, since the First Sustainable Coffee Congress in 1996, has been a passionate issue within the specialty coffee industry. The subsequent 1998 Sustainability Conference in Denver provoked a lively debate that seemed to boil the issue down to “shade versus organic” and to determining which of these growing practices is more sustainable. While the shade-organic-bird-friendly debate opens up important industry dialogue about sustainability, it focuses on relatively minor issues within the much larger picture of global sustainability for the coffee industry. Ironically, the industry can’t seem to see the forest for the trees.
The United Nations Commission on Economic Development defines sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The specialty coffee industry can benefit from applying a similarly holistic view of sustainability. As representatives of the second most traded commodity in the world, our industry has a tremendous opportunity to make a significant impact on society’s move toward sustainability. This opportunity is not only the right thing to do, it also economically rewards companies who proactively implement sustainability strategies.
Currently, the Earth’s human population is over six billion people and is expected to double in this century. The earth’s environment is under duress due to the collective actions of human society. Author, environmentalist, and upcoming SCAA Conference Key Note Speaker, Paul Hawken notes, “We are far better at making waste than at making products. For every 100 lb. of product we manufacture in the U.S., we create at least 3,200 lb. of waste. In a decade, we transform 500 trillion lb. of molecules into nonproductive solids, liquids and gases.”
At the turn of the last century the sparsely populated earth possessed seemingly limitless quantities of natural resources, and so the Industrial Revolution was born as humans set out to exploit those resources with brute force. At the turn of this new century, the paradigm is reversed; we are on an increasingly crowded planet with rapidly diminishing resources. The old paradigm on which the Industrial Revolution was based is no longer valid for the planet today; we must develop a new one to meet the needs of present and future generations.
Environmental degradation, from crop to cup, is connected to every step of the coffee industry: 26 million acres of the Earth’s surface are planted with coffee trees. And in much of this area, coffee is planted as a monoculture crop (one species of tree in a defined land area). These farms tend to use more chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which have a tremendous impact on birds and wildlife, human health, water quality, and soil erosion. Processing facilities dump billions of tons of coffee pulp in riverways, choking aquatic life and polluting the waterways indefinitely. On the consumer side of the industry, packaging is the single most significant contributor to waste; thousands of tons of nonrenewable foil laminate packaging are thrown away both in the manufacturing process, and as post-consumer waste. No one is responsible for converting packaging into something useful; thus it is sent to our ever filling-up landfills. And, in a broader perspective, the global coffee industry is hugely dependent on that other titan of a commodity, oil, which is mainly used for transporting the product from seed to cup.
With global annual sales of $40 billion, coffee is a major industry that is considering sustainability issues at the level of a key industry association, the SCAA. The National Coffee Association has also begun to incorporate these issues in its membership discussions. Incorporating the goals of sustainability in our industry will make a significant impact on the world at large. While general industry has customarily viewed environmentalism as a threat to the bottom line, forward-thinking companies regard the sustainability imperative as a chance to gain a competitive advantage, reduce costs, increase employee loyalty, and stimulate greater innovation while improving the health of both planet and people.
Definitions Of Sustainability
A number of sustainability concepts are used throughout the specialty coffee industry today. Many center on farming practices such as biological control, the use of shade trees, or organic farming methods. Some concentrate on better working conditions for the growers, emphasizing land stewardship and restoration of the family farm. Others focus on water use and recycling. Still others stress economic viability and profitability. Diverse groups and interests working toward sustainability frequently do not agree on which goals are most important.
To make real progress in sustainability, the industry must move beyond areas of difference and conflict to areas of agreement. Some of the viewpoints and concepts on sustainability (i.e. shade versus organic) are just differing routes to the same destination, merely different expressions of the same goal of practicing more respect for the environment. To be fully encompassing, sustainability for coffee must involve all sectors of the industry and the whole process from tree to cup. Allowing businesses to employ their own creative solutions to incorporate the goals of sustainability - pertinent to each entity’s unique circumstance - will be a key factor in gaining the support of the entire industry.
Sustainability means securing quality of life for people within the means of nature. A long-running slogan of environmental groups has been, “REduce, REuse, REcycle.” In recent years a fourth “RE” - REdesign - has frequently been incorporated with that slogan, in recognition of the crucial need to re-evaluate the design of the current business paradigm and our own business operations.
The Natural Steps to Sustainability
Sustainable development requires a sufficiently broad perspective and a workable definition to be useful. The ultimate starting point would be a framework outlined by core principles for ecological, economic, and social sustainability for the whole planet. From this kind of a framework, individual companies and industries could design their own sustainability programs.
Such a framework does exist and is being successfully used by hundreds of corporations, municipalities, government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations around the world. The Natural Step Framework for Sustainability was developed in 1989 by Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, one of Sweden’s leading cancer researchers. Dr. Robert noticed first-hand the link between environmental contaminants and human health, particularly with his child patients, and was moved by the willingness of distraught parents to do anything to help their ailing children. After seeking advice and consensus from top scientific experts in Sweden, The Natural Step (TNS) framework was born.
The TNS framework helps individuals and organizations address key environmental issues from a whole system perspective. It gives people a common language and guiding principles to help change existing practices and decrease their impact on the environment. Four System Conditions - conditions that must be met in order for a society to be sustainable - are used as a shared mental model for problem solving and for building consensus so that organizations can implement effective and meaningful sustainability programs:
These system conditions are the basic components of sustainability, based in science, that everyone can agree upon regardless of their industry, background or type of business. While there is no one fixed solution for sustainability, these conditions can guide companies in creating their own programs relevant to their own business and place in the industry. The same conditions can be used to guide the grower, the roaster, and the retailer, as well as allied service sectors of the coffee industry.
- Substances from the earth’s crust must not systematically increase in the biosphere.
- Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in the biosphere.
- The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished.
- We must be fair and efficient in meeting basic human needs.
The basis for the Natural Step Model is to view the primary components of the environmental situation as the walls of a giant funnel representing where increasing societal demand for resources and decreasing resource availability create a funnel representing the area in which companies can operate unhindered (Fig. 1). As aggregate societal demand increases and the capacity to meet those demands decreases, we are moving as a society into the narrower portion of a funnel. Companies which “hit the wall” of the funnel are confronted by unexpected business crises such as increased costs or taxes, tighter government regulations, and consumer backlash.
In the late 1980’s McDonald’s Sweden hit the wall when customers began to picket their stores, protesting the company’s extensive use of Styrofoam packaging. Sales dropped and the image of the company suffered greatly. Other companies which have hit the wall in terms of consumer backlash are Nike and The Gap (for alleged purchases of goods produced in sweatshop conditions - see next month’s article on Social Responsibility) and Home Depot (for alleged purchases of old growth wood products). Reactive strategies (as in these cases) tend to be much more costly in both the short and long run than do proactive sustainability strategies.
Participating in sustainable and restorative behavior opens the walls of the funnel and moves the sides further apart. Having adopted the Natural Step framework, McDonald’s Sweden is now considered one of the most environmentally-friendly companies in Sweden, based on its commitment to sustainability and the aggressive actions it has taken toward that goal. Recently, the company has taken its commitment even further, by prioritizing the use of more organically and locally grown products. Currently, they serve organic milk in all their restaurants and purchase organic meat as often as possible.
TNS’s flexible approach has been successful in encouraging hundreds of companies to adopt sustainable business solutions thereby helping them navigate the funnel without hitting the wall.