On the first Wednesday of every month, we host a Facebook and Instagram live discussion about sustainability. This month, we talked about our latest transparency report. Unfortunately, due to some technical difficulties, the first few minutes of our video was cut off but here’s a glance at what we covered this time.
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What is the transparency report?
The transparency report is something we as a company have put out every year since 2009. In a nutshell, it’s a way to report how well we’re living up to our own values and showing how we apply our values when we buy coffee and with regards to sustainability. It is also meant to be a way to give consumers a better understanding of us as a company.
Has our transparency report influenced others in the industry to create similar reports?
We’d like to think so! We were the first coffee roaster to put out a report like this back in 2009. We are really happy to see when any other roaster does the same thing. Collective Coffee in Denmark has specifically said that we inspired them to do the same—and they have. There are a couple other roasters in the U.S. who are starting to at least put some of the purchase price information available on their website, although we don’t believe that there are any roasters that do it for every single coffee and with quite as much context as we do. We think it’s becoming more of a movement in the industry, which is exactly what we want.
There’s also a little group, through a program at Emory University, led by a professor who’s really working a lot on this idea of transparent trade in relation to coffee. Counter Culture attended their first summit last year with about 20 other roasters who got together and talked about this very subject. Our hope is that this idea of transparency will only continue to grow.
How does Counter Culture evaluate projects and producers that we work with?
We don’t believe that farmers have to have the best coffee from day one for us to become partners. Instead, what we’re really looking for in the coffees themselves is potential. Some of that has to do with the variety or the place that’s it grown, but a lot of it has to do with the people involved in growing it. There is a kind of process when it comes to sourcing that can take a few years of us making sure the goals of the farm or the co-op align with our goals and sourcing values. It’s important for us as a company to make sure our values are aligned and that we are both wanting to take that coffee to the same place.
That’s not to say that everyone should want to do that. It’s not wrong if one or the two of us mutually decides that maybe the partnership isn’t the best for us—that’s why the process usually takes a few years. That’s how we evaluate who we want to work with. Once that partnership is established, we try hard to push the depth of that partnership by working on projects like separating out different varieties or different tiers of quality or making special preparations to process natural coffee for the first time. Those are the kind of things that we try to do with our partners as time goes on in the relationship.
What are some internal sustainability projects that Counter Culture has and what inspired them?
Borrowing an idea from another Durham company, Burt’s Bees, we created an employee fund called the green fund to help our employees be more personally sustainable. As a company, we tend to attract people that come in that are interested in sustainability, whether that’s through coffee or just in general. We want to give people a little bit of startup seed money to start some of those sustainability projects that take a little bit of money up front to get going like buying get a bike or building your garden or setting up a home compost system.
What determines the purchasing price for coffee?
A large part of our report is actually about this idea of price transparency. Some of the big things that determine the price that we pay for a coffee are number one: quality. That’s kind of the hallmark of where we were going with direct trade certification in the first place. As a coffee company, we want to incentivize quality, and we want to pay more for quality coffee. We know that quality coffee isn’t an accident. It takes a lot more time and effort and investment on the farmer’s part, so we want to make sure that not only do we incentivize that, but we pay for that as well.
Another factor that influences purchase price is market forces. We know that we cannot pay $2 less than the going rate in that area for coffee, or else no one is going to sell us coffee. To some extent, no matter how much we are divorced from the commodities market for coffee, there are still market forces at play for specialty coffee.
The last piece we take into consideration for price is special projects. If we’re doing a special project with an organization or a farm or a cooperative, a lot of times the money for that project is built into the purchase price of the coffee. Additionally, organic certification is an automatic thirty cent per pound price premium, so anything that we buy that’s organic is thirty cents more. Again, that’s all part of the price. There are some other less tangible variables that factor into price as well, but these three go a long way.
When a consumer buys a bag of coffee, how can they know how much of their purchase goes back to the farm?
This question is one of the main reasons why our transparency report exists. The reason that we started tracking the reporting of every single coffee that we buy in the first place is that we really want to know of the amount that we pay for a coffee, what percentage of that gets back to the farmer? We call that idea price traceability or price transparency. It is not the norm in the coffee industry, so it is taking a lot of work and effort to track down that information. Less so because people don’t want to give it, and more just because there are no systems in place. No one is really asking that question.
Eventually, we want to be able to say, for example, that we paid $4 for the coffee and 25 percent went to the farmer. We’re deep in the heart of it right now and that’s because we believe it’s important for consumers to know how they are supporting the farmers on the ground and know that we, as a company, are doing the same.
There is a map on the transparency report. Do you have any advice on how best to read the map?
We are currently working specifically on a sourcing map. There is a preliminary version that is in the current transparency report that lets consumers see the names of all of the coffees that we bought from a particular country by harvest cycle.
The map is meant to be another tool that empowers our consumer to be better informed about our coffees and how and when we source. By clicking on different coffees and regions, the map tells you whether or not the coffee is a year-round blend or sing-origin and how much we paid for the coffee, how much we bought, and how long we’ve had that particular partnership.
Our hopes for the next phase for this information is to make the experience more consumer friendly.
What is the best way to read the transparency report? Where should readers focus?
We hope that readers of the report come away with a good grasp on our company, the birds-eye view of what Counter Culture all about. We hope that you understand what we’ve been up to in the last year.
We also think it’s important for consumers to trust the companies that they buy from. Coffee comes from faraway places, and it’s not like consumers can go to the coffee farm and see what’s happening there. We understand that a lot of trust is put in us to buy coffee in an ethical and sustainable way. We hope that this report, which has specific numbers and data, help consumers understand that we value and prioritize sustainability and transparency and actually put those values into practice.