Making Sustainability Sustainable Along With Many Other Words

When writing about the State of the Industry in our wonderful coffee world, there are a number of words that can be used. That number of words is shrinking, however, as we collectively emasculate them through overuse or agenda driven usage. If this continues we will have no words left! It’s OUTRAGEOUS! It’s EVIL!

The point is, that words which once meant something severe like OUTRAGEOUS and EVIL, no longer carry the ‘ummph’ because our first reaction to something starts at these levels. To say that a person swooping in to steal a parking spot executed an OUTRAGEOUS act perpetrated by an EVIL person should be considered a bit overstating of the facts. Perhaps it should have been an INCOSIDERATE act by a THOUGHTLESS person. Hyperbole rules the day, diminishing our ability to use certain words.

The coffee industry has been around for a while and only continues to grow. The words are in danger of IMMINENT ERADICATION if we don’t try to save them! Let’s look at some examples of words that have lost their meaning.

Green:  It used to be a badge of honor that you went above and beyond to protect the planet. If you operated in a Green Way, you accepted higher operational costs for the greater good. You led by example as you blazed a high moral trail. Then came the ‘greenwashing,’ where if a company used 25 percent recycled paper in their envelope stock they proudly displayed some newly crafted ‘earth-do-gooder’ logo on their business card and advertising. This word is so badly beaten up, that a company could just paint their building green and profess to be nurturing the planet.

Fair: Brought into the coffee industry primarily in the context of Fair Trade where the general understanding was that if you believed in fair business practices then everyone in the supply chain should make a profit and no one got squeezed. Fair in our industry is incredibly important because in many of the producing countries our suppliers have to walk away from their homes and jobs because the market forces have dictated some falsely low number below the cost to produce. On the other end of the chain, if the retailer can’t make any profits due to high cost of goods, then they close and can’t buy coffee. At some point fair became divisive. Groups with agendas wielded Fair as a sword to smite down those that did not see fair in the same way. The “I’m more fair than you” folks that would smear your reputation in social media as killing babies because you did not participate in their version of Fair. Fair even started to become a bad word as it tended to indicate what ‘camp’ you were in. Many even replaced the word with other words like ‘direct.’

Specialty: Ask 20 people what Specialty Coffee is, and you’ll get 20 different answers. It used to be a way to say, “My coffee is dramatically better than commercial coffee.” Now it carries almost as little value as Gourmet. Some will think that coffee is specialty if they buy it from a major chain rather than a store. Some will say specialty means ‘not in a can.’ Others have said that specialty coffee is an espresso drink. The term is so widely used and in so many ways that the term creates more confusion than clarification. For the coffee wonks out there the word is being replaced by a number with the SCAA / CQI scoring system. But this is too hard to explain to most folks so there is very little way to define a quality difference in coffee anymore.

There are also words that are starting to be co-opted but still have value. Consider this an effort to try and save them. It’s not too late if we as an industry use them properly and call out those who don’t.

Certified: This literally means that an independent certifying agency has done an evaluation and certain criteria have been met. When we talk about ‘organic’ we should talk about certified organic. When we talk about Q Grades of coffee they should be Certified Q Scores. Certified adds depth and clarity to some of the words on the endangered list above.  The way this word gets marginalized is when companies make up their own certifications that only they can achieve such as ‘Certified BOB-Friendly.’ While funny, it minimizes the real certifications that actually mean something. Call these people out. They are hurting you and the industry.

Relationship: This is a tricky one as there are many types of relationships. It used to be that you had a relationship if you ate a meal together, or talked on the phone more than once. With social media you might have 30,000 ‘friends’ you have never met. For the coffee industry we want to preserve the specific use of the words ‘direct relationship’ to mean only those people where you have shaken hands and deal together without intermediaries.  You do not have a direct relationship with a farmer just because you buy beans from the roaster that has one. That is nothing more than a supply chain relationship. The farmer won’t know your name, has never met you in person. Let’s agree that this is NOT what we mean by relationship and specifically a direct relationship. Call the others out. They are hurting you and the industry.

This brings us to one of the most crucial words to save before it is too late:

Sustainable: In order to save this word, we have to stop using it by itself. There is almost always a qualifier for it. The qualifier gives us a context, and then we can judge the veracity of the ‘sustainable’ claim. An example: “We run a sustainable company!” The obvious response is, “Duh! Otherwise your company wouldn’t exist.” What was the person trying to imply? That they act responsibly in their business dealings? Everybody wins? The Earth is not harmed? In fact they may have none of these characteristics but by claiming Sustainability they get to claim it all. Let’s agree to only use this word qualified in some way that can be verifiable. Some options are:

SELF Sustainable:  Runs on its own without outside help.

SOCIALLY Sustainable: Treats people with dignity and does not take advantage of others.

FINANCIALLY Sustainable: Built on a model of ongoing best business practices to ensure long term success.

ECOLOGICALLY Sustainable: What you take out of the world in terms of resources is balanced by what is returned in such a way to keep the planet ‘healthy’.

Sustainable ENERGY: Sources of power that have less of an impact on the earth than others and is renewable.

You get the idea. In order to keep ‘sustainable,’ sustainable, we must pay attention to its use and try to be specific in our intentions. When you see others taking advantage of the word by making it imply more than the truth, point it out. If they continue, call them OUTRAGEOUS and EVIL and let’s make sure they are NOT sustainable!

Rocky Rhodes started as a coffee lover, became a coffee roaster, evolved into a coffee educator and is currently serving time as a coffee addict. He loves telling other people his opinion so being a consultant suits him well. Rocky can be reached at

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