The B Corp Veteran: Sustainable Harvest – David Griswold

Sustainable Harvest Coffee is a green coffee trader based in Portland, OR. They have been in business for twenty-five years. Their brand mission is to not only have every roaster know who their coffee supplier is but to have every coffee grower know who their customer is. In 2008 Sustainable Harvest became the first coffee importer to become certified B Corp and only the second coffee company. An early adopter, they have been a front runner in the movement, a vocal proponent of its benefits to business and its force for good.

David Griswold is the founder and CEO of Sustainable Harvest. I was able to catch David in his car on the 5, transporting some coffee (classic). We discussed sustainability on many levels and our hopes for preserving coffee lands and growers. In addition, Mr. Griswold was kind enough to share some insights and wisdom on how B Corps can help each other.

Jake Leonti (JL): As a leader in the coffee industry for B Corp, are you doing anything within our community to grow awareness?

David Griswold (DG): For us, it is time to give back and mentor companies interested in B Corp. We do this in several ways. One of the ways we do this is through different coffee events and expos; we are leading various B Corp seminars.

At SCA, we had several roasters and farms where B Corp got up and talked. We got a lot of questions, and many individuals get up and say, “I’m the only one in my business that really wants to do this. My boss doesn’t want to do it; how do I push it through?” So there was a way for us to give them a lot of encouragement and help people through that process. Because it is difficult. Anyone can go through the audit online, but the next step of actually getting certified is a lot of work. Certifying is not something you give to your summer intern. You have to be committed as a company, which is one of the biggest challenges of becoming certified.

We are bringing interesting B Corp collaborations together. We did an enjoyable Geisha beer using Panama Esmerelda and created a sour beer with New Belgian Brewery. We have provided the coffee for Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Buzz Buzz for almost twenty-five years now. These collaborations start encouraging other B Corps to collaborate.

When considering a certification, people often ask, “am I going to sell more of what I have?” “Am I going to get new customers for this?” It doesn’t suddenly happen that just because you are a B Corp, you’re suddenly selling to all these other B Corps. You have to engage with them and find the intersecting points of connection. There are a lot.

You will find that when you are at the annual national conventions that B Corp hosts, everybody is trying to figure out ways to work together or stay connected and discuss essential projects together. It is like there is this secret handshake. You become part of this group of like-minded people and companies, and I find that incredibly uplifting and inspiring. They may not all be coffee companies, but they all are trying to do exciting things, and there is so much we can learn from them.

JL: Sustainable Harvest started as a company driven by sustainability… how did becoming a B Corp change how you operated?

DG: In 2008, when I met the founders of B Corp (Jay Coen Gilbert, Bart Houlahan, Andrew Kassoy), they were doing an event here in Portland, OR. I had already looked into changing my by-laws because I had been introduced to them by someone else in the Portland social enterprise community. So, that part wasn’t new to me, and when I heard they would be speaking, I went. When one of the founders finished speaking, I ran to the front of the room and said, “Hey, I’ve been really interested in this.”

Of course, I thought, ‘I’m going to score incredibly well,’ ‘This is going to be incredibly easy.” As I started looking through the test, I saw that just buying Organic, Fair Trade, taking care of my employees, and having a low ratio of highest paid to lowest paid would fully define me as the highest-scoring B Corp ever! All of this only got me 85-105 points (David laughs). I wasn’t quite the hot thing I thought I was.

As I looked at the questions and the good-better-best practices on sourcing questions or recycling, I started building our employee handbook. I think this is why it’s an incredibly powerful certification. You will make changes that affect your community and employees because you want to score more points for sustainability. I have always felt that one of the best things about B Corp for those of us that are competitive is that you are always trying to beat your own score. We are at 150 points now; what will it take to break 160?! It will be incredibly hard, but that is an incredibly powerful tool to get me to be even more sustainable, figure out where the gaps are, and then close those. So it takes advantage of this capitalist system of people that want to do more and more and more and turns it into a net positive for the world because the points you are getting are making the planet a little bit better.

JL: The cert tops out at 200 points. Has anyone gotten there yet?

DG: I don’t believe so. I think it’s like the Olympics, where an actual perfect ten was impossible. It would be incredibly difficult as the test becomes harder and harder each year. Getting into the 130’s-140’s is a real challenge for most companies. You are more likely to lose points down the road unless you are actively building out your decision-making based on sustainability decisions.

JL: What is next for SH? What will you be focusing on for the next audit?

DG: We don’t want to go backward, and we don’t want to rest on our laurels. We want to continue to build our systems. Especially in our overseas offices. How do we continue to score points and do the right thing regarding our decision-making around sustainability, the sourcing of products, and how we treat our employees and our community.

I think playing a more prominent role, inviting more people from the coffee community, and getting the coffee sector organized around B Corp. There are some opportunities there. We might not be the leader in that, but we would like to be supportive of B Corp in the coffee community. The coffee industry has been out in front of sustainability much more than other commodities, so B Corp makes sense. There are many certified coffee companies now, but I don’t think we are connecting. That is an opportunity for building community.

For us, I’d like to see B Corp collaborations. People buying from B Corps and B Corps buying from each other and supporting each other. You don’t currently get points for buying from other B Corps, so I did propose to the staff at B Corp that B Corp should fill this gap since you receive points for purchasing products with different certifications.

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