If you haven’t read Anya Khalamayzer’s piece in GreenBiz on Starbucks’ sustainability bonds yet, I encourage you to. It presents a very nice summary of the state of coffee sustainability today–what our sector is trying to do, why it’s urgent, how it relates to customers’ expectations, and how it connects to the bottom line.
I enjoyed the piece, but it felt incomplete. She identifies “protecting coffee suppliers against child labor, wage and health and safety violations, as well as working to combat the environmental risks of coffee farms, such as water inefficiency, soil degradation and deforestation,” as the goals of Starbucks’ sustainability strategies. I think most of my colleagues in the sector would generally agree with that as a broad outline of what we’re all trying to do. But, while the thrust of the article is focused on the overarching strategic goals of coffee sustainability work and innovative ways of paying for it, there’s not a word about how we implement it.
The gap is no fault of hers. I suspect she left it out because we as a sector don’t talk about it. Our press releases don’t explain the benefits of cover crops, and our websites don’t extol the benefits of farmer organizations. Our research reports may grapple with the fact that doing this work well is difficult, costly, and in conflict with the short-term focus that increasingly dominates our industry, but our public-facing work never does. Instead, we talk about five years plans and anticipated impact, and trumpet the big round numbers of farmers reached. But we never stop to explain to the public, “which farmers, and reached with what?”
I could be charitable and say it’s because the implementation tactics are technical and dry; we know that soil health doesn’t make for good storytelling. Or I could be cynical and say that we don’t talk about the tactics because we know that, as a sector, we’re too often taking the easy way out; spending hundreds of millions annually on certification premiums that barely register on farmers’ bottom lines. We focus on numbers of bags certified and numbers of farmer reached, the numbers that translate easily into marketing materials. We know how to meet those numbers, and we know that they will sound meaningful to our customers.
But we’re ignoring the most difficult work that could have the greatest impact on the lives of farmers and the future of our crop.
Here’s something we know but rarely talk about: 70% of farmers worldwide still yield only about 4 bags per hectare, which is 17% of the rate of the most productive farmers. That 70% isn’t the group that most sustainability programs serve, though. Most programs work with the farmers who are already organized, who can quickly and efficiently implement new techniques.
We shouldn’t ignore the farmers who are already further along, by any means, but we as a sector must reckon with the fact that our sustainability programs, as currently organized, ignore the overwhelming majority of farmers, and especially the farmers that most need our support. We can achieve our short-term metrics by focusing on the already-organized farmers, but our long-term goals depend on our ability to reach that 70%.
Let’s begin by trusting ourselves, and our customers. We can work in more thoughtful ways, taking on the biggest challenges in our sector and pushing ourselves to reach that 70%; we just need to trust that our stakeholders will give us the flexibility to do the more difficult work even when it costs more per farmer. We can lift the veil back a bit more, showing customers the real challenges that remain and the limitations of what we’ve done to date; we just need to trust that our customers will respect our decision to value quality of impact over quantity of engagement.
Let’s begin by trusting in our own ability to shoot for, and reach, the lofty ideals we talk about.
Follow Jan von Enden on LinkedIn.