Sustainability Year in Review 2015

When I started this blog back in the spring, I began with trying to answer “What is sustainable coffee?” I knew from the outset that this was a bit of a rhetorical question, but I thought I could at least put some parameters around an answer—I needed to for my own piece of mind. Almost a year later, I’ve decided that once you get down to it, the topic of “sustainable coffee” encompasses just about everything. If we want the coffee industry to keep going indefinitely, that involves an interaction of coffee prices, quality, care for the environment, community viability, and the viability of all of the businesses in the supply chain. The more I think about it, the more I struggle to come up with any industry topics not related to sustainability.

In some ways this is good—it means that people like me who are officially “in charge” of sustainability don’t have sole responsibility for addressing the myriad issues in the coffee industry. On the other hand, it means that no one company, Counter Culture included, is going to make coffee sustainable all on their own. So, if a sustainable coffee industry necessitates the involvement of everyone and covers just about every topic, what the heck do we do?

My answer to that question at this point, eight months into my job, is:

do the best that we can within our own operations, be transparent about our work so that others can learn from our successes and failures, and join others in the industry to magnify and focus our impact.

Internally, we worked on environmental sustainability through improvements to our greenhouse gas data collection and waste management. We also set team sustainability initiatives for the first time in 2015, as an attempt to further infuse sustainability into our own operations. Just last month, we became part of the Durham Living Wage Project, and we continue to support sustainable livelihoods for coffee producers through our Seeds fund.

Our systems of reporting and ways to share information about our successes and failures are both works in progress, but we think it’s important to keep sharing even as we work to improve those processes. I talked about this a lot in my presentation at the National Coffee Association’s Fall Summit, which gave me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of working on sustainability issues, despite their messy nature. We also launched a new version of our Transparency Report this year with the intent to show rather than tell people how we buy coffee.

Even if we get everything right internally, Counter Culture is still a relatively small entity in the coffee market. If we want to make industry-level impacts, we need to join forces with other coffee folks and work towards common goals. I was fortunate to inherit a role in the Coalition for Coffee Communities from my predecessor, and we’ve recently committed to help build a framework for measuring and defining sustainable coffee as part of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge.

I talked about continuous improvement and movement along a continuum a lot this year, in reference to our own operations, how we view sustainable coffee production, etc. No one company or buying relationship or certification is ever going to make coffee a truly sustainable industry, but I’m hopeful that if we put our minds and dollars together, we can start moving along the spectrum more deliberately and at an increasing pace.

–Meredith Taylor