[Note: This column is the first in an ongoing editorial collaboration with sustainability expert Cory Gilman focused on deconstructing the subject of sustainability in coffee. Follow the full series here.]
Despite all its shortcomings, the coffee industry was an early adopter and continues to be a pioneer in the field of sustainability.
Driven by a combination of deep professional passions, genuinely good intentions and enthusiastic consumer demand for differentiated and ethically derived products, coffee has historically leaned ahead of the curve towards sustainability as compared to, say, palm oil or rubber.
Back when a multi-stakeholder group set out to make coffee the world’s first sustainable commodity, momentum towards coffee’s potential to be a truly regenerative, equitable, win-win-win agricultural product was practically palpable. It felt like something was really happening — something transformative, something that would not only change this industry, but serve as a replicable roadmap for other agricultural goods.
As a young, eager international development novice, I was swept up in the excitement. We weren’t just going to change coffee; we were going to transform the global food system. Flash forward seven years and the term sustainable is more prominent than ever.
There are countless claims, labels, stories, partnerships, press releases and tools/indexes touting sustainability in coffee. Often, these claims surround one or more “things” organizations are doing to promote sustainability. These “things” might be installing solar panels on a roastery roof, facilitating agricultural trainings among farmers, focusing on certifications, donating money towards a school building, or simply repeating the sustainability claims of suppliers.
Yet without concrete definitions and sets of unified practices — or ideally, outcomes — to qualify “sustainable coffee,” this massive uptick in sustainability claims has rendered the phrase essentially meaningless.
Yet if there’s one thing I am sure of, it’s that the problem with sustainability is not that it doesn’t mean anything; it’s that it means everything. As a kind of catchall phrase, sustainability in coffee has in many cases lost its nuance and its authenticity. Its use is even sometimes prohibitive to the actual transformations that many people in the industry want.
So, if we want to know what sustainability is, the first step is coming to terms with what it is not. First, let’s parse the difference between sustainability and its clingy companions, corporate social responsibility and charity.
This is donating to a cause, organization or a project. It is generally hands-off, straightforward, and without commitment.
The charitable cause may be tied to a core business function, but not necessarily. A roaster may donate to help a cooperative rebuild its warehouse after a hurricane; it may contribute to a hospital fund for coffee communities in a remote region; or it may simply transfer funds to a local food bank.
Critically, philanthropic giving happens at the discretion of the business, and while it can have a positive PR influence, not participating in charitable donations is unlikely to create negative perceptions.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
This is a bit more complex, but centers on accountability to stakeholders and to the public. Often, there is intent to ‘do good’ but as the word “responsibility” implies, the focus is primarily on not doing harm.
Unlike with charity, CSR must involve the company’s business practices or orbit of influence, seeking to mitigate potentially negative effects on surrounding communities, environments, social landscapes and economies.
If a roasting facility is causing air pollution, CSR might entail switching to infrared burners or using afterburners, or maybe even installing high-quality air filtration in neighboring buildings where residents may be affected. When a coffee shop notices empty cups littering the opposite park, social responsibility might entail weekly cleanup programs.
While charitable contributes often have minimal impact on public perception, CSR is often driven by an imperative to protect against reputational risk — which is why it’s often housed under a communications or marketing department and targets opinion-shapers like media and activists as its core audience.
This is the big, nebulous kahuna. In its simplest terms, this is a comprehensive approach to ensuring the business can continue its existence — i.e. sustain itself — while maximizing long-term value for all stakeholders.
Sustainability is centered around materiality, encompassing the entire value chain from procurement to operations to consumers. Thus, if sustainability is housed in your marketing department, which it probably is, it’s time to re-evaluate.
Not a one-off project or individual initiative, sustainability comes from systemizing policies and practices to achieve tangible outcomes. Whereas CSR tends to be reflective, looking back to assess what societal contributions were made, sustainability is forward-thinking and future-oriented. Sustainability’s stakeholders are vast, diverse and not always human, including multiple environmental dimensions at origin all the way through last mile.
While there are certainly PR implications regarding sustainability, the concept is indeed practical, hinging on enduring viability through intentional investment in human and natural capital
To further parse the concept of sustainability, there are three commonly accepted primary dimensions to a sustainable business model:
Broadly speaking, this is natural resource stewardship. We’re talking about land, flora and fauna, water and air. Coffee is particularly multi-faceted when it comes to environmental sustainability. As a crop, coffee is connected to agricultural practices, forest protection and regeneration, biodiversity, water usage and much more.
Then there are core business operations, which affect environmental factors such as energy usage and efficiency, combustion byproducts, air quality, overall emissions, transportation, packaging and waste, to name a few.
The concept of social sustainability focuses on how a business supports employees, multiple supply chain actors, communities and society as a whole. At coffee’s origin, there’s often emphasis on win-wins to uphold business activities for years to come, such as cooperative building and capacity building. These things have the potential to support a multitude of social services, while providing essential services like education, healthcare and nutrition.
Social sustainability might also involve efforts to reduce forced labor or child labor and its root causes, technical skill building, equity and inclusion initiatives, and much, much more.
This dimension is one I am personally most invested in, particularly because it is often the most neglected — especially when it comes to sustainable sourcing.
High-level economic sustainability means all links along the value chain are able to generate enough revenue from coffee to facilitate ongoing production, business re-investment, meeting market demands and, critically, earning a living income.
There’s a lot of debate about what constitutes economic sustainability in coffee, particularly as it affects green coffee farmers and producers, and this is something I plan to explore in much more detail soon.
What does it all mean?
From these extremely broad definitions of sustainability, we can begin to address the myriad of questions that naturally arise: What’s the difference between ethical and sustainable? How might diversity, equity, inclusion and representation manifest upstream? What kind of issues and initiatives at coffee’s points of origin should companies be engaged in, and how deeply should they be invested in addressing root causes or local community issues? How does traceability and transparency fit into all this? What about “origin stories” and farmers’ photos?
These and countless more questions are central to the premise of a sustainable coffee industry. Yet I believe they must be deeply and repeatedly explored in order to protect the concept of sustainable coffee from becoming meaningless.
[Editor’s note: Daily Coffee News does not publish paid content or sponsored content of any kind. Any views or opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by Daily Coffee News or its management. Do you have a story idea for DCN? Share it here.]
Cory Gilman is never happier than when working to build equitable, inclusive and regenerative coffee systems — with a passion for prosperous farmer livelihoods as a precursor for broader environmental and social outcomes. Prior to focusing specifically on coffee, she spent a decade advancing sustainability initiatives for leading CPG companies. After a year living with and learning from smallholder farmers across Southeast Asia, Cory knew she wanted to spend her career supporting the people behind every cup and the places they call home. "She holds a Masters degree in Sustainable Development and Social Innovation, and is eager to support more resilient and equitable supply chains across sectors.