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Why transparency? If we had to pick a one-word answer: "authenticity." In the last post, I talked about why I think reporting is so important and what we have planned for the future of our own reporting. As I dived into planning for the upcoming 2014 Transparency Report with our coffee and marketing teams this week, I was asked a really important question by both teams, "What are we trying to convey with this report?" It's a fair question and one that I think merits some consideration.

I came across an article from a sustainable business news site this week titled something like, "Would You Want to Read Your Company's Sustainability Report?" Again, a fair question and a good call out against the multi-page, text-heavy reports that no one—including people who work for the company—usually reads.

So why is transparency important to us at Counter Culture? And how do I create a report that conveys the answers to that question in a clear and engaging way? For me, the first and most important step is to consider the audience. I'm not compiling a transparency report so that sustainability managers at other companies can look at and be impressed; my primary audience is our wholesale customers and coffee consumers who want to know more about our coffee.

Why transparency? If I had to pick a one-word answer, I would say authenticity. We work hard to build relationships in our supply chain, not only because they help secure our supply, increase our quality, and improve our sustainability, but also because they facilitate an information flow among participants throughout the buying process that's far from the norm. If we know a lot of information about our coffees, why not pass that on to our consumers? I won't pretend that a few transparency reports are going to cause a huge shift in consumer demand, but I think we owe it to our consumers to give them as much information as possible and to put that information into context so that they can make more-informed decisions about buying coffee. If we want to improve the sustainability of coffee supply chains in general, sharing information—both with other companies and with consumers—is a crucial step to get everyone on the same page.  

Presenting this information in a format that's engaging and, therefore, actually gets read is definitely challenging. We experimented with new format for our 2013 Transparency Report, but I think we still have room to evolve, especially as the amount of information we share increases. It's good to share information, but, especially for a product with a somewhat mystifying supply chain like coffee, I think that information has to be presented in a way that  actually makes it useful to consumers. I really like the visual approach of this transparency report from 49th Parallel, a coffee roaster in Vancouver. Consider this an inspiration for what's to come!

As I dig into the work required to deliver what I've been talking about with our carbon and transparency reports over the next few weeks, I'm going to take a short break from these regular blog posts so I can return with some awesome material. Talk to you soon!

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!

So far, we’ve focused on the sustainability impacts of growing, purchasing, and roasting coffee. This week I’d like to take a step back and talk about an issue that’s affecting the sustainability of the coffee industry as a whole: climate change. As Counter Culture works to measure and reduce our carbon footprint, we also recognize the need to account for the climate change effects that are already in motion and affecting coffee production. In this post, I’ll share two exciting climate change projects we’re working on.

High-quality coffee grows in pretty specific conditions. It needs heat during the day, cool evenings, and predictable rainfall to trigger the coffee trees to flower and produce fruit that ripens at the ideal rate. Coffee beans are the seeds of this fruit, and their flavor is highly dependent upon the right combination of these attributes. Often, these ideal conditions occur high on the slopes of mountains, generally above 1,400 meters.

Even very small changes in temperature and precipitation patterns can have a dramatic effect on the viability of coffee trees. For example, a few degree increase in temperature can raise the ideal altitude at which coffee can be grown on a particular mountain. With a temperature increase, a farmer who previously grew coffee at 1,400 meters might have to move further up the mountain—if a higher altitude exists—where that farmer may not own land or already have coffee trees planted.

In 2013, Counter Culture partnered with a group of students from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University to form a partnership around studying climate change impacts and adaptations for coffee farmers. In the summer of 2014, the students from this group went to three co-ops we work with: CODECH in Guatemala, ASORGANICA in Colombia, and CENFROCAFE in Peru. Using various methods to gather input from farmers, co-op leaders, technical experts, and government leaders, the students researched both the effects of climate change on coffee producers and their resiliency strategies. From the data they gathered, the students made specific recommendations of adaptation strategies to each co-op. For year two of the study, a new group of students will hone in on some of the best recommendations and spend two months on the ground with the co-ops doing feasibility studies.

We’ve really appreciated the alternative perspective and expertise of the students, and we’re looking forward to learning how we can best support these co-ops as they adapt to changing climatic conditions.

As I mentioned in the post about our internal sustainability operations, we’ve measured and offset our company’s greenhouse gas footprint since 2010, but I’m especially proud of the purchase we recently made for our 2012 and 2013 emissions. Not only are these offsets independently verified, they also directly benefit coffee farmers—two things we hadn’t been able to achieve in tandem in past years.

Through Cooperativa AMBIO, we purchased enough trees to offset 1,341 tonnes of CO2. The credit to grow these trees will be allocated to coffee farmers in the buffer zone of the Selva El Ocote Biosphere reserve, in Chiapas, Mexico. Not only will this help maintain a biodiversity hotspot, it also provides these farmers with source of income in addition to coffee. According to our contact at Cooperativa AMBIO, our purchase will affect an area roughly the size of 14 soccer fields and directly impact 6 coffee-growing families.

Beyond purchasing high-quality offsets, the next step is to reduce the amount of energy we use and the need to purchase offsets. While we’re on that journey, though, we’re committed to supporting great projects.
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
Roberto Salazar of Finca Pashapa in Honduras heard about our cookstove project and wanted to.
You may recall what a big hit our carbon footprint reduction project in Honduras was at the end of 2012. Not only were we excited about the offsets, but the excitement sparked a good deal of interest within producer communities, as well. For us, this is the ideal way for good work to get done: groups recognize a timely, valuable, well-organized project and non-governmental organization (NGO) when they see one and want to be a part of it all without us saying a word!
For weeks, after Roberto Salazar—a member of the cooperative COCAFELOL, which has provided us with delicious Honduran coffees in years past – heard about the clean cookstove project that we did with the COMSA cooperative in Marcala, he was emailing us asking how he could get in on the fun. We put Salazar's cooperative in touch with the contact at COMSA and with Trees, Water, and People—the NGO responsible for training on the construction of the stoves—and let the magic happen from there.
We recently received news from Roberto Salazar that they successfully made a partnership with Trees, Water, and People to build clean cookstoves. June 18 marked their first day of construction on 85 stoves with members of their cooperative.
Thanks to all for generating the enthusiasm, making connections, and getting it done!
Growers in Ethiopia at our compost workshop in March 2013.At the end of March, coffee buyers Kim Elena Ionescu and Tim Hill traveled together – which they almost never get to do; with so much Coffee Department travel, they usually travel separately – to Ethiopia for a compost workshop funded by our $1-per-pound allocation from our 2012 Holiday Blend and attended by 30 farmers from Haru, Idido, and Biloya.

"I was really excited about this trip!" acknowledged Kim Elena. "I was also really nervous, however, because I had committed Counter Culture to hosting a workshop in a place I had never been, in a language I didn't speak, on a subject outside my area of expertise."

Read Kim Elena's full trip report on Flickr offering annotated photos offer an overview of the two-day workshop, as well as a few glimpses into the activities at these cooperatives this time of year.

Javier Recinos at Finca Nueva Armenia in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
As you may have read, we've been streamlining our Seeds program – originally created to structure and define monetary contributions to projects that are not coffee-quality-specific but still benefit our coffee-producing partners and their communities. We narrowed the scope of projects and made the application more detailed so that recipients know what is expected, and we get a better sense of what is possible.
For the first time, we instated a fixed application period – January 31 through March 1 – instead of accepting submissions on a rolling basis. The results were encouraging!
We chose one project to fund completely and one to partially fund. The fully-funded project will be with La Voz que Clama en el Desierto, the cooperative in Guatemala that brings us Farmhouse coffee during the spring and summer months. Their project will focus on organic methods to prevent leaf rust and stop its spread.
The partially-funded project will be with our long-term partners the Recinos brothers of Finca Nueva Armenia, also in Guatemala. They came to us with the idea to fund a small herd of milking goats for their village. The goats will provide better and more affordable nutrition, as well as a small number of jobs for locals.
There will be one more funding cycle this year, June 1-July 31. Moving forward, we hope to encourage more geographic diversity. The projects funded this cycle will be completed within 8 to 12 months, and we will continue to share results and impact of the projects with you!
Until next time,
A guide for the report at the end of your Seeds project with Counter Culture Coffee
Your report can be in any format that is most useful and easiest for your group. We only request that each of the questions below is addressed. You can either fill out this form as your evaluation or you can submit something separate by email to Thank you! Please note that these responses will potentially be used by Counter Culture marketing to share the successes of your project with our wider audience. We hope that you will also share the results of the project with your producers and partners.
What were the original goals of your project?
Here please include a brief summary of what you attempted to achieve initially with Seeds funds.
What progress have you made toward these goals with the Seeds funds you received?
What are your measurable outcomes / how do you know it was a success?
In this section you might include number of people impacted by your project, organizations that you worked with to complete the project and thus new relationships that were formed, number of workshops held, etc.
What would you like to have done differently? What are some lessons you learned throughout the process?
In some cases where funding is expected from other sources and does not arrive, this can impact project outcomes. Other changes/lessons learned might include: we wished we had included more perspectives of participants in planning and carrying out the project for optimal success, improving communication with partner organizations, or better accounting for time and costs involved in the project.
What was the response of the community or group of producers involved?
Here is where we would like to hear any results of small scale surveys you may have given participants or just a summary of informal conversations had with those affected by the project. Also, as project organizer, your own impressions are key here. Quotations from participants and/or project leaders as well as photographs are welcome!
What will change in the future as a result of this project?
Obviously this will look different based on the type of project you did. This is the section where you can speak more to the big picture. Think about the impact at the family, community, or cooperative level. i.e. "families now have the necessary knowledge to diversify their agricultural practices and feed their families year round." Or, "Previously toxic runoff water from washing the coffee will now be able to go through a filtration process. Neighboring waters will no longer be at risk of contamination from our practices."
Are there any next steps for this project? If so, what are the next steps?
Next steps might include continuing to work with the non-profit on another initiative, following up with participants one year from now to see what changes have been made, or increasing the scale of the project to reach more individuals, or, building an addition to the wet mill or to the school building, etc.