SUSTAINABILITY IN THE COFFEE INDUSTRY
written by Gia Giambalvo
Sustainability as a concept is complex, heavily debated, and often over-simplified. In the coffee industry, and as a coffee business, approaching sustainability presents many challenges, from environmental shifts, to the complexities of international supply chains, to the consumer connection between coffee and disposability. At James Coffee Company, it is our ongoing objective to leverage our position as a buyer and consumer in order to further the coffee industry’s collective progress towards sustainable practices.
CURRENT CHALLENGES TO SUSTAINABILITY IN COFFEE
To begin, it must be noted that nearly every facet of the agriculture industry has been impacted by the undeniable climate crisis. Record high temperatures, devastating droughts, and unprecedented rainfall are affecting crops all over the world, which in turn impacts the farmers’ yield and can drive up the price of the product that is available each season. This can hurt small farmers in the long run, because they have less product available to sustain their income, and can hurt small roasters, who are often unable to outbid the larger corporate roasters. Global warming is not a challenge that can be easily overcome, but there are many steps individuals and businesses can take to help minimize their impact on the environment, some of which will be covered here later.
Another major challenge faced by coffee producers is the lack of access to and affordability of certification processes. Furthermore, many roasters are selective about which coffees they will source based on certain certifications (Organic, FTO, bird friendly, etc.), which limits the opportunities for small producers to sell their coffee. There are some initiatives in place to help address this issue, such as Enveritas, a non-profit that aims to provide free certification to small producers who “are excluded not necessarily because their practices fall short of sustainability standards, but because the economics of verifying their activities are more challenging” (enveritas.com, 2022). Working with programs like Enveritas is one way that local roasters can positively impact small farms; at James Coffee, we put no emphasis at all on objective certifications, and instead focus on building direct trade relationships, and sourcing coffees based on subjective factors such as taste, overall quality, transparency, and fair wage practices.
This brings us to the next complex challenge facing coffee producers around the globe: poverty. If green coffee is such a significant portion of the world’s imported agricultural market, what is preventing the producers from earning sufficient income? The simple answer is that there are not adequate protections in place to ensure multinational or local infrastructure to protect farmers’ wages, or stabilize the price of coffee as a commodity on the international market. Frankly put, “if coffee were a product of the developed world, there would have been some price stabilization mechanism put in place or, at the very least, there would have been subsidies at low prices” (Olam, 2019, as cited in coffee barometer, 2020, pg .16). Coffee is a labor intensive product (up to 60% of coffee production costs go to labor), yet there are little to no protections in place for the laborers. The lack of price stabilization in the market combined with the expenses associated with manual laborers narrows the already razor thin margins affecting the producers in these developing countries. This negatively impacts wages, housing, food, and benefits for farmers and laborers.
According to the 2020 Coffee Barometer report, coffee producer’s annual income has dropped in the last two years, meaning it is more challenging to live off of coffee production (17). One of the issues facing coffee in the future is that wages are dropping, and producers’ children are leaving the industry in search of higher wages. A program that James works with is called Coffee Kids Project, an initiative in Guatemala and Honduras aimed to educate children of farmers on coffee practices and ways to make a sustainable career in coffee. Another program we have recently connected with is Bean Voyage, a group of women with a mission to address gender-based discrimination affecting womxn coffee farmers in Costa Rica. Bean Voyage connects roasters to womxn farmers in order to “build an equitable value chain for smallholder womxn” and close the gender gap, which could reduce hunger by 17% (beanvoyage.org). We are thrilled to be working with Bean Voyage because we are building relationships based on common interests and values, all while promoting an initiative we are proud to support.
These are just some of the numerous challenges facing sustainability in the coffee industry. While some are simpler than others to address, all present complexities that cannot be overcome with the efforts of individual roasters alone. It will take significant, collective efforts from many players in the coffee industry. The 2020 Coffee Barometer highlights many of the programs and systems in place for multinational roasters, but does less to outline the steps smaller roasters can take to further their sustainable practices with regard to coffee sourcing, production, retail, and, most importantly for us at James Coffee, in the cafe setting.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
In addition to working with programs such as Bean Voyage and Coffee Kids Project, James has taken steps to increase our price transparency, up the number of coffees we source via direct trade, and shift our focus from costs to values. Rather than selecting coffees based on their low costs, we are instead prioritizing and highlighting the quality of the coffees we source, and the stories each coffee has to tell. Our longest-standing direct trade relationship is with Glenis Izaguirre at Finca El Cañal in Santa Barbara, Honduras. This year marks our ninth season working directly with his farm. After visiting El Cañal, owner David Kennedy remarked, “it's an incredible, eye-opening experience to be there, to shake the hands of those who are actually responsible for what is in our cups back here at home... How even being so far away from there, not just physically, but culturally, we can positively affect their lives. It's truly an exhilarating and real partnership." At James, we are working to use our buying power for good; we would rather pay more per pound and know that we are doing our part to ensure fair living wages are paid to producers, and that we are holding ourselves accountable for the role roasters play in the coffee supply chain.
Perhaps the biggest step we have taken in the last year outside of our coffee sourcing methods has happened on the cafe side. As of January 1st, 2021, we eliminated single-use paper and plastic cups in all of our shops. In their place, we have implemented a deposit-exchange program with reusable glass jars for all to-go drinks. This change was inspired by coffee shops who took these steps before us, namely Bar Nine in Los Angeles, and Oddly Coffee in Kansas City. We charge customers a small deposit to offset the initial cost of the jar, which is fully refundable to them if they return their jar to any of our locations. We then encourage customers to bring their jars with them each time they visit, and we swap in a clean glass every time. Not only does this eliminate disposable cups entirely, but we hope it also reframes the way our customers relate to their daily coffee routine. Sustainability in coffee culture is challenging because, until very recently, disposability has been the default. At James, we hope the implementation of the jar program shifts the mentality from throw-away habits, to repeat reusability habits.
In 2021, we sold just over 200,000 drinks to-go. Already, that is 200,000 disposable cups that we didn’t buy or sell. Instead, that’s 200,000 customers introduced to our reusable glass jar system, and at least some of those have adjusted their mindset regarding their daily coffee cup. On top of that number, over 110,000 of those to-go drinks were served in exchanged jars, meaning over 50% of our customers participated in the exchange program for their takeout drinks. In the first year of the glass to-go program, that is a huge success! In addition to eliminating single-use cups in the cafes, we have also drastically minimized the amount of single-use packaging we use in our wholesale program by implementing a bucket exchange program for bulk coffee sold to wholesale accounts. We are also working towards finding sustainable packaging for our retail coffee and tea. While these adjustments are incremental, we are proud to represent the larger movement towards more sustainable practices by mitigating the footprint our cafes and wholesale businesses have on the environment. Some of our future goals include collaborating with other local coffee roasters to help create a network of sustainable cafes, expanding our glass-to-go program, and incentivizing customers to rethink the default to disposable, and assess their own relationship to daily coffee cups as one step in a large-scale movement towards collective sustainability.
For more information on any of the programs or articles mentioned above, please visit their websites listed below.