Sustainability in Coffee: NCA Summit

I started working in coffee a bit accidentally—happening upon a job as a barista until I “figured out what I really wanted to be.” After a few years on the job, my former-boss here at Counter Culture, Kim Ionescu, suggested I apply for the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Sustainability Council. Being on the council opened my eyes to how other folks were thinking about the intersection of sustainability and coffee, and I realized I’d found my career path after all. Throughout my time as a barista, shop manager, and then in customer service for Counter Culture, I always came back from industry events that touch on sustainability with a renewed energy—inspired by the prevailing spirit of idealism and collaboration.

I’m happy to say that this feeling hasn’t waned in my new position as Counter Culture’s Sustainability Manager. I recently had the fortune of experiencing it once again at the National Coffee Association’s (NCA’s) Sustainability Summit. I participated in the conference itself, as well as some side meetings, and was struck by the convergence of these separate groups on what’s needed to make the coffee industry more sustainable and how to move the sector forward. I’m one of those people who always likes to know the big picture on a topic, and, in that spirit, I’d like to share two of the trends I observed in progress at this summit:

Working Toward an Industry Definition of “Sustainable Coffee”
As I said in my NCA presentation,

it’s not that the lack of an industry-wide definition of “sustainable coffee” is stopping us from working on the issues we know are related—climate change, food security, and environmental protection to name a few. Instead, the lack of a definition makes it hard to establish a baseline for whether initiatives we try are, in fact, making coffee more sustainable.

The lack of a shared definition also makes it difficult to communicate to consumers whether or not the coffee they’re buying is sustainable or at least moving in that direction. The exciting news on this front is that there’s a new industry-wide initiative in the works that’s working to propose a definition. I really hope Counter Culture will be involved with this work and that I can write about what’s sure-to-be a messy-but-exhilarating process on this blog!

Pre-Competitive Collaboration
Another trend tied very closely to defining sustainable coffee is working with other companies, even direct competitors, on projects in communities where coffee is grown and processed. As a roaster, for example, we share many supply chain partners with other roasters, and there’s a growing realization that we can make a bigger impact on issues like food security in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, for example, if we pool resources with other folks also sourcing coffee in that region.

If we’re all working within a shared industry vision of what sustainable coffee is, we can design research and implement shared projects that are much-better coordinated across coffee-growing regions instead of doing one-off projects within our own supply chains. For example, the Coalition for Coffee Communities, of which Counter Culture is a member, is working on a landscape survey and gap analysis project in Jinotega, Nicaragua, and the results will help companies figure out how best to work collaboratively in that region. Hopefully, this will lead to producers, exporters, importers, non-governmental organizations, and government bodies all working together with shared metrics and goals—something that sounds simple, but hasn’t been the model in the coffee industry in the past.

I came back from the NCA Summit with an enormous amount of renewed energy and a great reminder of why I work in coffee:

The industry is full of people dedicated to sustainability—regardless of their job title—and we’re nothing if not relentlessly ideal.

A sustainable coffee industry has the potential to make a huge global impact, and I’m excited for what we’ll be able to accomplish working together.

–Meredith Taylor