Though coffee is one of the world’s most widely consumed beverages, not many are aware of how and where it is sourced from. International Coffee Day, which falls on 29 September, aims to raise awareness of coffee sourcing and draws attention to the origins of coffee and the plight of coffee farmers. It also promotes the purchase and consumption of fair trade coffee, which would lead to a positive impact on the lives of thousands of farmers globally.
The top few coffee-producing countries include Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, India and Mexico, where the climate conditions (a combination of heat, humidity and high rainfall) are ideal for growth and harvesting.
Though the coffee industry is extremely lucrative, coffee farmers are often paid less than what they deserve but expected to produce more coffee beans faster in order to meet the increasing global demand. This leads to a compromise on coffee quality, as meeting the quantitative demand becomes a priority and the focus on quality falls by the wayside.
Today, coffee is the world’s second most valuable traded commodity, just after petroleum. With over 17 billion cups of coffee consumed worldwide every day, the onus is on coffee companies to ensure sustainability in their practices so that consumers may continue to enjoy quality coffee for decades to come while coffee farmers are properly compensated or remunerated for their work.
Consumers are also increasingly ethically conscious in their purchasing decisions as it allows them to make a meaningful difference by supporting companies that practice or encourage fair trade.
With more companies and consumers alike focusing on sustainability and fair trade, awareness and support for ethically sourced coffee is slowly growing through fair trade movements and programs.
But how can we ascertain that such programs are truly making a difference?
Take for example Nespresso, which has had in place for the past 12 years their AAA Sustainable Quality Program, which aims to improve social and environmental sustainability at farm level. While it shares many of the same goals and principles as other responsible sourcing programs, the AAA Program adds quality and productivity dimensions to a sustainability criteria.
This means that farmers receive technical support and training in best practices to increase productivity and raise the quality of harvested coffee, and the process itself meets specific social standards such as occupational safety, fair treatment of workers, and the prohibition of child labour.
To get a really good cup of coffee, consumers must be aware that everyone involved in the chain of production from tree to cup should be ethically treated and equally valued. There are three ways through which sustainable innovation can be driven: coffee sourcing, capsule recycling and reducing carbon footprint.
In order to ensure the sustainability of high quality coffee, corporations must communicate directly with farm communities and help them assess ways to further improve their coffee crops so as to build a future for partner farmers based on long term profitability, enhanced environmental and social outcomes and sustainability.
Coffee capsules are getting more and more popular today due to their portable convenience. While there is intense debate over their use and the subsequent environmental impact, coffee capsules are recyclable and their impact on the environment can be minimised with the right recycling programs and encouragement.
For instance, Nespresso uses aluminium for its Grands Crus capsules—the most ideal material to protect the quality of the coffee. They have also developed a recycling system to improve the environmental performance of the capsules.
Firstly, all components of the capsules are recyclable: the coffee grounds are used as a natural fertiliser in a local organic farm while the aluminium is re-melted and re-used to make other products such as window frames.
Additionally, since 2014, renowned hotel partners such as Conrad, Fairmont, and Hilton have joined in the company’s recycling efforts for the capsules that are used by guests in the hotel rooms. Meanwhile, there are also recycling collection points at the company’s selected boutiques where other consumers can recycle their used capsules.
With recycling programs such as these in place, coffee corporations can minimise the environmental impact of coffee capsules while continuing to meet the demand for the world’s top sought beverage.
Reducing Carbon Footprint
The concept of reducing one’s carbon footprint has been encouraged especially in the last few decades. Several methods include walking or cycling to work as an alternative to driving, turning off unused lights at home, or eating locally produced food—hence reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transporting or importing food. These support clean energy sources, and of course the 3Rs— Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
But regarding the coffee industry, how do corporations reduce their carbon footprint? In terms of the bigger picture, they should aim to become 100 percent carbon-neutral and ensure that their business practices and operations work towards that goal.
An example of this is Nespresso’s plan to inset their residual operational carbon footprint and increase farm climate resilience through an extensive agroforestry programme. This involves planting an estimated 10 million trees, and an extensive network of around 250 agronomists in the field who support and offer individualised training and technical assistance to farmers.
Going Beyond Theory
While it may be easy to design a program for sustainability, the actual execution may meet certain difficulties. For instance, trying to change a farmer’s practice when he has been working the same way for decades may pose a great challenge in executing such programs.
It would take time and constant communication for both parties to build a trusting relationship—both for the farmers to see the benefits of such programs, and for agronomists to come in and help farmers make improvements by assessing and trying new approaches.
Most importantly, both farmers and agronomists must ensure that two-way communication is in place and understand that such commitments must be long-term in order to see actual and continuous improvement.
While premium pricing gives coffee growers the incentive to adopt better farming practices, coffee corporations should also focus on providing farmers with trained agronomists to support and advise them on what types of varieties to plant, how to recycle kitchen waste into compost and how to take care of production equipment and ensure quality from root to fruit.
By doing so, farming communities are empowered within the network to create a sustainable future for themselves by striking the right balance in managing water, soil and biodiversity while increasing productivity and coffee quality. This is a unique sourcing model that is centred on continuous improvement, and allows farmers to make adjustments at their own pace.
There however must also be constant assessment of these programs beyond merits alone, to further develop aspects that may drive sustainability efforts further. The coffee industry and all the farming communities involved relies on the industry giants to strike up a continuous burning commitment for sustainability and better livelihood for the coffee farmers.
Consumers Play A Part
While it is evident that sustainability efforts are slowly gaining traction and creating a positive change, there remains a striking reminder that perhaps if more thought is given to what goes into our mug of coffee as we sip on it, then maybe we can all enjoy a truly positive cup. Some of the ways consumers are able to help make a difference.
The challenge for coffee is especially acute, as the large number of smallholder farms that produce the world’s coffee supply increases the variability and the complexity inherent in the process.
These farmers are vulnerable to volatile market conditions and are exposed to broader social, economic and environmental factors endemic to many coffee growing regions. Poverty, labour shortages, high input costs, climate change and urbanisation make it incredibly difficult for these farmers to plan for and invest in the future.
Aside from purchasing sustainable coffee from companies, consumers can actively make a difference through little changes to their lifestyles, such as making the effort to conserve energy and resources like water so as to reduce our carbon footprint which helps stabilise the climate for farmers. There must be consensus that everyone has a part to play in spreading general awareness and sharing knowledge.