Sustainability in Coffee: Partnerships

A few weeks ago, I was part of a meeting with other coffee roasters in which one company kept referring to producers as “suppliers.” In a strict definitional sense that’s true, but the word “suppliers” struck me as negative. I think part of that has to do with my past—I interned in college for a large auto manufacturer that had hundreds of parts “suppliers”—and part has to do with our philosophy that we’re in long-term partnerships with producers and others in the coffee-supply chain.

In my mind, the word partnership means working together toward a shared purpose.

For our supply chain, that purpose is high-quality coffee grown sustainably. A steering wheel supplier is generally only concerned with making a functioning part that fits their buyer’s specifications. Their purpose is to make a high-quality steering wheel—whether or not that wheel contributes to the overall quality of the final car is controlled by the buyer. In our supply chains, everyone is dealing with a single product the whole way through. If one of those steps is done poorly, there’s no hiding it in a bigger final product. In other words, if we’re not all sharing the same end goal—high-quality coffee grown sustainably—it doesn’t work.

For our purchasing model to work, we first have to identify partners who are willing to commit to that shared purpose.

On a recent trip I took to the Coordinadora de Organizaciones de Desarrollo de Concepción Huista co-op in Guatemala, for example, we talked through two initiatives that are great examples of this shared purpose: getting drier coffee and projects to help farmers adapt to climate change.

Our partners include not only the production end of the supply chain, but the folks who make our coffee, as well. If a wholesale customer isn’t committed to brewing great coffee, then the high-quality aspect of that shared purpose is lost. We also need folks who are willing to communicate. Communication is key to coordination—something that’s especially important in a global supply chain. Communication is also key to making improvements. We don’t see our partners as immediately interchangeable suppliers. Issues constantly arise with an agricultural product that has to be transported around the world, and we wouldn’t be a very good partner if we just dropped someone every time something went wrong.

That brings me to how we can be better partners. What I’ve laid out is the ideal, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge our need to improve on these aspects, as well. One of the things we’re working on is better communication with our wholesale partners—setting regular meeting schedules to make sure that we’re both informed about what the other is doing.

On the other end of the supply chain, we’re working with producers to set yearly quality and sustainability goals. These goals identify what we’d like to see improve for each coffee. These are not things that need to change in order for us to buy coffee from those producers next year, rather they’re a way for us to better-target what we can work on together season to season.

We’re also working on better ways to measure and track how sustainably a coffee is grown as a way for both us and producers to have more tangible evidence of progress.

Stay tuned for more exciting updates!

–Meredith Taylor