Sustainability in Coffee: Sustainability Series

Welcome to the first in a series of posts about what sustainability means in the context of coffee. Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore questions like, “How does Counter Culture know that a coffee is sustainable?” and “What does a sustainable roasting operation look like?”

As a recent addition to the Sustainability Department, I find myself wanting to define the bigger picture and to figure out how Counter Culture fits into that picture. My intention here is to chronicle that journey in the hopes of finding some clarity in an area that can be a bit nebulous.

Sustainability in general—and especially as it relates to coffee—is hard to define. To “sustain” something means to keep it going indefinitely, but what’s implied in that definition?

By this point, many people have come across the widely referenced United Nations (UN) concept of sustainability, often depicted as three overlapping circles marked “social,” “fiscal,” and “environmental.” These three areas of focus are referred to as “the triple bottom line” and form the basis of many corporate sustainability policies and sustainability certifications (more on that later). It’s worth noting that some recent UN initiatives have broken down the “social” circle into “politics” and “culture,” creating four focus areas.

While accepting the need for each of these three (or four) elements of sustainability to be present in order for something to be “sustainable,” the coffee industry—Counter Culture included—has yet to develop a precise definition of sustainable coffee and, instead, uses indicators to measure ourselves and our progress. Ranging from general to specific, some of the indicators used in the coffee industry include coffee quality, fiscal transparency, producer income, worker rights, biodiversity, shade coverage, environmental impact, and third-party certifications.

For a consumer-ready coffee to be sustainable, all of the practices along the supply chain should be taken into account, not just what happens at origin (where coffee is grown). I’m starting this series thinking about sustainability at origin, but I promise to get to Counter Culture’s practices as a roaster, as well.

At Counter Culture, we use tools like organic certification and our Direct Trade Certification to measure whether a coffee’s sustainable and as signals to guide coffee drinkers interested in purchasing more sustainable products. Indicators like certifications help to signal a sustainably produced coffee, although the categorization of a coffee falls more along a spectrum than simply being “sustainable” or “not sustainable.”

What I find most helpful in trying to understand all of this is to look at examples of producers we admire for their leadership in pursuing sustainability. The Salazar Family’s Finca Pashapa is, in many ways, a model for sustainably produced green coffee. Finca Pashapa has been certified organic for many years, aided greatly by owner Roberto’s knowledge of worm composting and the family’s ability to manufacture all of the necessary fertilizers using materials found on the well-shaded farm. His passion for sustainable practices also manifests itself in the co-op he manages, Cooperativa Cafetalera Ecologica La Labor, where they’ve installed a biodigestor to capture methane from the washing station water and helped to build an activity field for the surrounding community.

So, yes, defining sustainable coffee production is nebulous and complex, but necessarily so. In the next, post I’ll delve into the world of coffee certifications in the hopes of adding another layer of understanding to the realm of sustainable coffee.

– Meredith