Sustainability in Coffee: Feedback Loops

At Counter Culture, we talk a lot about transparency and partnership in relation to how we buy coffee. Both are essential to improving the quality and sustainability of the coffees we purchase in direct ways: Transparency builds trust and trust helps us build the partnerships that make continuous improvement possible. As I’ve been learning more about how different every coffee supply chain looks, it dawned on me that both transparency and partnerships are vital to our Purchasing Principles for a less-obvious, but equally necessary reason: They help us create feedback loops.

While important to building relationships, feedback in the form of direct communications via phone, email, etc., tends to be qualitative information and is hard to achieve with every individual farmer. On the other hand, numbers—like prices and cupping scores—give more-objective feedback and can be easily disseminated to large groups of people without language or translation barriers.

A big part of making coffee better is experimentation, and, without the expertise or facilities to cup their coffee, farmers need feedback to know whether the changes they made were beneficial.

I don’t want to give the impression that numbers like prices and cupping scores are the ultimate feedback mechanism. Although we try to tie price to quality as much as possible when buying coffee, the price we pay reflects other variables, as well. For example, we might pay more for a coffee than its quality score dictates if that farm is a good long-term partner—even if they had lower quality because of bad weather. Combining smaller parcels of coffee presents another issue. Farmers don’t often have access to price and score on an individual level when their lots are mixed in with others from their community before cupping and scoring takes place. In some cases, numeric feedback exists but is never communicated to producers by other people in the supply chain.

How do we fix these issues to give better feedback? Sometimes what’s needed to improve the quality or sustainability of a coffee are other forms of positive reinforcement—for example, paying farmers based on the ripeness and uniformity of the coffee fruit they sell when they aren’t able to get individual quality scores. Other times, existing forms of feedback just need to be amplified to make sure they reach farmers, and that will require us to lean heavily on our supply chain partners. For important areas where we want to push and measure improvement—like sustainability—effective feedback and reporting don’t necessarily exist. And it’s on us to develop them.

Coffee farming involves a huge number of variables and clear feedback is vital to giving farmers the information they need to continuously improve the quality and sustainability of their coffee. Being transparent by sharing data and ensuring that it gets to growers through strong partnerships are what make those feedback loops functional.

Stay tuned for more exciting updates!

–Meredith Taylor