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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.

Twin Trading is no stranger to the sustainability limelight. This year, they received the Specialty Coffee Association of America's 2014 Sustainability Award for their project "Congo Coffee Revival: Regenerating Communities by Linking Remote Farmers to Mainstream Markets." Twin Trading invests all proceeds from Twin—its parent company—into charity initiatives. They have been intentionally working on community development initiatives with a cooperative we buy from—Sopacdi.

The company refers to itself as “a pioneer and leader of the fair trade movement, working to build better lives for the poorest and most marginalised in the trading chain." They have enacted this mission for the last 25 years as an importer of agricultural goods—primarily coffee, cacao, and nuts.

Currently, their work involves 18 countries and more than 50 democratic farmer organizations. Twin understands that businesses are uniquely poised to support parts of the supply chain that are vital for their business's success and are often too easily ignored.

Recently, to better support their mission, they turned their focus to issues of gender justice and, specifically, inclusion of women in the agricultural sector. Twin recently printed a report with analysis of data gathered between October 2012 and July 2013. Their team interviewed and conducted field assessments in Peru, Nicaragua, Malawi, Ghana, Uganda, and India, and surveyed 14 producer organizations total. Twin quotes a statistic from a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Global Policy Brief in their gender report: "Globally, women own between 1–50% of agriculture land; on average less than one quarter of arable land is owned by women in developing countries." This statistic denotes a true barrier to women's access, representation, and ability to improve their livelihoods.

The aim of Twin's study was to examine the division of labor at every step of the coffee growing process. For coffee farmers, this meant gaining greater understanding of what women do that is different from or the same as men—from land preparation and maintenance through processing and drying to transporting the prepared good all the way to export and receipt of funds and financing. By understanding where the responsibilities fall, the hope was that they could understand issues of power and empowerment, as well. The report then provides a list of suggested best practices for more full inclusion of women as key players in the agricultural sector.

To better understand the depth and importance of Twin’s work, Kat Nolte, Coffee Marketer & Marketing Advisor at Twin, was kind enough to provide a Q&A session.

Hannah: Why does Twin think it is important to specifically focus on women for their projects of late?

Kat: Twin isn't just focusing projects on gender justice, we've built it into the six pillars of our approach to sustainable development. Empowering smallholder farmers is at the heart of Twin's mission. Eighty percent of the world's coffee is produced by smallholders, and it is estimated that women perform 70% of that work. Without a gender-balanced approach, our work in coffee quality, good governance, and sustainable agriculture would be very limited in scope.

When we embed a gender component into our projects, we ensure that all of the people performing the work in coffee production receive crucial technical information. Women's empowerment isn't about the promotion of one sex over the other, it's about balance, equality, and the engagement of all the relevant players in a supply chain.  

H: Why is it important for an importer to be involved in community development efforts in coffee growing countries?

K: The SCAA tells us that "great coffee doesn't just happen." And it is so true. Specialty coffee requires people who are passionate about their craft—from farmer to barista. And passion for coffee comes after you and your family are fed, clothed, and healthy. Passion comes after you have access to clean water. Passion comes after you have an education. Passion comes after you have a good place to sleep at night. For an industry that requires so much passion, it is not only important, it is essential to see to it that your coffee is coming from thriving communities.

H: What is Twin most proud of in its approach to or results from the "empowering women farmers in agricultural value chains" initiative?

K: As far as results on the ground, there are so many anecdotal and qualitative responses that my colleagues and I could give to this question, which is proof that working in gender justice produces fantastic results.

Bukonzo Joint in Western Uganda—who is also a Direct Trade partner with Counter Culture—is certainly at the top of my list. This group went from producing coffee scoring a 79 to producing specialty lots that have scored 87+ in just two short years. And they are continuing to invest in quality, gender, and their environment in order to keep improving.

When asked how they achieved this, the group starts by talking about their work in "gender balance." They finish with technical information on farm rehabilitation, cherry harvesting, and improved processing—and the technical know-how is usually explained by women from the group. They know that farming households sharing a joint vision between men and women to produce specialty coffee are successful. They also know that households struggling to communicate about how and when to harvest and where to sell their coffee also struggle to produce the quality necessary to reach specialty markets. They have built their business on the philosophy that men and women should be equal participants in decision making and equal participants in workload.

H: What makes this type of work possible? Who are key stakeholders or partners that you recommend for optimal success?

K: Meaningful work in gender justice is possible when you have buy-in from the whole supply chain. For example, if an organization is committed to producing "women's coffee" as a way to promote economic opportunity for widows who lost their husbands in armed conflict, the market needs to also support the program with purchases or investment. Likewise, if you have men and women who are working together to produce a higher quality coffee with a gender balanced approach, the market should also recognize the investment in gender justice that went into the production, or the organization could lose traction in the push toward quality.

Over the years, Twin has come to realize that project success is at its peak when a holistic approach is taken. Approaches to development through trade which interrelate multiple areas of need simultaneously reach communities deeply and over the long-term. In addition to engaging the whole supply chain and taking a holistic approach, patience and long-term commitment is required in this kind of work. One of our biggest challenges is reconciling long-term development approaches to a dynamic, ever-changing global coffee market across diverse cultures with diverse perspectives, values, and needs.

H: What does the future hold? What are some key hopes or expectations you have as these projects and the research continue to develop?

K: We are launching a very exciting five-year project in East Africa that incorporates work in gender justice, climate change adaptation, and technical assistance in coffee production with seven producers who will prioritize needs and invest in their organizations. This project is expected to continue to demonstrate that work in gender is positively correlated to improvements in coffee quality.

My hope is that the specialty industry continues to embrace initiatives that economically empower women. We work with a group in Rwanda who have a women's coffee field named Ejo Heza, which translates to "a beautiful tomorrow." My hope is that women in coffee find this "beautiful tomorrow" as these projects continue to promote and provide equality in economic opportunity, land ownership rights, and decision-making power.
Fabretto was founded in Nicaragua in 1948 when a Salesian missionary named Reverend Rafael Maria Fabretto found numerous impoverished children on his visit to Nicaragua.The deck is stacked against a lot of small coffee cooperatives. They are focusing intently on how to keep yields and quality high while keeping members happy with prices. Cooperative members have various needs that include access to affordable, healthy food; healthcare; and extra money for education for their children. This is where, ideally, supportive non-profit organizations can step in to help. A non-profit like Fabretto—one that is truly based in the community and, as such, knows the needs and solutions from within—is rare.
Counter Culture actually learned about Cinco de Junio, a Nicaraguan small cooperative we've purchased from for the last five years, because of their connection with Fabretto. With a grant supported by the Buffett Foundation and implemented alongside Catholic Relief Services, Fabretto was doing an analysis of community needs in Las Sabanas a number of years ago. They realized that Cinco de Junio's members and their families needed greater agronomic education, and that they could benefit from expanded economic opportunity—since Cinco de Junio was the only game in town. Luckily through their partnership—and, then our partnership—we were able to support Cinco de Junio in exactly this way.
Fabretto was founded in Nicaragua in 1948 when a Salesian missionary named Reverend Rafael Maria Fabretto found numerous impoverished children on his visit to Nicaragua. In its early days, it was a number of children's homes. Today, the organization has seven main educational centers in Nicaragua and focuses on securing livelihoods through education as well as food security efforts. (They also have supporting foundations in two additional countries.) "Padre Fabretto," as they call him in Nicaragua, was so influential that there is often a photo of him in family homes.
Kevin Marinacci, Fabretto's President and Chief Executive Officer for almost 25 years, took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about the work of Fabretto:
Hannah: What is Fabretto doing right now that you consider to be the most successful piece of your work?
Kevin: We believe in education as means to a livelihood, and we have seen this work. Through our SAT program (Rural Secondary Education) families like those in Cinco de Junio are able to connect with external and commercial partners. It's a virtuous cycle—we invest in education and make education relevant to what their livelihood is. So, especially in the high school programs, teaching about sustainable agriculture makes it more likely that producers can then innovate and get out ahead in terms of market viability and trends. I also think that focusing on diversification into crops with chia and honey is important as it provides the opportunity to leave a more resilient rural economy for the students that are part of the cooperative.
Fabretto has seven main educational centers in Nicaragua and focuses on securing livelihoods through education as well as food security efforts. H: Could you talk about a key challenge for small cooperatives?
K: I think consolidating the gains they've made and positioning themselves properly is what's needed. It is hard for small cooperatives to say no (both internally and external). They have to start to define who they are as a cooperative, say that ideas are welcome, but communicate clearly that they are taking the premium market route and need people to be on board with what that means. With external partners, they have to be strategic about how they are going to connect with lenders to reinvest in their farms.
H: How is Fabretto involved in the day-to-day operations of Cinco de Junio?
K: We have a staff member of Fabretto who spends time on the ground visiting Cinco de Junio. He helps strategize and links them with opportunities like grants for technical assistance projects submissions for loans with Root Capital.
H: Can you share a hope for the future?
K: I'd love to see Cinco de Junio be so successful that they match our contribution to the education programs dollar-for-dollar or underwrite the investment for education. That would be a home run if they invested in SAT, because it would mean that they believe in the impact of education.
H: Thanks for the chat and for the great work you are doing!
K: We're not experts, by an stretch of the imagination, but we've been privileged to play a role.
Root Capital is a 15-year-old non-profit organization with headquarters in Cambridge, MA—and satellite offices and staff across the globe—that has been getting a lot more attention from the coffee industry over the last few years. A "social investment fund," Root Capital promotes prosperity in poor, environmentally vulnerable places in Africa and Latin America by lending money, providing financial training, and helping connect farmers to buyers.

In partnership with organizations like USAID, Keurig Green Mountain, and Starbucks, Root Capital has become well known for offering low-interest rates on pre-harvest financing loans for farmers.

Coffee farmers generally receive one payment a year for their entire harvest. This means planning out expenses can be difficult, and, once preparations for the next harvest come around, they often have little money left over to invest in their crop. As such, they often look for loans to be able to apply to their agricultural needs each season. Root Capital sets itself apart from micro-lenders like Kiva because they are loaning amounts upwards of $40,000 each time.

Lending money to smallholder farmers can be risky. If a farmers experiences difficulty meeting volume or quality expectations with their crop, they would not meet sales goals and, ultimately, would not be able to pay back the loan. One way lenders mitigate this risk is by charging high interest rates. Root Capital, on the other hand, chooses to provide low interest rates—offers ongoing training to farmers to help to ensure their ability to repay the loan. They also engage in conversations about best practices for environmental stewardship and long-term sustainability.

I have long appreciated Root Capital's transparency: they openly share both their operation's approach, as well as a commitment to sharing the metrics used to measure what success means.

Counter Culture has been watching their good work for some time and continually tried to identify places of overlap, as well as potential partnerships. Our first entré came this year when we brought Root Capital into a study regarding coffee farmers’ adaptation to climate change that we embarked on with Duke’s Nicholas School of Environmental Management.

Root Capital and Counter Culture have a shared interest in applied research—meaning, we don’t want to do research just for the sake of researching something. We want the research to be of use, to generate an agenda, to mean something concrete on the ground to the people who were initially involved in the research. This type of project is unique in that it brings together a university, a coffee roaster, and an NGO. None of us working alone would be able to understand the issue as comprehensively as we are now able to working together.

Mike Younis, one of the six Duke students involved in the research, had the opportunity to tack on some extra time with Root Capital in their offices in Lima, Peru, as part of the overall project. Here’s what he had to say about the experience:
"It was very exciting for me to be a part of Root Capital's mission to support rural prosperity. Following up my master's thesis research on Climate Change Adaptation for Coffee Growers in Latin America with an internship at Root gave me a greater appreciation of the organization’s expertise with the important issues faced by its clients and passion for tackling these challenges in order to improve the the livelihoods of those in Root Capital communities. I am grateful for the opportunity that Counter Culture Coffee, Root Capital, and the Nicholas School of the Environment provided me with this past summer!"

Both of our business and Root Capital's business are impacted by external factors that can be hard to control. We each have to look for ways to protect ourselves and our supply chains from risks—in this case the vulnerability brought on by climate change. When farmers are impacted by climate change, their overall supply of coffee is less stable, and they are less likely to be able to repay loans or have a consistent supply for buyers. Root Capital and Counter Culture Coffee will benefit from better understanding the impacts of climate change and hopefully be better poised to be a part of the solution.

Moving forward, I believe that collaboration among interested parties from different industries and organizations—all with common goals and interests—will only continue to blossom within the coffee industry. Results from the climate change adaptation study will be shared on our website and elsewhere late-spring 2015.

Hope you’ll keep following along and be in touch with any questions or comments!

-Hannah Popish
Over the next two months, we will share stories about organizations doing exceptional work in coffee growing communities where we purchase. We often say that, while we know a lot about how coffee should taste and something about why it tastes the way it does, we know comparatively little about how best to support coffee farmers in their daily lives outside of coffee farming. Farmers might grow the best coffee in the world, but if they struggle to educate their children, put food on their tables, access health care, find clean water, or address other basic needs, our relationship—and by extension, our business model—is not sustainable.

Today, we will take a look at a non-profit we admire out of Burlington, VT, called Food 4 Farmers. Their mission is "to facilitate the implementation of sustainable food security programs in coffee-growing communities." In particular, they focus on collaborative work by emphasizing building local knowledge and capacity for individuals to solve their own problems by working through coffee cooperatives.

"Through a collaborative approach and partnerships, our goal is to transfer the tools and knowledge that coffee-farming families—and their communities—need for long-term food security," said Janice Nadworny, Co-Director of Food 4 Farmers. "One of the most exciting aspects of our work is witnessing this transformation from dependency to self-sufficiency."

The most eye-catching piece of their work to someone like me—who has been a part of and studied a number of non-profit and NGO models—is the following, in their own words:

"We don’t import a simplistic, one-size-fits-all model—we help communities identify locally appropriate solutions and strategies—and support them in managing their progress."

Though they are a fledgling non-profit, their small staff brings a range of experiences from the non-profit and academic world to the table. They are already well respected within and connected to the coffee industry with the likes of Rick Peyser (formerly of Keurig Green Mountain Coffee, currently working with Lutheran World Relief) on their board of directors.

Over the last four years, they have worked to design, implement, monitor, and evaluate food security strategies in Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia.

We are now in the second year of funding a food security project with Food 4 Farmers in Chiapas, Mexico, with CESMACH, a co-op that is part of Union el Triunfo. Food 4 Farmers is currently assessing the strengths and challenges of and resources available to the cooperative as they work to address seasonal hunger.

"Counter Culture has been a key partner in this work, stepping up to make the long-term investments necessary to help coffee-farming families thrive," Nadworny added.

To learn more about the great work Food 4 Farmers is doing click here.

More soon,
Hannah Popish
Ben Guiles, Counter Culture CoffeeHannah Popish talked with Ben Guiles, who works with Counter Culture in Philadelphia in Wholesale Technical Services, about his recent use of the company Green Fund. The Green Fund has existed since 2011 and is a fund wherein employees are able to apply up to $500 in matching funds for a sustainability-related initiative of their choosing. At its inception Green Buyer and Sustainability Manager Kim Elena Ionescu said the following:  “We hope that this Green Fund, like other life-enhancing benefits such as comprehensive health care coverage and matching 401(k) investments, contributes to a healthier workplace, a better work/life balance for our employees, and ultimately, a more successful and sustainable business.” To date we have had a wide range of topics covered, including applications related to physical fitness, home gardens, and green home appliances.

As a recent Green Fund approval, Ben and Hannah took a moment to discuss his latest endeavor—building his second bike from the ground up.

Why build a bike instead of purchasing a new one?

In addition to satisfying the unique requirements I placed upon my new ride, building this bike myself has been a very gratifying process, and I recommend it to anyone. A bicycle may seem intimidatingly mechanical, but its bits are very straightforward in principle and they’re mostly all out in the open, inviting even the slightly curious to understand its workings, and pick up a wrench. So the joy of owning a bicycle can actually extend beyond simply riding it. By understanding how it works, and building or maintaining one on your own, you strengthen your sense of independence, and feel a connection to a tangible object in our universe.

What’s the most sustainable thing about bike riding?

Bike advocates rightly like to talk about the intersection of sustainability with bike riding: you use less fossil fuel, you spend less money, you become a fitter, healthier person, etc. All of this is completely true and wonderful about a lifestyle filled with bike rides. But what is often overlooked and left unsaid in the conversation is joy. Joy is such a crucial facet of riding a bicycle, and so essential to the long-term sustainability of cycling as a lifestyle. [Yet] how often is sustainability viewed in terms of deprivation?

Cycling brings me a deep abiding joy, which may be counterintuitive to an outsider. I glide past gridlock, face in the wind like a dog hanging his head out the car window, and even on those sweaty uphills I feel that great sense of independence, accomplishment, and freedom that comes with overcoming an obstacle under one’s own power. A bike opens up the entire city and surrounding area to me, unbeholden to public transit schedules and delays, or parking, gas costs, and (most) traffic.

So living sustainably actually has everything to do with joy, and relatively little to do with deprivation. The fact that Counter Culture’s coffee is threefold sustainable and some of the yummiest, most-joy-inducing out there is no accident; one aspect is essential to the other. Such is also the case for a sustainable approach to cycling as a lifestyle.

If you could tell someone who was nervous about bike riding—I’m asking for a friend—one thing about taking the plunge, what would you tell them?

Tell your *ahem* friend that she is not alone in being a little anxious about leaving the comfort of a metal box while traveling the roads. You can also tell her that a little caution and respect for the risks of cycling—particularly bike commuting—are a healthy thing to adopt and be ever mindful of. However, cycling is a pretty vast universe, with many levels of risk, challenge, and exertion left completely up to your—sorry, “her”—preference and degree of comfort. Stick to trails until you get the hang of it. Learn to ride in traffic on quieter streets, with friends who aren’t new to it. Know the laws in your state and obey them. Be courteous to drivers, even when they aren’t. Get tips from local bike-advocacy organizations. Use lights. Wear a helmet. (Seriously. Do it.)
But you asked me to say *one* thing, so I’ll boil it down to this: like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, you choose your own adventure.
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
Chelsea in her beekeeping gearChelsea Thoumsin, our local customer service representative in Philadelphia, wrote to us excited about the success she has had with beekeeping—a hobby that she has continued to fund in part with support from Counter Culture’s Green Fund. Here is some buzz around the hobby in Chelsea’s own words:

This is my second year beekeeping. Last year, I helped Paul, bee enthusiast and coffee fan, with his two Langstroth hives in the suburbs and learned a lot as an "apprentice." Back in April, we moved one of the hives—we shall call it the Western hive from here on out—from the suburbs of Berwyn, approximately 20 miles away, to Center City, Philadelphia.

Since the Western hive was basically a full hive already with probably 30,000 bees post-winter, they had relatively little issue starting up in their new habitat. I'm sure the first couple weeks were really confusing, as bees have a little GPS system in their heads and are very much creatures of habit when it comes to favorite food and water sources. Reorienting is serious work. I remember LOTS of bees just flying around in circles during these first weeks trying to reprogram their paths. The human equivalent would be if one were to be blindfolded and dropped off without Google Maps or even a compass. Go ahead! Find your way home.

It's been almost four months since the hives were set up, and it's still hard for me to believe that they're up and running on a balcony in a relatively small space. I like to call it "EXTREME URBAN BEEKEEPING" (mostly in jest). A few weeks ago, I was able to harvest about three gallons of honey from the Western hive. The sales of that honey, along with the awesome Green Fund money supply, has practically covered all beekeeping expenses up to this point.

After my latest inspection or biweekly check-in on the general health of the bees, I decided to make a split with the Western hive. This hive is so strong and healthy that I would love to keep that going. I ordered more materials and built out another hive last week. I took five or so frames of brood (baby bees), food, some nurse bees, and the Western queen, put them into the new hive body and let them go from there. The Western hive will make another queen, and they'll be good to go before wintertime. That's the plan, anyway.

Andrew of Farm51 has been a really great friend and bee-resource, as well. We have helped each other a lot in the bee-scape of things.
Chelsea's bees from the Western hive
It feels really great to have such good support in doing this. Even though I've done all I could with my Green Fund dollars, I really don't think I could have gotten this far this easily without the fund. For reference, one hive's materials from start to finish usually ends up being about $500. As you gain more experience, you can trim some of the fat off this cost, but the woodenware and shipping of goods alone is usually a couple hundred bucks.

If you have any questions at all about what I'm up to with the bees, please reach out. I'm learning more all the time, and it's fascinating to see these ladies—and gents, can't forget the drones—work so hard for the greater purpose of their bee-community.