A new baseline for sustainable coffee production

Global Coffee Platform is revising the Baseline Coffee Code to provide the industry with a reference framework for sustainable coffee production.

Sustainability is a complex issue, but year after year, with issues like climate change and coffee prices compounding coffee production, it becomes even more pressing for the global coffee industry.

Multi stakeholder membership association Global Coffee Platform (GCP) developed the Baseline Coffee Code – previously known as the Baseline Common Code – to provide a sector-wide reference for the foundations of sustainability in green coffee production. 

“Sustainability means different things to different people. In coffee, how you approach it and what you emphasise depends on your role in and perspective of the supply chain,” says Gelkha Buitrago, Director Programs and Corporate Partnerships for GCP.

“For one person, it might be about trading relationships and farmers getting a living income, and if they don’t receive that, it’s not sustainable. To others, it may be about the environment, reducing emissions and deforestation. GCP believes that sustainability is a shared responsibility.  Hence there is a need and opportunity to drive further alignment in the entire coffee sector around the foundations, which cover the social, economic, and environmental pillars of sustainability.”

GCP began its latest revision of the Baseline Coffee Code in October 2020 to make sure it still met the needs and demands of the coffee sector. The organisation held a round of public consultation throughout March and April, including workshops in seven countries and in various languages to ensure as many voices as possible were heard.

“There have been changes in the sustainability landscape. On the producers’ side, you have a long period of low prices, climate change, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic. On the consumer end, more and more people are becoming concerned with these topics and how their consumption has an impact on the environment and other people,” says Buitrago.

“The coffee industry is also becoming more aware. Many industry players have embraced sustainability and made commitments to concepts like reforestation and reporting percentages of sustainable purchases. Governments are getting involved too – in Europe there is upcoming legislation regarding mandatory human rights due diligence. All of these changes mean there is a different context in which sustainability operates.”

The Baseline Coffee Code is not a certification standard. Instead, its purpose is to provide the industry with a clear understanding of the foundations required for coffee production to be “sustainable”. The current code includes 27 principles to be followed and 10 unacceptable practices to avoid. Buitrago says a driver behind the revision was to streamline these concepts.

“We wanted to make the Baseline Coffee Code more accessible and user friendly,” she says.

“With this version, we are offering a more organised and clearer vision. It still follows the three pillars of sustainability, but it’s also more outcome oriented and clarifies what needs to be done to start your journey in terms of sustainable practices.”

Alongside Buitrago, the GCP Technical Committee and an additional Advisory Taskforce with broad sector participation led this in-depth revision process. Representatives from various industry sectors – including farmer representatives, roasters, traders, NGOs, and financial institutions – were included across the committee and taskforce, as well as members and non-members of the GCP.

John Schluter, Executive Director of Café Africa and Chair of the GCP Technical Committee, tells Global Coffee Report it’s encouraging to see how involved the wider coffee community has become in the revision of the Baseline Coffee Code.

“As we began this revision, it became quite clear to us all that the Baseline Coffee Code had good bones. When the GCP Board asked us to revise the code, they said ‘we need this code simplified, but whatever you do, don’t weaken it’. It can’t be so easy that you can tick a couple of boxes and call yourself sustainable, it needs to be a serious statement about sustainability,” Schluter says.

“With Brexit, we’re very keen in Europe at the moment on the idea of a level playing field. One of the concerns of the roasting industry globally is that if they’re doing it one way and someone else is doing it another way, there’s no common understanding of who is in the right. We’re hoping the Baseline Coffee Code will become the accepted reference point they can work from. If our practices are equivalent to that benchmark, or greater, we can be confident in the claims we and other people are making about our coffee.”

The Baseline Coffee Code has its roots in the Common Code for the Coffee Community (4C) Association, the forbearer to GCP. 

The 4C Association was formed in the early 2000s as a joint project between producers, traders, major roasters and retailers, and non-government organisations to lay down a framework for baseline sustainability in coffee production.

“Certifications set high standards involving additional costs for the producers, and the volume of certified sustainable production was relatively limited. These standards are important and do great work, but in a business as competitive as coffee, it was at that time the niche markets that could pay these premiums to guarantee their sustainability,” Schluter says.

The first edition of the Baseline Common Code was published in 2007, with various coffee stakeholders, including four major roasters contributing to its development: Douwe Egberts, Mondelez, Tchibo, and Nestlé. Like the current code, it was not intended to serve as a certification of sustainability, but as a verification of the processes and supply chains these companies had in place.

“It was about ensuring their own coffee was produced in a way that meant, by the time it got to market, it was sustainable, and to some extent traceable, even if not to the direct tree or farmer that grew the coffee,” Schluter says.

“There was a real need for a system or framework that would reach and work for mainstream markets and smallholder farmers, and I think the code did that.”

As the market evolved and consolidated, the 4C Association changed with it, becoming GCP while the 4C Code and verification scheme was sold to a separate organisation, which is now called 4C Services. The 4C Code has been developed into a full certification standard, and certifying sustainable coffee in many different producing countries. GCP continued to champion the Baseline Common Code as reference, which was due for revision in 2020-21 to reflect changing priorities in the global coffee sector.

“When the first Common Code came out in 2007, the ILO (International Labour Organization) was involved in the drafting, which  influenced the prominence of the social dimension of sustainability,” Schluter says.

“When we did the last revision in 2014/15, we put the economic dimension first and foremost in the code because we’d realised the profitability of farms is what’s going to drive sustainability. If farms aren’t profitable, producers aren’t able to afford and invest in sustainable production.”

Although the economic dimension will likely retain its leading position in the Baseline Coffee Code, Schluter says environmental sustainability will take a greater focus.

“What was important five years ago is still important today, but new things and ideas keep coming into play. Climate change is perhaps the most obvious example, which was only lightly addressed in the last emanation of the Baseline Coffee Code,” he says.

“Now we’re discussing whether to include topics like greenhouse gas emissions, testing those, and how or if that’s practical or possible for a smallholder farmer. We are aiming to move the sector in the direction of taking account of these sorts of things, but at the same time, have to be careful not to impose too much of a burden on the farmers.”

The third version of the Baseline Coffee Code currently under revision is organised under the banners of Economic Prosperity, Social Wellbeing, and Environmental Responsibility and Stewardship. It condenses the second version’s 27 principles and 10 unacceptable practices into three economic principles, four social principles, and five environmental principles.

“The code has a set of principles that tell you what you want to achieve. It could be relating to rights of workers and farmers, working conditions, use of natural resources, or how to be proficient business farmers,” Buitrago says.

“Then you have a set of practices that define what you need to do to achieve those principles. For example, in terms of deforestation, it is key to protect the natural forest. For working conditions, you need to comply with existing national minimum wages or sector agreements. After the practices, we’ve established measures to put in place, so the path is very clear between what you do and what you want it to achieve.”

There are 10 economic, 14 social, and 15 environmental practices in the draft code, as well as 15 economic, 33 social, and 37 environmental measures.

Furthermore, the Baseline Coffee Code marks certain practices as critical to sustainability. “Those are the practices we’d like to see eradicated from the sector,” Buitrago explains, which include worst forms of child labour, slavery, deforestation, and use of banned pesticides. 

With public consultation ending in April, GCP is taking feedback and refining the updated Baseline Coffee Code with a prospective release in Q4 2021.

Broadly involving the public and coffee community in the revision of the code has allowed GCP to identify issues that could have been missed otherwise. This ranged from practical considerations like measuring greenhouse gas emissions to more specific use of language in some principles, practices, and measures.

“For example, we had put a proposal on diversity and inclusion, how you can have an impact on more vulnerable populations, but we didn’t include specific groups in it. From the consultation, we hear that it was important to say if it refers to women, youth, or indigenous groups,” Buitrago says.

“Rather than being generic, with the good intention of covering more people, stakeholders suggested it has to be clear ‘this is about women’ or ‘this is how we engage the next generation in coffee farming’.”

With coffee production dealt blow after blow in recent years, Buitrago says it will be important for the coffee industry to have a clear understanding of the foundations required for a sustainable supply chain.

“Our ambition is for all coffee in the world to be produced following these baseline practices and for all consumers to be assured their coffee meets at least these foundations of sustainability, increasing supply and demand for sustainable coffee,” she says.

“We know all the industry is not there yet, while there are great examples of leadership and progress. This Baseline Coffee Code could provide a powerful guide for continuous improvement by following these principles, practices, and measures.”

While the Baseline Coffee Code caters to coffee production through to primary processing, Schluter adds consultation has made clear the need to expand the coffee industry’s scope of sustainability.

“The Baseline Coffee Code doesn’t deal with the rest of the supply chain at the moment, and this is something that producers have raised in the taskforce and consultation. They’re saying, ‘you want us to be transparent, but how transparent are people further down the line?’” Schluter explains.

“The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has actually started integrating more of the downstream supply chain into its sustainability framework and that might be something we look at in the future.” 

Additionally, GCP has already been working on complementary approaches including supporting public-private Country Platforms in producing countries. These platforms bring relevant coffee stakeholders together at national level to foster alignment and local ownership for local sustainability priorities. Importantly, there are various encouraging examples of how GCP Members and local stakeholders are already expanding the reach of sustainable practices to smallholder farmers and actually addressing identified sustainability gaps in collaboration. 

The 2020 Coffee Barometer Report covers only 35 per cent of coffee which is bought by the industry’s 10 largest coffee roasters, and their volumes procured through a voluntary sustainability standard or certification. Schluter says the goal of GCP is for the Baseline Coffee Code to reach the other two-thirds of the market.

“My main concern is, with coffee prices where they are, this coffee code has to be good for the producers. One of the key themes is good agricultural practices and how that can improve the livelihoods of the farmers, but unfortunately, we don’t control the world’s coffee price,” Schluter says.

“I hope that by empowering the producers, it may be possible for them to capture the value of the sustainability they’re rolling out. That contributes to the wellbeing of the planet.  If consumers recognise that, and are prepared to ensure that producers’ can recover the added costs of doing the work to make production sustainable, it will be good for everybody.”

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