.
This is where the speciality coffee industry finds natural synergy with the B Corp movement. Coffee people seem to me to be disproportionately good-natured, and strive to be solid citizens of the world. So if you are looking to implement a new corporate social responsibility plan, B Corp Certification is worth considering. I guarantee you’ll learn a thing or two—or 27—and more than likely, you will be reminded that doing the right thing, and running your business the right way, doesn’t mean you aren’t able to continue to grow, make money, and affect positive change in the world.
Adam Pesce is the director of relationships at Reunion Island Coffee Roasters, a B Corp-certified specialty roaster and wholesaler based in Oakville, Ontario. He is a long-standing member of SCAA’s Sustainability Council, and along with Grounds for Health, he is also on the boards of the Coffee Association of Canada, Klink Coffee, the Central Canadian Barista Competition, and the Covenant House Sleep Out: Next Gen organizing committee. Adam has traveled around the world as a speaker on sustainability in coffee, and as a buyer in coffee-producing countries—developing direct trade relationships across Latin America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia.