Is it time to redefine what we mean by “sustainable coffee”?
Former Head of Sustainable Business at Neumann Kaffee Gruppe, Catalina Eikenberg, discusses the current definition of sustainability and why the coffee industry needs to rethink it.
“The word sustainable, per my English dictionary, means ‘able to continue over time,’” says Catalina, the woman in charge of sustainable business at the largest coffee trading house in the world. “This, I believe, is the biggest challenge facing the coffee industry today.”
At the Re:co Symposium in April this year, Catalina, the Head of Sustainable Business at the largest coffee trading house in the world, gave a thought-provoking TED-style talk about redefining sustainable coffee. The talk got a lot of minds thinking.
As more people try to incorporate sustainable habits into their daily lives, it’s natural that the conversation extends to coffee. Sustainability in coffee can mean anything from mitigating environmental harm to ensuring that farmers are paid fairly.
“I guess it’s one of those mega-trends, not just in coffee, but the world at large,” Catalina explains. “People want to know what they’re buying and where it comes from. They don’t want to support child labour, deforestation, or slave labour, for example. It’s affecting every sector, including coffee.”
She argues that the current criteria for what constitutes “sustainable coffee” is problematic and deserves reconsideration.
“Sustainable coffee is equated with certified coffee, and there is a problem with that as all of these certified coffees have hundreds of criteria,” she adds. “However, it doesn’t include if the farmer is making any money on their coffee production.”
Why is sustainability important in coffee?
Coffee production is at the centre of several environmental concerns, including climate change. Scientists have warned companies and countries of the dangers of current levels of carbon emissions.
Furthermore, many tonnes of used coffee grounds are dumped in landfills rather than being composted or recycled, causing the release of methane, a greenhouse gas known to be more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Water usage is another issue in the industry that is beginning to raise concerns. The Water Footprint Network found that the global average water footprint of a 125ml cup of coffee is 140 litres. In the eyes of many, that’s an inexcusable waste of a vital, precious resource.
Perhaps the most pressing issue facing sustainable coffee, however, is the financial wellbeing of coffee farmers. Catalina emphasises that around half of the world’s coffee farmers live in poverty. That’s why she thinks it’s essential that the industry addresses the “elephant in the room”.
“We cannot continue to think of coffee as sustainable and brand it as such when the beans are produced by people who are unable to achieve a living income from their coffee production,” she stresses.
“Farmers are living in poverty, and it is morally unacceptable to call it sustainable when the people producing coffee are not earning enough for their basic needs.”
The only solution she sees is to eradicate this poverty entirely. Although this may seem like a gargantuan task, she believes that it’s completely possible within our generation.
However, she warns that doing so will require much more than simply ticking compliance boxes and undergoing certification audits.
How do we begin to redefine sustainability?
For Catalina, sustainability stretches beyond organic certifications or the Rainforest Alliance. She recommends that companies include a farmers’ living income as a core component of their sustainability goals.
“Let’s start envisaging a sector that recognises and values Living Income Coffee and eventually, a Living Income Differential,” she says.
Secondly, she suggests that companies could get involved in providing financing and training programmes to farmers.
“You can do this directly or through the trading companies you buy from if you’re a roaster,” she explains. “Coffee farmers are incredibly vulnerable socioeconomically, while coffee roasters and distributors are far more robust financially. Coffee producers lack access to resources such as credit, education and healthcare.”
The benefits of this wouldn’t end with the farmers. As Catalina points out, this push for a new sustainability would benefit the coffee supply chain as a whole.
“It would create a push for everyone in the supply chain to soul search, to think how they could do better, whether it’s better prices or farmer financing,” adds Catalina. “Every company, trader, or roaster would need to think about what they could do about poverty in the supply chain.”
The opportunity to meaningfully reduce poverty can be a financial win for companies in the coffee-sourcing business. In this way, they can improve their overall sourcing capacity, significantly boosting their most crucial profit driver.
“The sourcing companies that figure out how to offer these services to smallholders – services that really, truly, positively impact farmer livelihoods and transform the range of opportunities for them and their families – will be the leaders in the industry,” Catalina concludes.
Why? Because those companies will be the most popular with farmers who are desperate to be treated fairly.
It may be high time to redefine coffee sustainability. Yes, environmental concerns cannot be ignored – but neither can the impoverishment of the very people who facilitate the functioning of the entire coffee industry.