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Effective feedback loops are integral to continuous improvement in our supply chain.At Counter Culture, we talk a lot about transparency and partnership in relation to how we buy coffee. Both are essential to improving the quality and sustainability of the coffees we purchase in direct ways: Transparency builds trust and trust helps us build the partnerships that make continuous improvement possible. As I've been learning more about how different every coffee supply chain looks, it dawned on me that both transparency and partnerships are vital to our Purchasing Principles for a less-obvious, but equally necessary reason: They help us create feedback loops.

While important to building relationships, feedback in the form of direct communications via phone, email, etc., tends to be qualitative information and is hard to achieve with every individual farmer. On the other hand, numbers—like prices and cupping scores—give more-objective feedback and can be easily disseminated to large groups of people without language or translation barriers. A big part of making coffee better is experimentation, and, without the expertise or facilities to cup their coffee, farmers need feedback to know whether the changes they made were beneficial.

I don't want to give the impression that numbers like prices and cupping scores are the ultimate feedback mechanism. Although we try to tie price to quality as much as possible when buying coffee, the price we pay reflects other variables, as well. For example, we might pay more for a coffee than its quality score dictates if that farm is a good long-term partner—even if they had lower quality because of bad weather. Combining smaller parcels of coffee presents another issue. Farmers don't often have access to price and score on an individual level when their lots are mixed in with others from their community before cupping and scoring takes place. In some cases, numeric feedback exists but is never communicated to producers by other people in the supply chain.

How do we fix these issues to give better feedback? Sometimes what's needed to improve the quality or sustainability of a coffee are other forms of positive reinforcement—for example, paying farmers based on the ripeness and uniformity of the coffee fruit they sell when they aren't able to get individual quality scores. Other times, existing forms of feedback just need to be amplified to make sure they reach farmers, and that will require us to lean heavily on our supply chain partners. For important areas where we want to push and measure improvement—like sustainability—effective feedback and reporting don't necessarily exist. And it's on us to develop them.

Coffee farming involves a huge number of variables and clear feedback is vital to giving farmers the information they need to continuously improve the quality and sustainability of their coffee. Being transparent by sharing data and ensuring that it gets to growers through strong partnerships are what make those feedback loops functional.

Stay tuned for more exciting updates!

Meredith Taylor

POSTED IN: sustainability
Tim Hill (right), Counter Culture Coffee coffee buyer

A few weeks ago, I was part of a meeting with other coffee roasters in which one company kept referring to producers as "suppliers." In a strict definitional sense that's true, but the word "suppliers" struck me as negative. I think part of that has to do with my past—I interned in college for a large auto manufacturer that had hundreds of parts "suppliers"—and part has to do with our philosophy that we're in long-term partnerships with producers and others in the coffee-supply chain.

In my mind, the word partnership means working together toward a shared purpose. For our supply chain, that purpose is high-quality coffee grown sustainably. A steering wheel supplier is generally only concerned with making a functioning part that fits their buyer's specifications. Their purpose is to make a high-quality steering wheel—whether or not that wheel contributes to the overall quality of the final car is controlled by the buyer. In our supply chains, everyone is dealing with a single product the whole way through. If one of those steps is done poorly, there's no hiding it in a bigger final product. In other words, if we're not all sharing the same end goal—high-quality coffee grown sustainably—it doesn't work.

For our purchasing model to work, we first have to identify partners who are willing to commit to that shared purpose. On a recent trip I took to the Coordinadora de Organizaciones de Desarrollo de Concepción Huista co-op in Guatemala, for example, we talked through two initiatives that are great examples of this shared purpose: getting drier coffee and projects to help farmers adapt to climate change.

Our partners include not only the production end of the supply chain, but the folks who make our coffee, as well. If a wholesale customer isn't committed to brewing great coffee, then the high-quality aspect of that shared purpose is lost. We also need folks who are willing to communicate. Communication is key to coordination—something that's especially important in a global supply chain. Communication is also key to making improvements. We don't see our partners as immediately interchangeable suppliers. Issues constantly arise with an agricultural product that has to be transported around the world, and we wouldn't be a very good partner if we just dropped someone every time something went wrong.

That brings me to how we can be better partners. What I've laid out is the ideal, and I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge our need to improve on these aspects, as well. One of the things we're working on is better communication with our wholesale partners—setting regular meeting schedules to make sure that we're both informed about what the other is doing.

On the other end of the supply chain, we're working with producers to set yearly quality and sustainability goals. These goals identify what we'd like to see improve for each coffee. These are not things that need to change in order for us to buy coffee from those producers next year, rather they're a way for us to better-target what we can work on together season to season.

We're also working on better ways to measure and track how sustainably a coffee is grown as a way for both us and producers to have more tangible evidence of progress.

Stay tuned for more exciting updates!

Meredith Taylor

A look back at 2015 in sustainability at Counter Culture Coffee.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
Our company meeting in August 2015!We were first introduced to the Durham Living Wage Project back in May during our 2015 Sustainable Spring event series. Our support team was asked to find businesses or organizations in their communities doing inspiring work in sustainability and invite them to speak at our training centers. Our team here in Durham invited Lindsay Moriarty and Rob Gillespie from Monuts Donuts to speak, and, I must admit, I was a little skeptical. I'd heard about Monuts long before moving to Durham—they're a local favorite here—but I wondered what they would have to say aside from some tips on running a restaurant sustainably. Instead, I was awesomely surprised when Lindsay and Rob focused their presentation on the Durham Living Wage Project and introduced me to an aspect of social sustainability that I hadn't previously considered.

A living wage is the amount of income needed for one person to meet their basic needs without public or private assistance. The North Carolina minimum wage is $7.25/hour, for example, while the living wage for Durham, calculated by the city using a methodology tied to the federal poverty level, is $12.53/hour. To put it another way, that's the difference between earning $15,000 a year and $25,000 a year. The Durham Living Wage Project is a voluntary program that local businesses can join to certify that they pay all of their employees at least $12.53/hour. The minimum is $11.03/hour for employees with employer-provided health insurance or where employees are reimbursed for at least 50% of their cost of health insurance.

After spending many years on the front lines of the service industry in DC, I left Monuts' presentation thinking, "That's so cool! I wonder if most of my friends in the DC service industry get paid anything near the living wage for that region?" I was also feeling a bit guilty that I couldn't leave the presentation and say, with any degree of certainty, that Counter Culture paid a living wage. As a company, we talk a lot about projects we support at origin and ways we're working to reduce our environmental impact, but what if we weren't even paying our own employees a living wage? To say that's not sustainable is an understatement.

To my relief, I looked into the certification more, found out that we do meet the Durham Living Wage Project's requirements and joined the project. The whole process taught me two things about sustainability: Never stop digging into your company's own practices, and always look to other businesses for new ideas. Without Monuts, I'm not sure if the Durham Living Wage Project would have appeared on my radar, and I'm grateful to them and other certified businesses in Durham for setting such a good example for us to follow.

Meredith Taylor
Since 2002, coffee has been a major export for East Timor.Sustainability Manager Meredith Taylor visited East Timor last month. It was the first time anyone from Counter Culture has visited the country. Since 2002, coffee has been a major export for East Timor, and Meredith was excited for the opportunity to check out this under-the-radar origin.

Read Meredith's trip report on Flickr.

Pre-competitive collaboration is among the emerging trends in coffee industry sustainability efforts.I started working in coffee a bit accidentally—happening upon a job as a barista until I "figured out what I really wanted to be." After a few years on the job, my former-boss here at Counter Culture, Kim Ionescu, suggested I apply for the Specialty Coffee Association of America's Sustainability Council. Being on the council opened my eyes to how other folks were thinking about the intersection of sustainability and coffee, and I realized I'd found my career path after all. Throughout my time as a barista, shop manager, and then in customer service for Counter Culture, I always came back from industry events that touch on sustainability with a renewed energy—inspired by the prevailing spirit of idealism and collaboration.

I'm happy to say that this feeling hasn't waned in my new position as Counter Culture's Sustainability Manager. I recently had the fortune of experiencing it once again at the National Coffee Association's (NCA's) Sustainability Summit. I participated in the conference itself, as well as some side meetings, and was struck by the convergence of these separate groups on what's needed to make the coffee industry more sustainable and how to move the sector forward. I'm one of those people who always likes to know the big picture on a topic, and, in that spirit, I'd like to share two of the trends I observed in progress at this summit:

Working Toward an Industry Definition of "Sustainable Coffee"
As I said in my NCA presentation, it's not that the lack of an industry-wide definition of "sustainable coffee" is stopping us from working on the issues we know are related—climate change, food security, and environmental protection to name a few. Instead, the lack of a definition makes it hard to establish a baseline for whether initiatives we try are, in fact, making coffee more sustainable. The lack of a shared definition also makes it difficult to communicate to consumers whether or not the coffee they're buying is sustainable or at least moving in that direction. The exciting news on this front is that there's a new industry-wide initiative in the works that's working to propose a definition. I really hope Counter Culture will be involved with this work and that I can write about what's sure-to-be a messy-but-exhilarating process on this blog!

Pre-Competitive Collaboration
Another trend tied very closely to defining sustainable coffee is working with other companies, even direct competitors, on projects in communities where coffee is grown and processed. As a roaster, for example, we share many supply chain partners with other roasters, and there's a growing realization that we can make a bigger impact on issues like food security in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, for example, if we pool resources with other folks also sourcing coffee in that region.

If we're all working within a shared industry vision of what sustainable coffee is, we can design research and implement shared projects that are much-better coordinated across coffee-growing regions instead of doing one-off projects within our own supply chains. For example, the Coalition for Coffee Communities, of which Counter Culture is a member, is working on a landscape survey and gap analysis project in Jinotega, Nicaragua, and the results will help companies figure out how best to work collaboratively in that region. Hopefully, this will lead to producers, exporters, importers, non-governmental organizations, and government bodies all working together with shared metrics and goals—something that sounds simple, but hasn't been the model in the coffee industry in the past.

I came back from the NCA Summit with an enormous amount of renewed energy and a great reminder of why I work in coffee: The industry is full of people dedicated to sustainability—regardless of their job title—and we're nothing if not relentlessly ideal. A sustainable coffee industry has the potential to make a huge global impact, and I'm excited for what we'll be able to accomplish working together.

Meredith Taylor
We've been working hard over the last few weeks to prepare our upcoming 2014 Transparency Report. One of the metrics we include every year in this report is the "FOB" price paid for each coffee. Following an internal review of the draft report this week, I got some really good questions about this metric merit a post on the topic of price transparency.

FOB stands for "Free On Board" and represents the price paid for a coffee at the point of export, when it is ready to be loaded onto a ship at port. In terms of the coffee supply chain, it's a point that falls somewhere in the middle between what the farmer gets paid and what Counter Culture pays. This is because there are a number of supply-chain steps between us and the farmer: the mill, exporter, international shipper, importer, warehouser, and domestic shipper to name a few. Each of these steps serves a purpose, and each adds cost to a coffee. The wrinkle is that every coffee supply chain is different: Sometimes the mill and the exporter are the same entity; sometimes the coffee comes through a co-op; etc. There are also important distinctions at the farm level between a farmer who does their own processing and a farmer that delivers coffee cherries to a mill, for example. To compare them on the same standard would be confusing. The only point in the supply chain that is guaranteed to happen for every coffee is that it will get on a boat bound for the U.S., and that's why the FOB price is the standard reporting metric in the coffee industry.

The problem with the FOB price metric is that it's neither what the farmer gets paid for coffee, nor the price Counter Culture pays for green coffee. So why do we use it? Isn't knowing what the farmer got paid what we're really after? Well, yes. And, in many cases, we do know how much the farmer actually got paid. But how is knowing that a farmer in Burundi got paid $3.00/lb helpful? How is knowing that or the FOB price helpful, or meaningful across local (country) and international markets? My point is this: Knowing what the farmer gets paid isn't meaningful without a whole lot of context. What we really want to get at is fairness. Is that farmer getting paid a fair share of the final retail price for their contribution to that coffee's supply chain?

The answer to that question is in traceability. Any single price point in the coffee supply chain doesn't mean much; what's really important is how all of the pieces fit together. Can we look at a coffee's supply chain, trace the costs that get added to it between the farmer and Counter Culture, and justify those price points?

Our coffee-buying philosophy is to build supply-chain relationships and use them to push the quality and sustainability of coffees. This philosophy doesn't work unless everyone in the supply chain is committed to it as well. For example, let's say a coffee will taste better if we can speed up the time between harvest and shipment to Counter Culture. Everyone in the supply chain will need to be involved to make that happen and will likely incur cost to do so. If we're successful, everyone should also share in that success, and the only way we can be sure that's happening is through traceability.

Right now, we're reporting the FOB price because, as a common industry-wide metric, that allows you to compare us to other companies. That's just the beginning of what we'd like to do. To be able to incentivize quality and sustainability improvements, to fill in that context that's missing with FOB price, we need to be able to trace price throughout every coffee's supply chain. Then, we need to figure out how to report on that traceability. The forthcoming 2014 Transparency Report is the first step of many in that direction.

Price transparency is a complicated topic, and what I've laid out here only scratches the surface. In a future post, I'll fill in some of the details I've left out here—with specific examples from our supply chains and how traceability has played an important part in those examples.
We believe that forming relationships across the coffee supply chain is the best way to improve coffee quality and sustainability. These buying relationships are similar to social relationships in that the most successful ones are built on good communication and reciprocity. We ask a lot from the people who grow our coffee, and, in turn, we want to support them in what they need to have sustainable livelihoods.

We created our Seeds program in 2010 as a formal mechanism to support coffee-growing communities. Getting high quality coffee from a farmer or co-op isn't just the result of meticulous growing and processing—it requires a strong community to support those growers. Seeds supports social and environmental projects that work to strengthen the coffee communities where we buy coffee. We support 4–5 projects per year, chosen from applications submitted by our growing partners.

Our coffee department's recent travels have given us the opportunity to check in on two Seeds-funded projects from years past: Jovenes Lideres at CENFROCAFE in Peru and the Baroida Plantation School in Papua New Guinea.

We've worked with CENFROCAFE cooperative in San Ignacio, Peru, since 2007. Its members produce our Valle del Santuario, Chirinos, and Huabal coffees. In 2011, CENFRO applied for Seeds funding to start a Jovenes Lideres or Youth Leaders program. By training youth to offer quality control and technical agricultural assistance, co-op leaders hoped to combat some of the issues facing youth in many rural coffee communities: lack of opportunities for jobs and educational development. These issues have lead to high levels of immigration away from rural areas to cities—and sometimes to other countries. Recognizing the need to provide attractive opportunities for the rural youth in their communities, CENFRO developed a set of training programs to provide them with coffee-related job training.

Back from visiting CENFRO just over a week ago, our head roaster Ben Horner had the opportunity to meet two "jovenes" working for the co-op as cuppers after completing quality control training. In creating this program to identify and train youth leaders, CENFRO is a great example of a progressive and forward-thinking co-op.

"With the Jovenes program, CENFROCAFE has identified two areas that are vital to their long-term growth and success: technical assistance on farms and quality analysis in the lab," Ben observed. "The co-op has invested in developing this knowledge and these skills in a select group of their youngest members. It's rare and very impressive to see an organization with such far-sighted priorities. And this is a big reason why we've worked with CENFRO for so long: They're a very progressive cooperative.”

Since we began buying from them in 2010, Chris and Melody Colbran—owners of the Baroida farm in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea—have put a lot of work into improving their coffees, Baroida and Tairora. This relationship is unique in that we get one coffee, Baroida, harvested from the Colbran's own trees, and another coffee, Tairora, harvested from farms in the surrounding villages. The Colbrans recognize that this tie between the Baroida estate and surrounding villages is important and built a school on their property in 2009 to support the coffee growing communities in the area. While they've completed construction and are currently using the school, they've had trouble attracting good teachers willing to travel to and live in this isolated area of Papua New Guinea.

The Colbrans need somewhere for teachers to live near the school and applied for Seeds funding in 2015 to construct teacher housing. When Counter Culture’s head buyer Tim visited the Colbrans in July, they were just getting started on the teacher housing and hope to have most of the buildout complete by the end of the year.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to support and build resilient coffee communities, and that work is bigger than what Counter Culture can accomplish through the Seeds program. Recognizing the need for more collaboration to tackle some of the big issues like hunger and climate change adaptation, we’re working on forming partnerships with other like-minded roasters and I’ll be writing about that soon. Even with those large-scale efforts, however, it’s important to us that we continue to support our partners and to be part of the give and take that comes with any good relationship.