Fostering sustainability and higher quality through recognition

For the past few years, one of the events that I (and many others!) have looked forward to in autumn, is the Ernesto Illy International Coffee Award. Named after the son of illycaffè’s founder, the Ernesto Illy International Coffee Award (EIICA) celebrates and rewards illy’s best growers for the attention to sustainable quality they bring to their work every day, and to renew the Trieste, Italy-based company’s commitment to improve the lives of producers.

Each October, illy has flown 27 finalists from the top nine countries from which it sources its coffee beans (illycaffè’s quality lab selects the best batches of coffee based on quality and sustainability parameters) to New York City for the award ceremony. The day is split between a breakfast or luncheon conference at the United Nations where the finalists are announced and introduced, in addition to several presentations by notable individuals in the coffee industry and members of illycaffè’s executive team, including the chairman, Andrea Illy; followed by the gala that night (which has been held at venues such as the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center and Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center), where the award winners are announced.

For many of the producers, it is their first time leaving their home countries (illy typically plans several days of sight-seeing around NYC for them). To interact with coffee producers is always a wonderful and enlightening experience, but to see the pride and honour on their faces when being recognised for their efforts, is truly heartwarming. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, the 5th Annual EIICA was held virtually on 3 December. The grand winner was Cooperativa Cocabel from Honduras, which took home, for the first time ever, both top prizes: the Best of the Best and the Coffee Lover’s Choice (which are determined after a series of blind tastings by two independent juries, one comprised of experts and the other of consumers).

While honouring the producers for their lives’ work, the award serves a greater purpose: it fosters sustainability and promotes direct trade between growers and big coffee companies. Each winner receives a contract with illy that guarantees not just a floor price, but a profit. This has been illy’s business model for the past 30 years, over which illy has moved to 100% direct purchase.

In the virtual ceremony, Andrea Illy discussed how the company’s business model has also effected a virtuous cycle of better quality, higher incomes for growers and increased production from emerging regions. Illy spent one year studying what he calls “virtuous agriculture,” the goal of which is to use carbon sequestration in soil to reduce the negative impact of climate change, but it actually has a dual benefit.

“The impact of climate change is exponential — we have to stop it before it becomes irreversible,” said Illy. “Agriculture can do a lot [to help], not only in reducing carbon emissions but also sequestering carbon through soil enrichment.” He said that by enriching soil with carbon and with organic matter, not only is the carbon sequestered from the air, but it makes the soil healthier, which leads to healthier agriculture, more resilient and more fertile soil for healthier plants, which in turn, results in healthier produce and healthier people consuming that produce. “It’s about a dual benefit for the environment and for human health,” Illy stressed.

With this model of virtuous agriculture, illycaffè has set a goal for the company to be carbon-free by 2033, the year of its centennial anniversary.

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