There is no such thing as Sustainability. And if there ever was, it died when it was labeled as such.
I have come to this conclusion after 36 years in specialty coffee. I have seen specialty coffee grow from a dry seed to the flourishing plant it is today. But underneath its stunning verdant leaves there is a hidden blemish. The vast majority of the world’s coffee farmers live in poverty.
This was the reason I stepped out from behind the coffee counter at my own Coffee Exchange to create two non-profit organizations to help coffee farmers overcome poverty, feed their families, and live in dignity.
I established Coffee Kids with David Abedon and Dean Cycon in 1988, and I created The Coffee Trust 20 years later. I started both organizations because I couldn’t justify selling one more pound of coffee without doing something to help coffee farmers upon whose shoulders I stood on to earn my living.
My coffee business and the two non-profits have been extremely successful and extremely rewarding. But recently I’ve discovered a flaw that is threatening the stability of all three of my organizations. This flaw has to do with the labels we place on ideals.
When I founded Coffee Kids there wasn’t an outpouring of support. One might say there was a slow pouring of support. We were called radicals, socialists, and communists, until social and environmental issues became good for business. Suddenly, coffee businesses had a cause to support, and the cause was labeled all over their packaging. Worse still, consumers were led to believe the label. Meanwhile, for generations coffee farmers and their families have been hungry. It’s not pleasant, but it’s true. It is this contradiction that troubles me.
Strangely enough, the situation reminds me of the American Revolution. We look upon it as one of the pinnacles of American achievement. The yoke of the oppressor thrown off, and a country built upon the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, born in the process.
Freedom is our calling card, and the words “All Men Are Created Equal,” burned into our collective memory, just like the ink that saturates the paper upon which those immortal letters were first written.
Yet, the illustrious “All Men Are Created Equal” was about as true then as today’s statement that coffee is sustainable. At the founding of our nation only 1/3 of the people could vote, the wealthy landowners. Women couldn’t vote. And Slavery? Slavery was part of freedom’s landscape.
So the question emerges, “How could the founding fathers say freedom and accept slavery”? How can the coffee trade say sustainability and accept hunger?
I have come to believe that it is simply too big of a challenge to change the entire world all at once, especially when we are all pretty much dependent upon the world being the way it is.
The founding fathers were dependent upon the way things were in 1776, and that included slavery. The coffee trade is dependent on the way things are in 2014, and that includes hunger. Expecting to change our dependency upon the way things are immediately is an illusion of the highest order. Yet, we communicate this illusion while we should be communicating the discrepancies between the labels we place on our ideals and the realities that exist.
Ironically, by recognizing these discrepancies, we put ourselves in the position to work towards achieving the perfect form of each ideal. And all we have to do to accomplish this is take one…… tiny…… little…… step.
Recently, I decided to walk to work on Tuesdays. I couldn’t change my entire world all at once. So, I decided to take one tiny little step.
An easy step. An achievable step. A guaranteed to succeed and become routine step.
And when that step has become a part of my routine, I will continue with these tiny, little steps. Imagine what our democracy would look like today had the founding fathers written into the constitution the need to take tiny, little steps.
That’s 238 years of tiny, little steps.
They could have acknowledged the discrepancies that existed and accepted that total freedom and total equality were simply unrealistic goals in 1776, but instead, were ideals to be rigorously pursued. They could have stated that for the ideals to become reality, their project needed built-in action steps, not big ones, but instead tiny, little steps.
The coffee trade could acknowledge the discrepancies that exist today and accept that sustainability is unrealistic in 2014, but instead is an ideal to be rigorously pursued.
Today, my coffee business is threatened. If it hides behind the labels of sustainability, it will make it impossible for either to truly exist. Farmers will continue to go hungry. Because their children are hungry, they will wade through water, walk through jungles, and wallow in the desert, to cross the border to the United States for a place where their children can eat. And one day, there may be no more farmers to grow coffee anymore. Sustainability will have been destroyed by its own label, and along with it my coffee business and untold others as well.
Imagine though, if my coffee business was more concerned about pursuing the ideal of sustainability; each year challenging itself with more tiny, little steps. Imagine if other coffee businesses did the same thing.
My two non-profits are threatened. They use the label “sustainable” to articulate success. What if my two non-profits were more critical of the use of the label, “sustainable,” speaking a little less about sustainable successes, and little more about the unsustainable reality?
Labels are toxic. They imply that they are absolute, complete, and contain all the answers. And herein lies the problem. For once we believe we have all the answers, we stop asking the questions. And yet, it is within our questions that we can find the next tiny, little step.