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Ewan Reid, Technical Director, Matthew Algie with Tadesse Meskela, General Manager, and Tezera Bekele, Area Coordinator, of Oromia Coffee Farmers Union participating in a traditional coffee ceremony.
Walking the Walk...
or Just Talking the Talk?

By Eric Buchegger

Eric Buchegger, Associate Marketing Manager at Swiss Water, Reports on How Companies Are Taking A Sustainable Route.

When you decide that your company is going to take a sustainable approach in the way it operates, you can either take the cosmetic path or a wholly integrated journey. Some companies are not really interested in sustainability and are forced into a corner by their customers, and these might choose the former. However, any conscientious company operating in the specialty coffee arena would likely opt for the latter option.

We are fortunate to be working in an industry where even though people don’t always see eye-to-eye, almost everyone is pretty sincere about the choices they make. It’s for this reason that when Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company (SWDCC) became a fully independent enterprise a few years ago, we decided to make sure that our corporate behavior was in-line with our employees’ values and met the expectations of our customers. We started off with what you might call a “sustainability audit”, where we looked at everything we were doing in the plant and in our offices, to see how sustainable our daily actions were (see checklist). But what, exactly, does “sustainable” mean? According to Webster’s dictionary, it means “to keep up or keep going as an action or process”. Sustain also means to supply with food, drink and other necessities of life. All of these definitions apply to our industry.

Of course, you can define sustainable in a lot of different ways to a point where you can’t elucidate it any further, but basically you want to ensure that you aren’t harming your working environment. If anything, you’re serving to improve upon it. Here, the word “environment” is purposefully used in a general way, to remind us of its many applications. We’re not just talking about the local air and water quality, but ensuring that as much as possible is being recycled. For example, you want to make sure that you are assisting your vendors and suppliers in finding ways to work efficiently. Sure it will save money, but you will also use as few natural resources as possible. In the case of SWDDC, this meant seeking both the highest cost efficient and environmental conscious methods, since our customers physically transfer their coffee to us to be decaffeinated, and we in turn return that coffee back to them.

So, while you may start by looking at the obvious things, such as the effects your procedure is having on your immediate vicinity, you also want to anticipate and make sure that you source all the products you use in a responsible way. Also, understand the ways you interact with your customers and suppliers to ensure that the influence that you’re exerting is a good one.

An outstanding example of sustainability in action comes from Minneapolis-based, Caribou Coffee Company, the nation’s second largest non-franchised coffeehouse chain. Caribou has created a plan, projecting that by the end of 2008, half of all the coffee purchased by the company will come from sources that are certified by the Rainforest Alliance. An international not-for-profit and third-party certifier, the Rainforest Alliance provides its certification seal to farms meeting the highest standards for the conservation of natural resources, and the rights and welfare of workers and local communities. The company’s c.e.o., Michael J. Coles says, “Caribou Coffee strives for excellence in all aspects of the coffee business - from tree to cup. This includes looking out for both the farmers who produce the coffee, and the environment in which it is grown. Our partnership with the Rainforest Alliance allows us to take our agricultural and social commitment of coffee sourcing to another level.” Indeed, by supporting and encouraging farmers in achieving the Rainforest Alliance certification, Caribou is helping to conserve wildlife and wild lands, and improve the lives of farm workers, their families and surrounding communities. They are also collaborating with the Rainforest Alliance to identify new farms interested in complying with the group’s sustainable standards. Caribou Coffee is currently supporting their Guatemalan suppliers in achieving certification. In June 2005, a farm in the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala, became the first Caribou supplier to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification. Several more of Caribou Coffee Company’s coffee supplier partners continue their work toward certification. Furthermore, Caribou will join the Rainforest Alliance on the organization’s first mission to Indonesia, to support the extension of Rainforest Alliance’s certification to Asian countries. Caribou, which has always focused on corporate social responsibility, is now raising the bar for the entire U.S. coffee industry.

Another exemplary company from the other side of the Atlantic is Matthew Algie. Founded in 1864, Matthew Algie is the U.K.’s largest independent roaster, supplying coffee principally to the foodservice market, with Fairtrade currently an integral part of their business. From 1997, when they launched the UK’s first Fairtrade espresso blend, their volume and product range has grown every year, and this year will account for around 25% of the company’s output.

Born from a desire to better understand their supply and value chain, in 2000 they kicked off the mammoth task of reviewing and relocating nearly all of their green coffee. First off, they rationalized their broker base to work with those who were genuinely committed to providing traceability, such as D.R. Wakefield in the U.K., before embarking on a worldwide search for farms and producer groups willing to work with them and meet their quality and social requirements.

Ewan Reid, technical director at Matthew Algie, outlined the basic tenets of their approach: “For coffee products that we roast ourselves, we only buy from fully traceable sources. All of our green coffee supply chain is audited to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI Base Code, largely based on ILO conventions, see www.ethicaltrade.org). We do this to guarantee the basic human rights that are taken for granted in the developed world. This covers working conditions, freedom of choice, and health and safety standards. We pay for the ETI audits and carry these out even where producers are Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance certified. That way, we have access to the audit reports and have a better understanding of their operation. We work with coffee producers to resolve non-conformities with ETI standards, but will remove the supplier from the list where serious non-conformities are reported, or where issues cannot be resolved within an agreed time scale (typically 12 months).” Reid continues, “To provide farmers with stability, we trade with suppliers who meet our quality standards on an ongoing basis. We only market products as ethical, where we believe they meet the various social and environmental concerns that consumers have. To this end, we use multiple certifications for ‘ethical’ products, including Fairtrade, organic and Rainforest Alliance. We are committed to selling more certified coffee every year, and we have achieved this goal each year since 1997.”

Are you encouraging the importers, exporters and farmers you work with to be looking out for the environment? It’s okay to ask for certificates and seals, some which are very important, but sticking seals on bags of coffee is no replacement for actual engagement with and commitment to your suppliers. The benefits of this approach go beyond just understanding where your coffee comes from. The improvements in quality alone, more than justify this approach. Reid goes on to explain, “For example, in Ethiopia we have worked with the Killenso Mokonisa Co-op, which is part of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Union, to obtain the Sidamo cup profile we were looking for. We use this coffee as a component in our Tiki espresso blend, which is our triple-certified coffee brand, comprising a range of espresso, filter and decaf products.” Looking to toll decaf-traceable coffee from their own sources led the company to work exclusively with Swiss Water. “The reasoning behind this decision was largely due to SWDCC’s organic certified plant, which allowed Matthew Algie’s Tiki blend to preserve its organic identity and triple certification as a decaf,” Reid adds.

Yet, another company concerned with sustainability is H.A.Bennett & Sons. They have been trading coffee and tea in Australia, as well as internationally since 1918. The company’s Scott Bennett states, “We not only value our impact on the immediate environment by making environmentally aware choices for our office practices, but we also believe that the ongoing sustainability of our company is through the value we put on three points. The first are our customers. The education of our customers is paramount to the ongoing sustainability of ourselves and the roasters themselves. If the roasters don’t promote and market the products, then demand for specialty coffee will drop. If the roasters aren’t educated on all the different types of specialty coffees available, how are they going to be able to sell the products to the consumers? For example, H.A.Bennett & Sons holds cupping information evenings for all interested parties, using it as an opportunity to introduce them to different coffees. We also offer as much background and P.O.S. available on our individual products to encourage consumer education.”

Bennett continues: “Second: our suppliers. Having spent years building relationships with suppliers from around the globe, we welcome companies approaching us with new coffees and updated information on industry initiatives. We know that our cupping reports are used as feedback to suppliers and producers on what standards and values we are putting on their beans. Through the process of joint education and knowledge sharing, we give our suppliers and ourselves the benefit of growth and further development. We understand the issues relating to the coffee growing communities, and work hard to offer those coffees that will benefit a community or environment, like Fair Trade, Café Feminino, Rainforest Alliance and Grounds for Health. Without the support of the coffee buying community, these farming communities will not be sustainable. Third: our quality practices. We believe our quality control processes should be second to none. H.A.Bennett & Sons has implemented the HACCP-9000 quality assurance and management program, our facilities are organically accredited, and we have accreditation as a Fair Trade approved importer/trader. These accreditations are regularly audited, including our shipping, warehouse and management processes. All imports adhere to AQIS regulations and legislation.”

Finally, no business is succeed if it can’t sustain its profitability and ensure that its products and services offer value to its customers. Every business has owners, whether it’s the entrepreneur just starting out with a 12-kilo roaster and seating for 10 in his shop, or a publicly held company. It’s important that the enterprise and its owners interact honestly and constructively to ensure that a company is truly sustainable in its profitability. In this vein, Bennett adds, “To continue our company’s growth, we must support the communities that support us, by making sure that the growers who supply our coffees are paid a fair price and that our roasters are given every opportunity to experience new and different coffees. Ultimately, it is consumers who contribute to the sustainability of not only our company but also the industry in general. As consumers become more educated, the desire or demand for ethical, environmental and sustainable products proves to be a strong influence on purchase choice.”

To help ensure that your company is as sustainable as possible, check the “sustainability audit” list, which we use at SWDCC. Although several of the points have been discussed in detail, the outline offers a point-by-point arrangement to assess more aspects of a company’s sustainability issues. And while you may personalize to include your preferences, at least some -- if not all -- of the points on the checklist should apply to your company.

Tea & Coffee - September/October, 2005
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