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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. 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.)

Marysabel Caballero at the washing station she and her family run in association with Finca el Puente.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
In this post, I'm going to shift away from talking about sustainability where we buy coffee and focus on our own operations as a roaster.

A coffee grown sustainably shouldn't necessarily retain that "sustainable" designation if others involved further along the supply chain aren't also acting responsibly. Just as poor roasting can ruin a high-quality green coffee, an unsustainable roasting company can compromise the integrity of a coffee that was grown and processed sustainably. In other words, Counter Culture has a responsibility not only to roast coffee well, but also to uphold the sustainability of the coffees we buy.

Beyond sourcing sustainably grown coffee, I see Counter Culture as having three major responsibilities in continuing this momentum: environmental protection, supporting community viability, and communicating information to consumers.

Thanks in part to the personal interests of Counter Culture co-founder Fred Houk—who was a passionate bird-watcher—we've always had environmental stewardship in our DNA, though sometimes it's expression has been informal. We took a big step forward in creating systems to formalize our environmental sustainability commitments when we started measuring and offsetting our carbon footprint in 2011. The offset part has been especially cool in that it has allowed us to do some really interesting projects in the communities where we purchase coffee.

It's taken a few years to perfect the measuring process; we're now to the point where part of my new job will be not only to measure our footprint, but to work on reducing it and reporting our results. We're also creating systems to track our waste and water usage with an eye on making sure we're using resources as efficiently as possible.

As I mentioned in the first post, a full picture of sustainability encompasses not just environmental concerns, but social issues as well. Much like our environmental efforts up to this point, our social efforts have been largely focused on programs at "origin," i.e. in communities where coffee is grown—like SEEDS and collaborations with non-profits working in coffee communities.

We'll continue to work on social sustainability at origin, but we also want to strengthen our efforts in local communities. With a growing number of training centers in the U.S., it's important to us to support customers and organizations working on projects that contribute to viable livelihoods in those communities. We also have some pretty amazing employees at those training centers who are interested in sustainability and whose efforts we support through our Green Fund, which offers $500 in matching funds annually for personal sustainability-related projects.

Frankly, none of these efforts can achieve their full impact if we don't do a good job at communicating them. Our unique position in the coffee supply chain means that it's our job to tell you not only what we're doing, but also what farmers are working on and what customers can to do to consume our coffee sustainably. That's a lot of information, and, over the years, we've tried presenting it many different ways. This presentation is something we'll always be working to improve, and I see it as one of the most exciting challenges of my new position.

As a corollary to this glimpse of where we're at, the next post will talk about where we've had successes and failures at moving coffees along the sustainability continuum.

-Meredith

In this post, I'd like to dive in to what I mentioned in the first post as a good indicator of a coffee's sustainability: certifications. Wouldn't it be great if there were a certification and corresponding label that could simply tell us whether a coffee is sustainable or not? The good news is that certifications related to sustainability do exist. The bad news is that no one certification covers all the aspects of environmental, social, and fiscal sustainability. The chart below is my attempt to make sense of the most common coffee certifications.

Environmental

  Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Water Conservation Y   Y Y Y    
Soil Conservation       Y Y    
Integrated Pest Management       Y Y    
Ecosystem Conservation Y     Y Y    
Wildlife Protection Y     Y      
Waste Management Y            

Social

  Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Community Relations Y            
Working Conditions Y Y Y        
Occupational Health Y Y          

Fiscal

  Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Guaranteed Quality Premium           Y  
Guaranteed Price Premium   Y       Y  
Transparency           Y  

* Topic is addressed, but is either not required for certification or not measured/quantified.

I'll be the first to admit that this chart is a massive oversimplification, but I hope it illustrates my main point: No one certification indicates a sustainable coffee. While it's true that a coffee could theoretically get to "yes" in every category by obtaining multiple certifications, the reality is that certifications have costs. The supply of certified coffee is much greater than the demand, so producers aren't guaranteed a premium, even if they meet all of the criteria.

Individual drawbacks aside, certifications do offer benefits. Each of the certifications in the chart invokes a third party (i.e., not the buyer or the seller) to audit the operations of the farm, cooperative, or association of farmers seeking certification. This independent verification not only authenticates the operation, but also brings a level of scientific and technical expertise not possessed by most coffee buyers. Finally, though they may be imperfect, certifications allow consumers to compare the relative sustainability of products at a glance, which is extremely valuable.

In short, for Counter Culture, certifications are a good place to begin when assessing a coffee's sustainability. Visits to producers and cooperatives help fill in some of the gaps left by certifications, as does developing supply chain relationships—which can help to facilitate information sharing.

In the coming months, we'll be field testing an environmental scorecard from our friends at Root Capital that should help us to develop a more nuanced understanding of our understanding of sustainable coffee.

Up next: what it means to be a sustainable roaster.

Meredith
 
Finca el Puente's Moises Herrera at the Instituto Hondureño del Café research center in Marcala, Honduras.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


Click here to see this photo set on Flickr.

Our annual Origin Field lab trip is an opportunity for  Counter Culture wholesale customers to learn about coffee cultivation in an immersive environment. We host this lab, in part, because we recognize that the dedicated professionals preparing our coffees for the end consumer can reach people directly with the knowledge and information they get from the experience.

The 2015 Origin Field lab included two Counter Intelligence instructors, two Counter Culture staffers, two Culinary Institute of America folks, and a handful of awesome coffee people from Counter Culture accounts Little Skips, Midtown Scholar Bookstore, Peregrine Espresso, Rex NYC, and Washington, DC's Tryst.

The lab addressed the complexities of coffee farming in general—and, in particular, in Honduras—and with on-site experiences from farm to port.

Our group was lucky enough to spend the better part of a week with Moisés Herrera and Marysabel Caballero of Finca el Puente in Marcala, Honduras. Moisés and Marysabel welcomed us into their home, nursed one of us back to health, fed us (over + over again), and, often, helped to make certain that our group had what we needed and got where we needed to go. Huge thanks to both of them!

We were also fortunate enough to learn from coffee farmers, co-op representatives, exporters, port operators, and so on.
La Voz Women's Compost ProjectCooperatives that are concerned both with the environment and with the quality of their coffee are aware of the need for organic compost. Organic compost can be expensive to buy, however, it is relatively easy to make your own if you have some initial capital, especially when you have a willing and able labor force within your cooperative.

This spring, La Voz que Clama en el Desierto, a cooperative out of San Juan de la Laguna in Guatemala that we have worked with for the last four years, applied for funding through our Seeds initiative and was one of the two projects that was selected and approved. Counter Culture and La Voz split the costs of the project down the middle with Counter Culture’s funds covering the majority of the material inputs and La Voz’s segment covering a lot of the labor needs.

Not only did the project focus on compost creation from start to finish (delivery of materials, mixing materials, distributing ready made compost, storing compost for later use) it also had a unique focus on female cooperative members. In total, 60 women received the completed compost to spread on their coffee parcels. Over 35 hectares were fertilized. While there isn’t a direct correlation between solid agricultural practices and cup quality, it bears noting that this year was the first year we sold La Voz’s coffee as a single origin and we have high hopes that this trend will continue in the coming years.

Each year we open the window for Seeds applications once in the spring and once in the fall, ready to support initiatives at the community level that work toward sustainable agriculture and food security efforts at origin. The next cycle for Seeds applicants will begin mid-September and we anticipate more noteworthy applicants and initiatives ahead and producers and producer groups are encouraged to apply here.

In partnership for inspiring work at origin,

Hannah Popish
As we say in our Direct Trade report, Cenfrocafe is truly a model among cooperatives, and they are a joy to visit and learn from each time. This visit included all of the usual elements – from producer meetings to meeting with cooperative leadership, cupping, and, in general, hearing about highlights and challenges currently facing the group.
 
Cenfrocafe has grown by almost 30% this year in its volumes. The coffee we received from this group and sell as Valle del Santuario and La Frontera has been exceptional this year. Our hope is to continue to hone in on even greater volumes of this quality coffee. Already on the larger side with 2,680 members, they have 240 more members going through the one-year trial period. They are, after 12 years of operation, getting to be a well-oiled machine. In addition to the business of coffee, they are intentionally working on helping producers with diversification efforts, health resources, and continued integration of youth and women in the cooperative. Of course, they still have kinks to work out in stabilizing volumes, lot separation, and best representing the needs of cooperative members.
 
Leaf rust is beginning to prove challenging, and some producers have lost up to 3,000 trees or more as a result. Conversations about how to prevent and renovate are serious. And, continuing to have the conversation about producing quality coffee alongside conversations about protection and disease resistant varieties is inevitable. The hope is that Cenfrocafe can continue to take a proactive role in regard to producers' needs for prevention training and on-farm investments.
 
Coffee quality this year was lagging in July and August at the beginning of the harvest, but they had higher hopes as they saw great improvements in October. I believe our coffee this year reflects that change. And, it again emphasizes the benefits of being by the cooperative's side – as true partners – not just for one harvest or one great run, but through the ups and downs.
 
I hope you'll enjoy these photos of my last week in Peru!
 
Abrazos,
Hannah
 
From the embed above, click [full screen] and [show info] for Hannah's annotated notes on each photo. You can also view Hannah's trip report on Flickr.
 
Welcome to Sustainable Summer, a month-long community effort dedicated to making small changes on big issues.Our Sustainable Summer challenge starts Monday! We encourage you to put the relaxed, reflective mood afforded by the slower pace of summer to good use by making small, positive changes to your everyday habits, and living a little greener before the leaves turn brown.

Each week throughout August, via a Sustainable Summer Facebook group, we'll offer suggestions for little things we can all do to challenge climate change and preserve our natural resources. By tackling habits in the areas of Home, Work, Leisure, Transportation, and Food, we'll see firsthand how big an impact even small actions can make.

Participants will have the chance to enter raffles for great prizes (including coffee, tea, and chocolate) as a reward for green deeds done well; together, we'll end the month by celebrating sustainability with organic snacks, lively conversation, and a panel discussion about climate change and the future. (Of course, there will also be plenty of coffee.)

Join us, as well as our friends at Rishi Tea, Taza Chocolate, King Arthur Flour, Patagonia, and TS Designs, as we send this summer out with a sustainable bang! Take the pledge on Facebook or e-mail us for more information.

Thanks,
Meister