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Opinion: An Anti-Greenwashing Checklist for Coffee Practitioners

misty rainforest jungle

I spend a lot of time trying to understand how the coffee sustainability sector, which I know firsthand is full of smart, ambitious, well-intentioned people, so often falls short of our collective goals. My colleagues and I care deeply about making change, so why does it feel that the greatest challenges that coffee faces are beyond our grasp?

Why does sustainability work consistently fail to engage the vast majority of coffee farmers, particularly the farmers who need our support most? Why is growing coffee becoming an increasingly unappealing option to young people in communities where it has been a staple crop for generations? Why are certifications gaining ground despite ample evidence that they fail to deliver impact? Why do we struggle to justify our work in the eyes of the public when we know how needed it is?

I recently stumbled upon an idea that I think may be a start to answering these questions. It was a quote by journalist and author Upton Sinclair:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

This got me thinking: What are our biases? Are there ways in which our thinking about the challenges facing coffee are shaped by our knowledge of who is funding our work? Are we challenging the sector, respectfully but openly, when we have perspectives that they need to hear, or are we subservient because we’re afraid of alienating our donors? Is there any possible model for funding our work that wouldn’t bias us?

My mind went immediately to the watchdog organizations. Who is funding the NGOs that are supposed to keep the coffee sector honest and push us to take a long-term view? These organizations should be our sector’s cops and conscience, but they have to raise their budgets annually just like anybody else, which makes them susceptible to just the kind of biased thinking that Sinclair warns us about.

We shouldn’t be surprised that corporate partners expect something in return for their investments in NGOs. Publicly held corporations are legally bound to generate the greatest possible profit for their stakeholders, and their sustainability programs are not exempt from that obligation. And, now that public donors like USAID are increasingly taking their cues from industry, we shouldn’t be surprised that an ever-growing portion of available funding is directed at addressing business needs.

We should, however, think long and hard about how a given partnership affects our autonomy and our thought processes. And just as we are adjusting to the ways that corporations think and speak, we should find ways to help them understand our outlook on the world, and why some of our work is vital even if it can’t be captured by ROI.

I’ve created a mental checklist to use when I think about partnerships, as a way of making sure that my salary doesn’t keep me from understanding essential facts:

  • Would I feel comfortable being honest with this donor? Have they displayed an openness to feedback, a desire to learn together, and an understanding of the language of sustainability? Is everyone being honest from day one about what we’re getting out of the partnership?
  • Does this program serve farmers, industry, or both? Have we consulted thoroughly with farmers to ensure that we’re meeting their real needs?
  • Could someone argue in good faith that the project is greenwashing? How would I respond to such an accusation?
  • How does this project shape the overall revenue mix of my work? Am I so reliant on any one donor, or even any one type of donor (public, corporate, foundation, or individual), that I would hesitate to do the right thing for farmers for fear of losing donors’ favor?
  • How did the donor set their priorities? What business need are they meeting in supporting sustainability work?
  • Do I think the donor has a fundamental respect for the role of sustainability NGOs and an understanding of why our work matters?

I can’t fully remove bias in my thinking — none of us can — but this feels like a step in the right direction.

How do you evaluate partnerships? Do you have any tips to share?


1 Comment

Michael Drummond

Jan, you raise some interesting questions … questions that challenge every industry, indeed every group of people anywhere in the World. I certainly agree that there is no absolute answer … that said, the language you use in your article goes some way to identifying one of the significant underlying causes of conlicts of interest (and the consequential bias that manifest therefrom) … but also, perhaps, a possible path to resolution … in your article you refer to an ‘us and them’ paradigm … by definition, segmenting an industry (or a group) creates perspectives of competing (self) interest thereby creating the environment for conflicts (of these interests) to arise.

As an alternative, a truly collaborative approach to coffee industry sustainability (whereby all stakeholders views are sourced and (more importantly) acknowledged as legitimate (notwithstanding that they may be misaligned) allows one to form holistic opinions that cannot be biased (given that these opinions incorporate all perspectives).

Why should NGOs be considered industry cops? That view assumes that there are industry criminals … again creating us v them.

Why can’t we see the industry as an ecosystem … where everyone has their place (forests have predators, prey as well as pests and parasites). not all parts of an ecosystem evolve at the same time and speed (parts will be in decline while other parts are on the ascent … Death and decay often is necessary to fuel new growth and evolution).

Perhaps the less sustainable / less desirable elements of the Coffee industry are there to galvanise the aspirational and altruisic elements into striving for (and driving) change (and perhaps to ensure that those altruisic elements down evolve into irrelevance becoming so elitist and inflexible that they become tyrranical intellectual dictatorships that ostracise and vilify anyone who doesn’t slavishly adopt their philosophies and values?

As I say, even mould has a place in nature.

I applaude your honesty and self-awareness … but I wonder, with every respect, if over-complicating the problem is not just another way of choosing not to understand because salaries depend on the conflict never being resolved?

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