Sustainability Spending: Understanding What We’re Funding

Sustainability Spending: Understanding What We’re Funding

TThree hundred fifty million. Does that sound like a large number? Depends on the context, right? It’s a large number of people (approximately as many as live in the United States) but a small number of cells (each human body contains 37.2 trillion of those). Is it a lot of money? Again, it depends on the context.


According to a 2016 report commissioned by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the Global Coffee Platform, and the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, the global coffee industry spends $350 million USD each year on sustainability initiatives directed at coffee producers. In addition to that total figure, the Coffee Sustainability Catalogue, which is based on interviews with and surveys of stakeholders from more than 80 organizations globally, presents an overview of who is investing, where they’re investing, why they’re investing, how they’re investing, and what sort of activities receive their funding. It’s the first report of its kind on a spending category that’s still relatively new but has grown rapidly— ten or twenty years ago a report on industry investment in producer communities would not have yielded much.

Estimated current annual budget for coffee sustainability in relation to green coffee value

This $350 million USD investment includes programs like training on climate-smart agricultural practices, increasing access to education for young people, and providing financial services. These investments are voluntary and, while the study prioritized understanding the strategies of industry actors, the programs are very often a product of partnerships between actors in the private sector, like coffee buyers and non-profit organizations that carry out or implement projects with producers and producer organizations. Public-sector entities like government agencies may also play a role as co-funders, implementers, or both.

Partnerships are a consistent feature of sustainability investment globally, but the study shows that the partners involved vary depending on the geography of the sustainability program. Buyers from Europe tend to focus their efforts on Africa and Asia compared to buyers in the US, who invest more in Latin America. These relationships reflect both “physical flows of coffee” between producing and consuming countries and the priorities of foundation and government donors. For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has historically focused more of its coffee-related investment in Latin America, while the World Bank has been more active in Asia.

The relationship between what kind of work the coffee industry funds and why it funds it also provides food for thought. While our interventions (a commonly used term for projects and other sustainability work in coffee-producing regions) are diverse when viewed in aggregate, and while they align well with the global Sustainable Development Goals, the report points out that “almost all programs include outreach via agricultural extension services” and that “respondents in the value chain (mainly roasters and traders) prioritize economic impact, whereas non-value chain actors more frequently pursue social and environmental impact”.

It makes business sense for coffee buyers to create incentives for increased coffee production or improved coffee taste quality, because those investments offer more direct benefit to the buyer than, say, increasing access to primary education or cervical cancer screenings. Buyers also benefit from healthy people and environments in communities where coffee grows, but the balance is different. That we use the same word – sustainability – to describe all of the activities along a continuum reinforces the case for reports like this one that enable us to cross-reference interpretations in this growing and changing field.

The Coffee Sustainability Catalogue stops short of making recommendations for what the coffee industry should invest in or where, but it does make a clear case for greater collaboration and coordination, especially in the tools used to measure and report on sustainability programs, to reduce confusion and increase impact. It also notes the English-only bias precluded including many producers and producer-led organizations, who could well form the core stakeholder group for a second, complementary iteration of such a sustainability catalogue in future years.

And that $350 million? The $350 million USD the global coffee industry invested in sustainability in 2015 is probably the highest figure in industry history, which is inspiring news. On the other hand, knowing that the economic impact of the coffee industry in the United States alone in 2015 was estimated at $225 billion USD makes the $350 million USD global investment figure feel small. As an industry, we can do more and we can do better, and this report is a publicly available resource to help us along our paths as individuals and collectively.

Are you a member of the Specialty Coffee Association? Find the full Sustainability Catalogue on our website here. If you require the password to access that section of our website, please email our Member Services team to request it at