Sustainability in Coffee: The Continuum Part 2

Expanding on the theme from my last post, I’d like to keep exploring the movement away from thinking about sustainability in coffee as a checklist of certifications and more as a process of movement along a continuum of continuous improvement.

One aspect that’s really appealing about the sustainability-as-a-checklist idea is that it’s pretty easy to measure—either a coffee is certified organic or it’s not.

The more we evolve our thinking about sustainability, however, the more we realize that the nuances we recognize in our own internal practices apply to our origin partners as well. This week, I’m going to give a few examples of “moving along the continuum” from the producer side and how we’re going to start trying to measuring that movement in a more refined way.

I don’t want to give the impression that organic certification isn’t a good indication of sustainably grown coffee; it certainly can be, it’s just not a perfect substitute. Take, for example, the evolution of organic certification with Moisés Herrera and Marysabel Caballero, the owners of Finca El Puente. We started buying non-organic coffee from them in 2006 and had many conversations with them over the next few years about the benefits of organic agriculture. They surprised us in 2010 by announcing that they had certified a section of the farm—having managed that section of the farm organically because of our interest. We were excited and offered to pay $0.30 more-per-pound for coffee from this section of the farm, hoping they would increase the area managed as organic in the coming years. As of the 2015 harvest, however, the size of the plot managed as organic remains the exact same as it was in 2010.

(Turns out that we’re the only company of their multiple buyers who’s interested in paying them more to grow organically certified coffee. Achieving and maintaining organic certification is costly, especially when those costs aren’t amortized over a co-op. Moisés and Marysabel decided it didn’t make economic sense for them to certify more of the farm.)

Here’s where moving along the spectrum comes in: Since getting that portion of Finca el Puente certified organic, Moisés and Marysabel have started making their own organic fertilizer to apply to all parts of their farm. This is really great progress from a soil-health and environmental-sustainability standpoint—and something that wouldn’t be captured as “movement” if we were just looking at certified acreage.

We have a similar situation at the Mpemba washing station in Burundi—where we’ve purchased coffee from the Kazoza N’Ikawa co-op since 2012. As a relatively recent addition to the specialty coffee scene, Burundi is still lacking a lot of the infrastructure and institutional knowledge necessary for good coffee production—including access to and information about organic inputs for fertilizer. In other words, a producer in Burundi interested in getting organic certification would basically have to build and operate an organic fertilizer operation in order to get enough inputs for their farm.

Despite this challenge, the farmers of Mpemba asked if we could help them get started on the path to more-sustainable agricultural practices by starting an organic composting operation. With funds raised by the 2013 Holiday Blend and continued support from our Seeds program, Counter Culture organized an organic agriculture workshop and helped the co-op purchase goats and pigs for organic compost inputs. In this case, the farmers at Mpemba are making great strides towards more-sustainable agricultural practices, whether or not those efforts result in eventual organic certification.

So, if we’re going to move away from the organic/not-organic dichotomy, how do we measure where a coffee is at on a spectrum of sustainability? Having good communication within our supply chain and visiting our producing partners is helpful in determining where a particular coffee falls, but those still result in a subjective assessment. We’ve been looking for a more-objective way to measure how sustainably a coffee is grown and recently settled on the use of Root Capital‘s Environmental Scorecard. Through answering a series of questions about topics like water and agrochemical use, the scorecard rates the environmental practices of an operation on a color scale. We’re starting to roll out the use of the scorecard with Coffee Buyer Tim Hill’s visit to Papua New Guinea next month, and we’re excited to see where this leads us in our assessment of sustainability in coffee!

–Meredith Taylor