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Today, traceability and sustainability play an increasingly important role in the specialty coffee industry. Businesses in the industry realize their need to become more sustainable, environmentally, socially, and economically, and are looking for ways to achieve this. With people and organizations spread across the world, creating global standards and a monitoring system is a challenge. However, increasingly there are simple tools that can help improve processes and workflows to reach certain sustainability and traceability goals.
A more modern example of setting standards across the supply chain is the Coffee Data Project, completed by the Global Coffee Platform, Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA), Rainforest Alliance, and Waterwatch Cooperative. This project delivers a common language for all coffee supply chain actors through the identification of fifteen common indicators for farm-level coffee sustainability. Such indicators include coffee profit, cost of production, sustainable purchases, wages, soil conservation to name a few. In the coffee industry, similar to other commodities, there are increasing requirements for data collection and reporting. Outside of obvious health and safety advantages, this information delivers final buyers details about the coffee they are consuming: where it was produced and by whom. The project hopes to enable more efficient transactions and reporting, and more effective resource allocation through the ability to identify areas that are high performing or that need strengthening. The indicators are not yet mandatory, but are expected to become more widespread as supply chain individuals adopt them.
Early adopters of standards are usually bigger winners as standards arise out of market demands, as seen with safety standards in cars, food standards in restaurants, and barcodes in supermarkets. While the vision of these standards are great, how can they be put to practical use so they become “real” across the supply chain? A simple barcode is a great place to start to look for answers to this question as they are a well-established consumer standard. Today, everything has a barcode and it delivers much more than a quick checkout. Suppliers use them to track products across their supply chain, shippers use them to track where things are, markets use them to track stock in realtime, warehouses use them to plan, schedule and replenish. Everyone who uses them wins, a big change from when every item had a price sticker on it. Whatever role you may have in the supply chain, you can make an impact by asking for more information and passing it on along with the additional information you already use and create in your particular business. At every step, data can be collected on factors that influence quality and are responsible for great or not so great coffee.
How does it work in specialty coffee? For those that use it, it starts with green grading. You can collect everything from altitude/region, screen size, density, number of defects, botanical variety, preparation, and more. You can then share, exchange, and reference this data through roasting, (where you can add all your roasting information) and through your shipping to its final destination. Just like barcodes in the supermarket, collecting information like this throughout coffees lifecycle can reveal a lot to all the players in the supply chain. Once you have it, you can leverage it to improve quality, supply relationships, storage, shipping and many more aspects of your and your partners’ businesses. One critical key to leveraging it, however, is standards. Standards make data shareable, accessible, and when tied to effective auditing, accurate across the supply chain. Specialty is moving in the right direction and early movers have already gained advantages by collecting this information within their own businesses and smaller supply chains. The coffee industry has woken up to it: the developing standards are the proof.
So how can you leverage these developing standards? Collecting data must be a simple part of your workflow. Today we use texting, email, social media, etc., across the supply chain because they are right there when we need them. But they are all independent pieces of information that are hard to unify and create a single picture from. It turns out, your smartphone plus a systematic approach at the backend (and ideally a system) can help individuals in smaller businesses and large enterprises capture everything from photos to QR codes, to quality information to daily reports to better understand their products, coffee, and partners. In our experience, providing systems that help people collect and act on this type of information, we have seen many benefits for everyone across the supply chain. For example, if you are a supplier that sends or receive lots of samples, keeping track of all the data on those samples can take time. The use and creation of custom QR codes as a tool can make the entire process faster and more accurate, for everyone. You decide what information you want to share. You know what interests your customers have and can tailor sample information to highlight your buyers’ preferences. These sort of tools also let you customize your labels in a few simple clicks to help increase your brand recognition. Sharing information accurately and securely should be easy.
The first step is to start to use these tools themselves in a standard way. Establish rules within your business and with your partners or to implement a system that has them predefined. However you do it, the benefits come over time. What’s more, as each of us in the industry takes these small standard steps we all gain because standards help us share and utilize this information. They deliver the information, trust and ultimately strengthen relationships from origin to café with information from every party who contributed to the cup. That’s a goal worth working towards together.