The View

Sustainability and the road to meaningful working relationships with growers in countries of origin is clearly the topic of the day throughout the coffee industry. The foundation for this focus is obvious – ensuring a reliable supply of quality coffees, predictable business modeling, and so forth. The hard part seems to be defining the meaning of sustainability within an individual’s ethical context.
It seems to me that the only acceptable definition of sustainability is a business model that ensures economic stability and prosperity for all partners in the supply chain. But then again, it also seems obvious to me that the idea that growers are our equal partners and therefore they are worthy of equal consideration and support within our business models. This is apparently not universally accepted.
At a round table I attended at the Roaster’s Guild last summer, the topic was sustainability. The room leader stated that, “The only acceptable definition of sustainability was environmental sustainability, as you all know!” setting the tone of the discussion, any mention of economic sustainability was not considered. Now clearly the moderator was imposing his agenda on the room and far be it for me to criticize anyone for imposing their own agenda, I do it every month in this editorial. However, this idea – that the only acceptable definition for sustainability was environmental policy – was so outside my worldview that I ultimately left the room.
The natural extension of the notion that the only usable definition of sustainability is environmental sustainability is a lovely idea – great swaths of land dedicated to agriculture being allowed to return to natural forest land and jungle, human impact reduced to zero, flora and fauna happily eating and being eaten under crystal clear skies is a beautiful thing – and completely imperialistic.
Taken to the logical conclusion, this guy at the Roaster’s Guild, who is a roaster for a large company, was saying in a single stroke that it is okay to impose environmental policies that destroy the way of life of vast numbers of people while at the same time ensuring the end of coffee production and forcing massive population relocation. All of this was based solely on the decision of folks in consuming countries. Interesting, albeit short sighted, worldview.
We make greater demands upon growers for quality and care while pulling the pricing rug out from under them and, when they strive to perform to our wishes in spite of financial difficulties, we switch to cheaper beans or different species in the interest of ensuring our bottom line.
So here is the thing. Are we as an industry willing to accept growers as equals in all ways, or will we continue to treat growers like indentured workers who have no choice but to sell us “our” coffee at the price we want? Do we think that growers are smart when they hold back shipping green beans until the market rises to an acceptable price, or do we think of them as rebellious and ungrateful? Are we worried that the soft dollar trading against our grower’s local currency is cheating the grower or do we secretly think that we scored because we got our coffee for less than we should have?
Now we are in the middle of the tradeshow season with sustainability being a main topic of discussion. Just returning from the National Coffee Association, discussions on sustainable business models were dominant. And in a couple of weeks, the SCAA will take up the question. The roadblocks that both these associations face is that they are “trade associations.” By definition, they represent the commercial interests of their members.
The problems start to develop when the inference is that economic sustainability is exclusive of environmental, or health, or property rights, or social, or any other form of sustainability. It is not! Instead, an effectively sustainable model must incorporate all these and more.
I think it is time for a new idea, I believe that importers, countries of origin, NGO’s, roasters both big and small as well as indie chains and multi-nationals need to reassess the fundamentals of our procurement models and the ways we interact with the communities and countries from where our coffee comes. I think we need to remove the restraints created by our commercial enterprises that form a natural barrier to finding holistic sustainable solutions to the issues facing our grower-partners and their communities. We must develop a means of acting “pre-commercial” in cooperation and in tandem with each other to form permanent solutions to the grave questions we face as an industry.
Growers have done all they can and now they are becoming angry and disenchanted. Isn’t it about time we in the consuming world started to show some leadership? Some backbone? How many of us complain about the predatory buying practices of Wal-Mart and yet we behave the same way with our most important vendors – coffee growers.
Roasters: Stop playing the system. Step up and start paying a fair price to the growers – a price that is not determined by commodity traders on a computer trading space, but is based on common sense and our own intuition.
Café owners, demand that your roaster do the right thing, then honestly tell your customers about your plan and that it may raise the cost of a shot by five or six cents. They will understand and even be proud to be your customer.
So in the end, let’s be honest. Let’s not take the path of least resistance. Let’s not accept the conventional wisdom. Let’s do the right thing. Simple, and in the end, simply sustainable.
I hope to look deeper at the concept of “pre-commercial” cooperation and how it would work next month.
Kerri & Miles

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