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Survey: Coffee Farmers and Consumers Have Different Perspectives on Sustainability

coffee sustainability farm

Daily Coffee News photo.

For decades, the coffee industry has been propped up as an example of sector-wide sustainability, with many actors throughout the coffee chain using similar strategies and language to define and promote sustainability initiatives to the public. 

However, the assumption that everyone involved in the coffee industry has similar priorities around sustainability-related issues may be false.

While preparing to hold discussions with coffee industry actors during the 2023 Specialty Coffee Expo on the need to include the voices of farmers and farmworkers in sustainability discussions, the organization Rural Voices conducted a pilot survey of more than 150 coffee consumers in the United States and nearly 100 coffee farmers in Honduras.

Although the survey is limited to this relatively small sample size, the results highlight a disconnect between coffee consumers and coffee farmers in their perceptions of sustainability issues. 

One of the starkest examples of this disconnect came through the question, “Do you think the sustainability movement has been beneficial for coffee farmers?” 

Nearly four out of five consumers (78%) answered “yes,” while fewer than one in three farmers (31%) said “yes.”

This concerning result suggests a significant gap in perceptions between these two groups. It’s crucial to understand why these perceptions differ and how they can be addressed to improve the efficacy of our efforts to build a more sustainable coffee industry.


When the survey broke down the topic of sustainability in regard to the future of coffee, consumers said that environmental topics were more important, while farmers thought economic aspects were more important. 

This disparity reflects yet another gap in perceptions of what matters to each group, while also underscoring the need for further understanding. 


Another difference identified in the survey was how consumers and farmers weighed the importance of different topics in coffee farming.

For example, consumers gave more weight than farmers did to the issues of gender equity and working conditions of farmworkers. Conversely, farmers placed increased weight on the issues of migration, climate change and adequate prices.


In addition to showing disparate perspectives on current conditions, the survey showed differing views on how sustainability in the coffee sector may be improved moving forward. 

Farmers considered “paying farmers better prices” and “buying directly from farmers” to be the most important alternatives for the coffee industry to improve the sustainability of farming. Conversely, consumers were more evenly split between eight different strategies through which to make farming more sustainable. 


In short, consumers and farmers had different ideas on how to improve the sustainability of the coffee industry.

Whereas consumers may prioritize environmental issues, or issues such as gender equity, farmers may prioritize economic issues such as fair prices.

A key to improving sustainability in the coffee industry is to listen to the voices of all stakeholders, including farmers and farmworkers. Over the years, this has proven to be difficult to implement, as we have seen countless sustainability initiatives with zero or limited farmer and farmworker representation during the design of the work and the evaluation of the results. 

Effectively including the voices of farmers and farmworkers will help us to understand each other better and work together towards solutions that work for all relevant parties.

Farmers and farmworkers have great insights about the sustainability initiatives that have been traditionally implemented in coffee (certifications, verifications, development programs being implemented in their communities, etc.). They know what works, what doesn’t work and why.

Companies can greatly benefit from learning more about the perspective of farmers and farmworkers in their extended supply chains, both to manage risks as well as to improve the effectiveness of their sustainability investments.

At the same time, most farmers do not have enough information about the drivers behind the sustainability decisions of companies and consumers who purchase their coffee. Consumers, companies and farming communities could benefit from having more direct information about each other’s perspectives. 

This should start with companies seeking to bring the voice of those rural communities to the design and implementation of their sustainability efforts. The prospect of a sustainable coffee sector can only be realized if the voices of farmers and farmworkers are meaningfully included in sustainability initiatives.

[Daily Coffee News does not engage in sponsored content of any kind and all views or opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author/s. You can reach our editors here.]



andy carlton

You don’t say! Well knock me down with a feather!

The developed world uses the word “sustainability” to mean environmental sustainability, in the main. In the developing world we are also concerned about that. After all, it is our coffee harvest that suffers from recurring drought, increasingly violent storms, hail, unseasonal rain, super-high temperatures, blights of various kinds, etc. But if farmers cannot live from the income of their coffee, if we cannot invest in our crop and also in our children because of volatility in the price of coffee and lack of reliable income, then environmental sustainability must take second place. That would be the same in the developed world, wouldn’t it?

So the issue for us is first: how to make a living from coffee, and then: how to address climate change.

Sustainable certifications are often a form of greenwashing, and they are also expensive and very onerous for us as producers, while supporting certification companies who charge us high fees. Certification certainly allows us to access more markets, but the cost-benefit is questionable.


Value is implied by the degree of meticulous sorting, processing, and elimination of defects. In the specialty sphere, a detailed understanding of this implied valuation is crucial to the success of cooperatives and small farms. Access to capital is the biggest hurdle presented to smallholders, so investing in the farm year over year by the importer or roastery can literally be the difference in their success or their starvation.

The access of information for the farmers needs to be more ubiquitous than it has traditionally been. The transparency of the coffee supply chain is beneficial to the farmers, and we should push for open and honest communication between all participating parties. It is as a coalition of coffee communities, we can generate real, lasting changes to the coffee world. The whole system is predicated on the capitalist exploitation of the working class due to their lack of means. Unless the workers ARE the owners (such as in a cooperative), the system and our participation in it is a farce built upon flowery language and imperialist dogmatism.

Valuation in coffee is intrinsically connected to this exploitation, and the perpetuation of this cycle is what allows for the capitalist class to net massive wealth while the workers are subjected to the peaks and valleys of the market. In short, worker conditions in the imperial periphery will not improve so long as the large corporate stakeholders hold the keys. This unequal exchange must not be overlooked when determining the path forward. The problem with economic sustainability is it always comes at the expense of the working class.

This neo-feudalism that penetrates every level of the coffee market is the antithesis of sustainable.

Ernesto Q

One of the aspects mentioned in this article, that I loved, is the fact that it addresses
* living income
* migration = labor availability
* fair prices
* climate change
which are some of the most frequent things every producer has to deal with that are out of his control, and some of them can be tackled by being fair with the prices roasters and consumers pay for coffee. It is interesting that consumers have that “nimby” mentality of sustainability where the producer must comply with these many requirements. Still, they don’t believe increasing the price for that compliance is fair. I believe there is still a lot to be taught about sustainability on all sides of the supply chain, which needs to be addressed fairly and honestly.

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