You are here

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.
When I first started in this position as Sustainability Manager a few months ago, I knew that one of my biggest tasks would be strengthening our internal sustainability. As I've mentioned before, we've spent a lot of our efforts up to this point focusing on origin programs. It's not that we didn't make any progress on our own operations, it just tended to happen in fits and starts, without an overarching plan. I thought all we needed to do was put some systems into place and and off we'd go.

Now, a few months older and wiser, I realized my plan wasn't really matching up with what I've talked about in almost every blog post: continuous improvement. Sure, if we put systems into place, I think we'd undoubtedly make some gains in areas like waste reduction, but, once those systems were up and running, those gains would eventually stagnate.

We started off 2015 asking every team to come up with a sustainability goal, and our teams came up with some great project ideas. As my understanding of sustainability at Counter Culture grew, I realized that, in asking for these team goals, we'd potentially set ourselves up for a bunch of one-time projects that would only last a year in duration. Not exactly continuous improvement. Instead, we asked the teams to reimagine their goals as initiatives—something that might start as a project, but ends up changing the way that team does day-to-day business. In other words, something that's cumulative as opposed to being finite.

These are Counter Culture's 2015 Team Sustainability Initiatives:

Team 2015 Initiative
Operations Conduct a waste audit and use the results of this audit to create a bin map and mini-training for the team
Support Measure waste, compost, and recycling at the regional training centers, creating a tracking system and entering data each month
Sales Work with the Tech team to classify the equipment Counter Culture sells based upon efficiency of water and energy use; Incorporate this information into sales conversations and make recommendations on how to use equipment most efficiently
Sustainability/IT/Finance/HR Develop a new employee benefit around volunteer hours
Coffee Ensure that every long term coffee-buying relationship has a yearly environmental improvement goal
Counter Intelligence Contextualize resource use in labs by incorporating usage data into presentations and choosing one sustainability metric for each lab
Marketing Amend their editorial calendar for site posts, email newsletters, and social media to include sustainability items on a regular schedule

If these initiatives work as planned, our internal operations will become increasingly sustainable year over year. Equally as important, every team gets the opportunity to get involved with sustainability, and, knowing my co-workers, that's something everyone will appreciate.
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!

A few weeks ago, I read an article about the purported end of the farm-to-table movement in the restaurant industry. According to the author, farm-to-table has been taken too far and restaurant-goers want to go back to ordering off of a menu without being “berated” by an extensive explanation of where their food is from. The article argued that consumers in this situation still care whether their food is sustainable, but they want to be able trust that the restaurant is sourcing it sustainably without hearing about any of their actual sourcing practices.

Setting aside my doubts as to how the article’s author reached his “the farm-to-table trend is over” conclusion, I was pretty rankled by his assertion that people are still supposed to care where their food comes from, just not enough to ask that the restaurant tell them. How is a consumer supposed to develop trust in the restaurant’s sourcing practices without any information on which to base this decision? For me, the only two possible outcomes in this scenario are that the restaurant gives me access to information about how they source their food or I decide that I don’t care if my food is sustainably grown for that particular meal. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made choice number two plenty of times, but I’d prefer choice number one for both my food and my coffee.

My job would be much easier if I could just say “trust us, our coffee is sustainable.” At Counter Culture, however, we want to make it as easy as possible to make choice number one and I think that means giving consumers as much information about the coffee as we can. We’ve experimented with a few different ways of sharing this information over the years, so I’d like to talk a little about where you can find it now and what we’re planning for the future.

Last week, we published our 2014 Annual Report, which gives a snapshot into Counter Culture as a whole. The information in the report isn’t meant to be comprehensive or detailed, but as a way to get an idea of the big picture. We’ve also published a few reports, under different titles over the years, to supplement the annual report, including the Sustainability, Direct Trade, and Transparency Reports. The change of nomenclature has been a bit confusing but the general information has stayed the same—trying to describe where and who we buy coffee from and the nature of those relationships. The level of detail included in these reports has gradually increased and this trend will continue with the summer release of our 2014 Transparency Report, giving more information about more coffees than we ever have before. With the publication of the 2015 Transparency Report, we hope to provide information on every single coffee we bought in 2015. Although this arguably covers the coffee we buy, I’m still thinking through how to best convey information about Counter Culture’s internal practices. I’ll be publishing our 2014 carbon footprint results in the next few weeks and I hope I can gradually add more metrics to this report for a more comprehensive look at our internal sustainability.

I love making graphs more than most, but I’ll admit that it’s challenging to convey all of this information in a digestible format. I’ll share the way I see these reports playing a role using the example of a new seasonal blend we released on Friday: Line Drawing. Line Drawing is so named because it blends coffees from two countries, Colombia and Kenya, where farmers have traditionally relied on chemical fertilizer inputs for coffee farming. In the case of the two coffees used for this blend, however, the communities are making big strides to produce and use more organic inputs—a great example of movement along the sustainability continuum. If we draw lines in the sand like defining sustainability through organic certification only, we’re creating a false dichotomy that doesn’t support these incremental successes. I hope folks see Line Drawing on our offering list and go to the product page to read about the coffee in more detail. I hope they then ask themselves why they should trust Counter Culture on how sustainable this coffee is, leading them to dig into our Annual Report, Transparency Report, Carbon Footprint Report, etc. to decide for themselves whether that trust is justified.
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!

Over the duration of this series, I've talked a lot about "moving along the continuum" or "moving along the spectrum" in reference to how we think about sustainability. I'd like to dive into this idea a little deeper, because it applies to how we think about a lot of things Counter Culture—not just sustainability.

Whether it's rolling out a new employee program or buying a coffee for the first time, we realize that not everything's going to be perfect at the outset of a project or relationship. There's a lot of grey area between black and white, and that leaves room for recognizing potential and working on continuous improvement. In an effort to make this less of an abstract idea, I want to spend the next few posts giving tangible examples of where we've been able to work successfully in this grey area to successfully move along the spectrum towards more sustainable practices. I'll start this exploration with a few internal projects where movement along the spectrum is easiest to measure and the outcomes easiest to control.

One of the initiatives we've worked on for a long time is diverting waste from the landfill, both in our operations and as part of our customer packaging. At the roastery in Durham, we generate the usual office trash in addition to lots of waste from green coffee packaging, coffee roasting, and coffee tasting—mainly bags, chaff, and lots of coffee grounds. We've recycled our cardboard for a long time, but it wasn't until we starting composting in 2009 that we had a good way to dispose of all of the coffee grounds and food waste we generate.

That was a big step forward, but still left us with a lots of burlap bags (used in shipping green coffee), GrainPro bags (a plastic bag used as an air-tight/gas-tight liner inside inside of the burlap bags), and chaff (papery seed casing that comes off of coffee beans when roasted). We struggled for a long time with how to divert the GrainPro bags from the trash and finally found an unlikely partner in Walmart. Walmart collects large amounts of used bags from their customers and was willing to add our bags to the mix they give to Trex, a company that creates plastic lumber.

We've also struggled with how to get rid of our burlap bags and chaff—both of which are potentially great farming inputs that we'd prefer be used for that purpose instead of sent to the commercial composter. In just the last month, we've finally found a farm partner who can pick up the burlap and chaff regularly and for whom these are useful inputs. I list these successes not because I think they're particularly praise-worthy, but because I want folks to realize that our movement towards maximum landfill diversion has taken years, and that the movement along the spectrum in this case, while tangible, has been incremental.

We have a similar story with our packaging for the coffee that we sell retail and wholesale. Freshly roasted coffee needs to put in a container that will protect it from going stale while also allowing for naturally occurring carbon dioxide to escape. For a long time, this meant foil-lined bags, which were great at protecting the coffee but had no other home except the landfill. Finally, after years of discussion and product testing, we were able to switch our retail-sized coffee bag to a compostable material last year. Again, a big step forward, but it still leaves room for improvement. We have plans to switch our 1.5-pound bags to compostable material this summer, but we haven't yet found a solution for our 5-pound bags or the non-compostable label stickers, degassing valves, or tin-ties that go on each bag.

Moving along the spectrum from unsustainable towards sustainable can feel daunting, because so much time is spent making small steps towards a goal that can be far away. On the positive side, most of the success of the steps we make internally can be measured, and that makes it easier to see and communicate progress.

In the next post, I'll talk about "moving along the spectrum" as it relates to our producer-partners and how this concept gets a little messier when measurement isn't quite so easy.
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.
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.