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What can Patagonia teach coffee businesses about sustainability?

California clothing brand Patagonia has driven sustainability in the fashion industry for nearly half a century. Michelle Anindya speaks with sustainable coffee advocate Nicole Motteux to find out what coffee businesses can learn from them.

Running a business while maintaining a consistent focus on “sustainability” can be tricky.

It is a multifaceted area that encompasses a wide range of concepts, from carbon emissions, gender equity, and social responsibility, to the mitigation of current and future threats to both the planet and its inhabitants.

For some businesses, this can be overwhelming, especially when faced with financial obstacles. However, according to Sustainable Development Advocate, Nicole Motteux, coffee businesses should start by focusing on what’s happening at the furthest end of their own supply chain – coffee farms and processing sites.

When it comes to sustainability, specialty coffee already has an upper hand. The sector uses language that centres around origin and fair remuneration for producers, and as a result, it’s measurably transparent and accountable.

“The specialty coffee stream has got smarter, cleaner, and more accountable,” Nicole says.

However, sustainability is still a work in progress. If the global stance is that all coffee businesses should strive for accountability, they need to somehow integrate “green” practices into their daily operations.

Furthermore, this is no longer a case of throwing around a buzzword in the name of environmental activism. According to research from the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, nearly 60% of all coffee species are at high risk of extinction.

To complicate the matter further, climate change isn’t the only threat. Nicole explains that sustainability issues ultimately stem from a lack of governance at all levels. For instance, the demand for fully washed coffee in Kenya or Rwanda – where water is scarce – will strain its local ecosystem more than the same scenario would in a water-rich origin.

Likewise, running a processing site using diesel-powered generators is equally unsustainable, as is clearing land for coffee farms using slash-and-burn deforestation.

Every coffee origin has its own set of issues. As such, details matter, and figuring out the realities on the ground can be tricky – but not impossible, as demonstrated by a brand that continues to lead the way in terms of corporate sustainability: Patagonia.

The Patagonia approach to sustainability

On 14 September 2022, California outdoor clothing brand Patagonia made an announcement that grabbed international headlines.

Its founder, Yvon Chouinard, declared that it would donate 100% of its profits “to the earth” by transferring its ownership to a trust and a nonprofit organisation, run privately by the Chouinard family and several close advisers. Depending on the health of the business, it expects to generate and donate around $100 million annually.

Since emerging in 1973, Patagonia has grown to become an outdoor clothing behemoth, on the same level as the likes of The North Face and REI.

However, throughout the last 50 years, it has also been a pioneer in growing a global brand that puts the planet first. This is demonstrated by its mission: “We’re in business to save our home planet”.

Although its latest plan seems like a monumental undertaking, the company acknowledged that the move wouldn’t result in overnight success – which is why Yvon set out to literally avoid damaging the environment right from the start.

Yvon’s earliest innovations were designed to reduce the damage caused by traditional climbing tools like steel pitons. Not too long after, Yvon began developing clothing lines that were durable and comfortable, forgoing fashion trends and consumerism for practicality.

Some would say that he attempted to kill “fast fashion” before it ever became a significant issue.

Like most retail brands, Patagonia works with factories around the world. Its 60+ milling and sewing factories are located in China, India, Taiwan, Vietnam, Mexico, Nicaragua, the US, and elsewhere. As part of the company’s efforts to be as transparent as possible, its website clearly spells out exactly where these facilities can be found.

At each factory, Patagonia implements a range of due-diligence activities to ensure that the factories are meeting their sustainability criteria. Since the mid-2000s, Patagonia has enforced its own environmental and social standards, called “4-Fold”, to screen new factories. And, since 2011, it has implemented the same process for raw-material fabric and trim suppliers, which are even further down its supply chain.

“We have 1,500 styles of clothing and shoes, and we follow every one of those products all the way from the farmer to the very end to make sure there are no unintended consequences of our actions and it’s as clean as we can possibly make it,” Yvon told Stanford Business in 2011.

Patagonia regularly discloses its environmental footprint (previously released under the name Footprint Chronicles in 2011) and has since maintained its traceability, a prerequisite for any company aiming to implement sustainability standards across its supply chain.

Building a sustainable coffee business

For coffee businesses looking to adopt more sustainable practices, donations or social media campaigns may not be enough. Some companies use origin trips to bring farmers to the fore and to highlight the challenges they face, but there are ways to take this even further.

As a starting point, Nicole suggests that coffee businesses that are not in coffee-producing countries should study earth observation tools such as Global Forest Watch and Land and Carbon Lab. Both monitoring tools have been compiling data for many years, providing insights into how changes in land use have shaped the planet.

Likewise, the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) and Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) are new databases for biodiversity mapping, recording, and reporting.

“The local realities are complex, so interpreting data to understand where impacts should be directed is important,” Nicole explains. “When we combine these monitoring tools in our sustainability strategy, then a truly two-way relationship with money and management can evolve to motivate producers to commit to good practice sustainable coffee production.”

She adds that the sheer quality of information available “enhances trust, authenticity, and cross-checking”.

Once a problem is clearly set out, solutions become more accurate, whether in the form of donations, initiatives, premiums on products, or partnering with organisations that specialise in improving supply chains.

Nicole laments that sometimes, retailers have good intentions, but they approach the issue in a top-down manner, completely missing the point. She suggests that retailers should “link more into local initiatives rather than having one way of doing things”.

In this sense, it should be noted that certification isn’t a straightforward solution to sustainability issues. While they may encompass many facets of sustainability at once, they are often difficult and costly to obtain, and Nicole has seen small producers dropping certifications because they simply can’t afford to continue using the label.

“Sustainability can be tasted,” she quips, pointing out that care and attention are at the centre of any sustainability plans.

“When the coffee tastes good, it’s grown well. The soil is good and the processing is good. It’s good all the way through.”

At the end of the day, just like Patagonia, coffee businesses can participate in creating a more sustainable industry by cleaning up their own supply chains first. This means understanding where their coffee comes from, the specific threats the industry is facing at origin, and creating sustainability incentives tailored to each one.

What can Patagonia teach coffee businesses about sustainability?

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