I am an eternal optimist. You have to be in this line of work—protecting the future of coffee is tireless work, and it can feel like once we’ve solved one challenge, in one place, then a dozen more bubble up. Taking time to count the successes and keeping up hope that the work we do adds up to something is the only way to survive.

I mention this because I’m about to share with you what it looks like when coffee sustainability goes wrong. I see each of these phenomena far too often, and it bothers me because they’re just such a waste. They waste money, time, and our customers’ trust. With the urgency of climate change, the need to pull our farmers out of poverty, and the importance of finding ways to meet increasing demand, we must root out waste so that sustainability can reach its full potential.

As I said, I’m an optimist, and I believe in our sector’s potential. We’ll make some mistakes along the way, but let’s at least make some new mistakes, instead of the same old ones.

  1. Don’t count WHAT you did, count what IT did: If a doctor bragged about the number of pills he prescribed, would you be impressed? Not unless he explained what those pills actually did for his patients, you wouldn’t. It works the same for sustainability programs—I don’t want to hear about how many trainings you conducted, I want to hear about what changed in the lives of farmers as a result.
  2. Don’t cover your tracks: In the startup community, it is assumed that failures mark the path to success. Innovation involves failure, because you learn so much more when you’re trying something that might not work. Have you ever heard about sustainability programs failing, though? Where are our failures, and the lessons we take from them? Either we’re not taking enough risks, or we’re not telling the truth about new ideas we tried that didn’t work.
  3. Don’t work with the same farmers as everyone else: When we design a sustainability program, it can be tempting to work exclusively with the farmers who are already organized. They’re easy to reach, and to show quick results with. The problem is, they don’t need as much help, and the impact is less when moving a farmer from 25 to 27 bags than from 4 to 10 bags. With 70% of coffee farmers worldwide still yielding less than 4 bags per hectare, working only with the farmers who are already thriving is a missed opportunity.
  4. Don’t stay in your lane: We are lucky to work in a sector with dozens of thoughtful and committed actors, from companies to governments to NGOs. The problem is, none of them has enough money or enough reach to solve problems alone. The real impact comes from networks, where ideas are shared, where each partner can stick to what it does best, and where real action (not just talking and loose affiliation), can take place.
  5. Don’t make it about the bean: Coffee is a bean, sure, but that’s not what makes it important. What makes it important is the way it perks us up every morning; the economic opportunity it creates for farmers, baristas, and executives alike; the roles that café con leche, Turkish coffee, espresso, and café au lait play in their respective cultures. Sustainability works when it focuses less on the bean itself, and more on the people, culture, and opportunity that the bean affects–that’s the recipe for a great cup, and that’s what deserves our attention.
  6. Don’t start with the marketing strategy: Marketing is important—if we can’t explain to our customers why sustainability matters, then we’ll end up in a race to the bottom on price. That’s a fight that no one wins. But, the marketing isn’t the same as the sustainability strategy, it’s a way of making that strategy understandable. If we develop it before the strategy is crystal clear, then we’re actually selling the marketing itself.
  7. Don’t scale before the model works: I often hear people ask the question, “does it scale?” before they ask “does it work?” Scale is important in a sector as large and diverse as ours, but we have to be sure that we’re scaling the high-impact ideas, as opposed to the ones that just lend themselves to replication. The decision to scale must come only after rigorous evaluation.

What do you see in our sector that isn’t working? What new ideas are you excited about? Get in touch—we at Hanns R Neumann Stiftung are always looking for new partners and interesting people to discuss change!

Follow Jan von Enden on LinkedIn.

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