World of Coffee’s Sustainability Forum lays down its roots

The Speciality Coffee Association of Europe’s annual World of Coffee event is a celebration of what is new and what is great about the coffee industry. This year a new supplementary event was held that focused on one of the major emphases that the specialty coffee movement has brought to the global industry over the past decade. Held over three days in Dublin alongside the main trade show, the inaugural World of Coffee Sustainability Forum brought together people from all sides of the industry to discuss safeguarding the future of quality coffee by making the industry fairer and more environmentally responsible. “The event really came about out of a desire to create a hub for discussion and debate about how we can work together as a community to secure a sustainable coffee future for generations to come,” says Antony Watson, who is the Sustainability Forum’s Project Manager. With a two-day program that covered issues as diverse as innovation, financing, certification, and gender and youth issues, Watson says the point of the forum was to take the discussion about sustainability beyond the merely theoretical. “Sometimes there is a sense that we do talk about sustainability, but what does it actually mean?” he asks Global Coffee Report. “For some it can seem like a buzzword that is just used for PR purposes, but really we wanted to get to the bottom of what it means to the coffee community and all the way along the value chain – how it impacts on people and how we can mobilise to work more effectively together to achieve a more sustainable coffee future.” One such concrete move covered at the event was the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a movement of stakeholders in the coffee sector that would like to make coffee the first sustainable agricultural product. Joel Brounen is the International Coffee Programme Coordinator at Solidaridad. Brounen presented at the Forum on the topic of making the coffee supply chain climate resilient and working closely with coffee producing communities. “A first step for members is to state their commitment and report on progress,” Brounen says. “The Sustainable Coffee Challenge is instrumental to create a race to the top and not to the bottom.” Brounen says the specialty coffee movement has been instrumental in bringing the focus onto sustainability in the industry over the past decade. “The decommodification of coffee by valuing quality and origin has created a viable business model for a smaller group of top performing farmers,” he says. “Nespresso has been a frontrunner if you consider their sustainable sourcing policy. Starbucks is now innovating with green bonds, but there are also several small roasters in Europe and the US that have obtained promising results by using an approach based on certifications and beyond.” Brounen’s work with Solidaridad focuses on working to increase productivity and improve resilience to climate change of smallholders in Latin America. “From an opportunity perspective, we think it is important to perceive smallholders not just as producer, but also as asset manager of natural capital,” Brounen says. “There are growing opportunities to improve the business case of a smallholder by complementing their income through payments for services that produce value through cleaner water or lower carbon emissions. On the other hand, we feel that much can be done to adapt better the public policies and market incentives to the reality of coffee producers. To create that enabling policy framework we have developed a successful convening platform in Colombia and we are in the process to replicate that experience to Central America.” Brounen says that the broader industry – particularly at the consumer end – has a responsibility to recognise and help tackle the challenges at origin. “One of the main practical challenges is that the price of green coffee does not reflect the real value of the product,” Brounen says. “We are not able to transfer sufficient benefits of sustainable coffee to the start of the supply chain.” The problem is that the current price of conventional coffee does not cover externalities such as the costs of paying living wages, social security, avoiding deforested areas, or treatment of wastewater, Brounen says. “Of course, due to the size of many coffee plots, it is challenging to make a business case for smallholder coffee farming, but how can we transfer more value of coffee to cover the real costs of production?” he asks. Another challenge is the informality in the coffee supply chain, Brounen says. “Although great strides have been made by the implementation of Voluntary Sustainability Standards [VSS], a great portion of coffee farmers and their workers move around in an informal economy with no formal land entitlement, no formal labour contracts, no social security or pension funds. More than 70 per cent of the coffee is traded without any recognition of VSS criteria. There is still a lot of work to be done to make coffee farming a truly sustainable business model for all players in the supply chain.” The Sustainability Forum’s organiser, Antony Watson, says that such events, which brought together people from all aspects of the industry to discuss the issues they faced, are an important step in the process of addressing these problems. “The only way we can do that is if we have a common direction that we can work together towards,” he says.
Watson says that the Forum demonstrated how there needed to be a whole of industry approach to achieving real sustainability in the world’s coffee supply. “It’s more of a nested approach rather than a linear approach where people are thinking about how the entire value chain can benefit from these transactions rather than just focusing on one link in the chain,” he says. “We can see how not just NGOs but also social lenders and new models of micro finance are working together, so these linkages across the coffee value chain are becoming more effective.” GCR

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