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A Sustainable Coffee Industry? Not Quite

HANES MOTSINGER explores the opportunities and limitations of different types of initiatives in Issue 07 of 25 Magazine.

Today, coffee businesses of all shapes and sizes promote practices that improve producer livelihoods, protect areas of biodiversity, and yield higher quality artisanal coffees. Certifications and direct trade business models strive to provide higher wages, protect ecosystems, and halt social inequality. In a growing number of cases, businesses subvert the accountability structures of certification programs, believing that their own understanding of sustainability challenges will yield more effective solutions to some of coffee’s most pressing concerns.

Indeed, some private sustainability initiatives do result in positive outcomes for individuals and communities alike. However, sustainability is also a valuable marketing tool for many private businesses. Due to the competitive advantage that sustainable business models offer, many businesses in the coffee sector prioritize their own sustainability projects over collaboration and coordination. Across the industry, businesses and organizations fight for resources to pursue their own initiatives. They strive to promote the most persuasive discourses of sustainability on websites and packaging materials. Oftentimes, duplicitous efforts emerge due to a lack of awareness that other actors in the supply chain are striving to achieve markedly similar sustainability goals. Most alarmingly, stakeholders in the industry routinely undertake sustainability initiatives without full awareness of the complex social, economic, environmental, and political circumstances that determine whether or not a project will succeed or fail. This risks severe unintended consequences for some of the industry’s most marginalized communities.

Consider this real-life example: a roasting company attempts to build a direct trade business model for more sustainable sourcing practices, so its representatives travel to Guatemala to taste coffees from a Fairtrade cooperative. Like all cooperatives, this particular group of farmers have come together in order to share and leverage their resources – knowledge, access to buyers, plant stock, etc. – to the benefit of those involved. After tasting coffees from various lots, the roasting company tries to purchase green coffee directly from a single farmer in the cooperative. The cooperative’s leadership rejects the request, stating that this type of contract could create hostility among other farmers in the organization, to the detriment of the single farmer to whom the roasting company wanted to pay a higher premium. (The company declined to pursue the purchase after realizing its potential negative impacts.)

For all intents and purposes, limited knowledge about complex supply chain dynamics, a paucity of best-practice guidelines, and a failure to understand the needs and desires of coffee-producing communities results in private sustainability initiatives that are often inefficient, and at times unintentionally harmful. Without an alternative approach to sustainability that is more collaborative and less competitive, and without stronger institutions that hold us accountable for our business practices, new geographies of inequality and marginalization will continue to emerge across the supply chain. Today, stakeholders across the industry need to “demystify [the] virtuous language” of sustainability – as Stuart Kirsch, a scholar of corporate social responsibility once wrote – and consider whether the ways in which we talk about and practice sustainability are truly serving the industry-wide pursuit of a more sustainable supply chain.

In essence, we are obligated to ask ourselves: where are our efforts to achieve a sustainable supply chain being derailed? What do we, as an industry, need to do to create an alternative, more inclusive, and just future for the global coffee sector?

The Role of Institutions and Collective Action in Building a Sustainable Supply Chain

In a recent corporate social responsibility and sustainability scholarship, researchers have examined the role industry institutions play in coordinating, standardizing, and regulating business practices towards common sustainability and social responsibility goals. This research considers how sustainability guidelines are diffused and adopted across an industry; what types of resources different businesses and organizations may need in their pursuit of sustainability initiatives; and how institutions may help develop tailored solutions to cross-sector challenges. Generally, this research illustrates the positive effect institutional guidance and coordination plays in helping industries achieve common goals and best practices.

In the coffee sector, institutional guidance and coordination for sustainability is unfolding through the efforts of business institutions like the SCA, Global Coffee Platform (GCP), and the Sustainable Coffee Challenge (SCC). The SCA, for example, is working with a group of sustainability experts to create a full sustainability curriculum that will teach industry actors how to effectively pursue a sustainability initiative in their business or organization. The GCP, a global multi-stakeholder organization, is building networks between producers, intermediaries, roasters, and cafés in an effort to establish coordinated sustainability initiatives in coffee-producing communities around the world. Meanwhile, the SCC, an initiative led by Conservation International, is calling on stakeholders across the supply chain to think about the role they can play in moving the industry towards an alternative future.

Coffee seedlings await planting at a coffee farm in Guatemala.

Corporate social responsibility research argues that institutions like the SCA, GCP, and SCC are likely key to building more coordinated sustainability initiatives across the supply chain. These institutions are uniquely placed to help the industry establish actionable, sector-wide definitions of sustainability and social responsibility. They have the ability to build accountability structures through the dissemination of best-practice guidelines and educational resources, which help businesses and organizations make informed decisions about how they can contribute to sustainability initiatives across the supply chain. Institutions and multi-stakeholder organizations are also able to lay the groundwork for collaboration by establishing global networks for action. These networks would enable us to streamline disparate sustainability initiatives and reach consensus about the roles we each play in helping the industry move one step closer towards sustainability. In sum, industry associations and multi-stakeholder initiatives like the SCA, GCP, and SCC could help us downscale sustainability issues to actionable goals. They could also provide us with organizational frames of action that can be effectively monitored across time. Without this type of coordinated guidance from our institutions and more collective action, disparate sustainability initiatives will continue to do a little good here and there but fail to support the systematic change the sector is so desperately striving to attain.

Some would rightfully argue that a shift towards collective action and institutionalized best practices could never exist in a global industry as vast and complex as coffee. Small and medium-sized businesses in the industry, for example, question whether or not global coffee institutions can establish best-practice guidelines and collective-action programs that are relevant to the capabilities of smaller industry stakeholders. Additionally, setting baselines for sustainable business practices will require nimble accountability structures and metrics for assessing cumulative impact, something that existing coffee institutions do not yet have in their wheelhouse. Lastly, the ability of coffee institutions to guide our actions and foster collective impact will rely upon our ability to consistently evaluate and improve our combined efforts across the supply chain while ensuring that those efforts are undertaken in response to the self-defined needs and desires of distinct coffee-producing communities.

To establish effective collective action and guidance for industry sustainability, institutions must continue to ensure that the most marginalized voices of the supply chain – small-scale producers and farmworkers, for example – are included in decision-making processes about sustainability. To do this, they will also need to ensure that barriers to entry like membership fees, communication platforms, and decision-making processes do not exclude smaller industry stakeholders from participation. Yes, establishing a more inclusive approach to sustainability may mean that we confront challenges and hard truths when the narratives we have told ourselves about sustainability are not rearticulated by actors at other points along the supply chain. However, collective-action networks for sustainability will be more effective if participation, inclusion, critical self-reflection, and accountability are institutionalized as core values that guide our sustainability decisions across the industry. After all, these are features of effective sustainable development that need to be understood and adopted by all of us who desire a more sustainable and just coffee supply chain.

A Call to (Collective) Action

Recent events in the industry encourage us to consider the potential that exists when we combine our resources towards common goals. In 2017, Royal Coffee Importers and Sprudge, a coffee media company, launched a sector-wide campaign to raise money to support the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) campaign to halt the US president’s executive order to ban refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim countries. Over 850 cafés and coffee businesses joined this initiative, raising US$423,373 for the ACLU. In other examples of collective action, volunteers with the Chain Collaborative – a non-profit organization supporting community-led development in coffee producing communities – has raised money within its networks to support one of the organization’s women’s groups in Ecuador. Today, this particular women’s group has grown to include more than 50 members and now hosts co-working days where women convene to work on common projects like collecting material for and making fertilizers. Meanwhile, Coop Coffees, a US-based importing company, facilitates the Carbon, Climate, and Coffee Initiative, investing in producer-led projects that improve carbon sequestration through more ecologically sound agricultural practices. To date, Coop Coffees has invested over US$150,000 in producers’ efforts, a success made possible by the monetary contributions of coop members and long-standing relationships of trust with producers.

Attendees discuss coffee producer economics at Avance, a two-day conference on sustainability hosted by SCA in Guatemala City (October 2017).

Individuals and organizations can learn about and build on this transition towards more collective action and less competition in a number of ways. The SCA will offer a full sustainability curriculum at the annual SCA Expo and through other worldwide avenues. With foundational, intermediate, and professional modules, this curriculum will ensure that coffee professionals possess a common understanding of the industry’s most pressing challenges and are able to use their resources in a way that contributes to collective sustainability goals. Another option is to invest a few minutes in learning about the existing initiatives of importers, cooperatives, certification organizations, or producer communities. Instead of reinventing the wheel and developing one’s own initiative, decide to contribute monetary resources to efforts already underway. A variety of toolkits also exist to help each of us understand emerging best practices and existing initiatives for sustainability. A few examples include Counter Culture’s Climate Change Adaptation Workshop Toolkit; the Partnership for Gender Equity’s project methodology toolkit; and the Sustainability Consortium’s Coffee Product Sustainability Toolkit and Supply Chain Diagram.

While this list is far from exhaustive, these examples offer a valuable starting place to help us think about what happens when we standardize best practices and combine our resources in pursuit of common sustainability goals. Collaborative and coordinated efforts like these are critical to the longevity of the industry, as are institutionalized best practices that provide us with a starting place for our actions. It is risky to assume that the majority of businesses – without proper guidance, mentorship, and education – can rise to the challenge of managing long-term sustainability initiatives. This takes deep coffers of financial and relational resources and requires in-depth understandings of supply chain dynamics. Rather than taking a stab at it alone and risking the inefficient use of resources or the unintentional marginalization of communities through programs undertaken without sufficient understanding of local socio-political conditions, we should each do our due diligence research to understand what is already being done and how our private efforts may merge with those of others.

By combining our capabilities and turning to institutions to guide us in best practices, we assure ourselves and our industry partners that our good intentions to support a more sustainable, inclusive supply chain are reflected in practice. Most importantly, we move our industry one step closer towards serving as an exemplar of sustainability to other global industries. That’s systemic change. ◊

HANES MOTSINGER holds an MA in Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation and an MS in Geography and Environmental Studies, the latter of which was awarded for research on sustainability initiatives in the specialty coffee sector.

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