CSR – consumers demand action, not aspiration

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has long been something brands/companies aspired to, but it was rarely inherent in their mission statements or business practices. Those days are gone as today’s consumers are demanding that companies ‘walk the walk’ and no longer ‘talk the talk’ when it comes to CRS. By Anne-Marie Hardie

Over the last few years, social, environmental and economic challenges have escalated. Coffee and tea communities have recognised that positive change in these areas requires both collaboration and concrete actions. Today, ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) has become part of the fabric of the business world, requiring brands to tackle challenging subjects, including child labour, climate resilience, gender, pay equity, and diversity.

“CSR should become an integral and self-evident part of all businesses and strategies,” said Donna Gray, director of public relations, trade marketing, Melitta North America, Cherry Hill, New Jersey [part of the Minden, Germany-based Melitta Group]. “All employees need to be included in the transformation process because it is only when everyone is aware of the purpose of the sustainability goals that they can adopt the fundamental attitude required to make substantial progress.”

Sustainability is an integral part of Melitta North America’s business and strategies. In 2019, the company developed a ten-year road map to achieve ambitious sustainability targets across its value chains and processes. “We seek to set up all our processes in a way that supports sustainable development while continuing to strengthen our future,” said Gray. “Concepts and goals that have been developed for the future should only be seen as interim steps or milestones, which–as soon as they have been achieved–will have to be developed further.”

Image: Melitta

These initiatives include implementing measures and building alliances across the value chain that positively influence the growing regions’ political, economic, and social development. Recent CSR actions include planting over 500,000 trees with the American Forest Organization and installing solar panels on the roof of their production facility in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, reducing their annual C02 emissions by approximately 357 metric tonnes.

Corporate social responsibility is all-encompassing, requiring companies to identify their values and then follow through with the internal and external changes that embody them. “Since the early formation of the company there was a foundational set of values that put illy on a path of being a stakeholder company aiming to improve quality of life through ethics and excellence,” said David Brussa, total quality and sustainability director, illycaffè Spa, Trieste, Italy. “Ethics as the creation of long-term value through transparency, sustainability, and personal growth; and excellence as a passion for quality, beauty, and constant improvement.” The company has adopted several initiatives, including reducing carbon emissions to achieve carbon neutrality by 2033, in-depth industry training on the scientific, technological and humanistic areas of coffee, through its Masters in Coffee Economics and Science, and continuing to build the regenerative supply chain.

Image: illycaffe

In 2021, illycaffè challenged its employees to adopt a new habit that would positively impact the environment, to demonstrate that small actions have an impact. Based on the number of employees who participated, illycaffè funded a sustainable project, the Coffee Kindergarten and Coffee Camp in Guatemala, which provides an educational and meal service for children of coffee pickers at a plantation in the southwest part of the country. The company also earned B-Corp certification in April 2021, demonstrating its commitment to becoming leaders incorporate social responsibility.

“Those looking to implement sustainable activities need to support grower communities to create a sustainable value chain that supports the most integral part of the supply chain – with that aspect in mind, our industry needs to take action with one of the most pressing issues which is the impacts of climate change, where collaboration is needed to ensure the future livelihood of so many communities, who depend on coffee growing,” said Brussa.

Starbucks Coffee, Seattle, Washington, is well recognised as a leader in corporate social responsibility, including publishing its initial CSR report in 2020. The report centered on the company’s commitment to being accountable and transparent about both business practices and performance. This past April, Starbucks Global released its Environmental and Social Impact Report demonstrating that an integral component of CSR is evolving with the current social, environmental, and economic climate. A few of the environmental initiatives include aspirations to become resource positive, including building and operating 10,000 Greener stores by 2025 and joining the US Dairy Net Zero initiative, including a 10 million investment, to help provide farmers with access to effective environmentally and economically viable practices and technologies.

Over the past few years, there has been an increased recognition that CSR involves investing the time to understand the unique needs of each community. When developing its CSR partner programmes, Starbucks adapted them to the needs of each region; programmes include the Home Sweet Loan programme in the UK, mental health services for partners in Canada, and monthly housing subsidies for full time Starbucks baristas and shift supervisors in China. Diversity and inclusion remain a primary focus within their operation, including establishing representation goals to increase BIPOC and women’s representation in corporate, retail, and manufacturing. Starbucks remains committed to ethical sourcing, including sourcing 99.9 per cent of tea from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms, and launching the Starbucks Digital traceability tool in North American retail stores to help strengthen connections between the consumer and the individuals throughout the supply chain. In fiscal year 2021 (FY21), more than 33,000 bags of coffee were traced using the traceability tool online, helping raise awareness for farmers, CAFE Practices, and Starbucks’ ongoing commitment to transparency.

JDE Peet’s–the world’s leading pure-play coffee and tea company by revenue – corporate responsibility strategy is centered around three pillars: addressing the issues in the supply chain, reducing their environmental impact, and engaging their employees and community. The Amsterdam, Netherlands-based company recently announced it will increase its responsibly sourced coffee target from 30 per cent to 80 per cent by the end of 2022, including investing 150 million EUR into its responsible sourcing program to support one million small holder coffee farms by 2025.

In 2021, Peet’s Coffee, the US subsidiary of JDE Peet’s, reached 100 per cent responsibly sourced coffee through its partnership with Enveritas. JDE Peet’s will now leverage the partnership with Enveritas across its broader coffee supply chain, allowing it to reach its ambition of 100 per cent responsibly sourced coffee by 2025. The company has also committed to 100 per cent recyclable, compostable or reusable packaging by 2025, efficient water usage, and achieving gender balance across management positions by 2025.

Image: Starbucks Coffee

CSR and sustainability have been guiding principles for Bigelow Tea almost since its founding. In 2021, the company, which became a certified B Corp in 2019, launched a training initiative across the organisation that focuses on sustainability education for both the workplace and home. Integrated into the traditional training modules, the sustainability training is a year-round educational programme that equips employees with the most up-to-date best practices for reducing their impact on the environment. It also gives employees a voice to suggest additional measures to further that goal within the organisation.

CSR is inherent in tea’s philosophy

“Our goal at Bigelow Tea is to continually strive to be a more eco-conscious company as a whole. Empowering our employees to be champions of this change in their work and home lives was a natural extension of this goal,” said Cindi Bigelow, third generation president and CEO of Bigelow Tea, when announcing the new initiative.

Image: Bigelow Tea

Some of Bigelow Tea’s most recent efforts to reduce its impact on the environment include a partnership with Fermata Energy, installing a bidirectional charger at their Louisville location and adding the company’s first electric vehicle. In addition, Bigelow Tea was certified by Green-e Energy for using 100 per cent renewable energy across all three of its locations, and completed a four-year energy audit, which enabled the reduction of energy usage ranging from 2 per cent – 14 per cent across its three locations.

Bigelow Tea installed 870 solar panels on the roof of its Fairfield, Connecticut headquarters in 2007 and has been certified as a Zero Waste to Landfill company since 2012, diverting 95.3 per cent of its solid waste companywide through composting and recycling programmes.

Clipper Tea is one of the founding Fairtrade brands, and as such, it actively supports 114,000 tea producers and their families annually and has contributed more than GBP £2 million to Fairtrade projects over the past seven years. In addition to supporting fair wages, Dorset, England-based Clipper also contributes towards the Fairtrade Premium that producers can spend where it is most needed within their communities, which includes areas like education, healthcare and retirement to help improve the lives of workers and their families.

As well as ethical sourcing, Clipper is also committed to minimising its impact on the environment through organic and sustainable materials. The brand launched a biodegradable tea bag in 2018—it is plant-based, unbleached and non-GM. Additionally, Clipper’s tea bag envelopes are fully recyclable and the string and tag on the tea bags are organic.

Navigating the CSR landscape

Tea and coffee are complex global commodities grown in various regions, each with unique needs and barriers. Centralised CSR approaches fail to consider the variances in each community; however, it can be challenging for companies to identify which initiatives to tackle first. Partnering with certifications is one approach that brands have taken to help navigate the CSR roadmap while also providing transparency to the consumer.

“We think of ourselves as a tool for brands to tackle their corporate social responsibility goals. However, it can feel incredibly daunting,” said Isabella Pacheco, senior development manager, coffee and retail partnerships, Fairtrade America, Washington, DC. Fairtrade America’s primary goal is to assist farmers with getting a fair deal, but within that approach, they help create a structure for brands, including reviewing what needs to be put in place to help attain a cleaner and more sustainable supply chain.

“We know that by 2050, 50 per cent of the land used for coffee may no longer be viable, and so we also see the industry from the lens of what this means for those producers currently living in those regions,” said Pacheco. As a direct result, Fairtrade America has shifted its focus to developing the climate academy, including teaching best practices for climate resiliency and water conservation.

The continual evolution of CSR

Although the term corporate social responsibility is more corporate than consumer-centric, it is consumers who are holding companies accountable, including ensuring that their actions are aligned with their values. “I think the pandemic did a big shift on intentionality for consumers ,and research is backing that up,” said Pacheco. “Consumers are listening, and they want to see brands walk the talk more than ever.”

Over the past few years, the environment has become increasingly important. As a result, companies are taking concrete actions to reduce their impact, including developing CSR initiatives focused on achieving net-zero or becoming resource positive. However, making broad statements is no longer enough; at the bare minimum, there is an expectation that companies have a road map in place on how they will achieve these goals. “Consumers expect companies to have stances on issues which previously would have been not seen as part of a corporation’s fabric,” said Matthew Barry, senior consultant, beverages, Euromonitor International, London, United Kingdom. “Values aren’t universally applicable, so the natural out growth is for consumers to align with the brands that reflect their values; this is particularly true with products like coffee and tea that have an emotional connection.”

Recently, consumers are becoming increasingly vocal about the war between Russia and Ukraine, urging companies to cut their ties with Russia. As a result, large brands, including Starbucks, Coca Cola and McDonald’s have temporarily suspended business operations in Russia, while pledging to continue to pay their staff. “There’s a public sense that consumers don’t want to deal with brands that have a relationship in Russia, which is really unprecedented,” said Barry. “That is an interesting precedent. Will there now be an expectation for brands to pull out when a country does something that is viewed as being over the line?”

The political, environmental, economic, and social landscapes directly influence CSR initiatives. From a business perspective, it requires that companies are continually evaluating and evolving to ensure that they are responding to the current challenges while also taking action to create a better tomorrow. “We need to start seeing CSR like a marathon, not a sprint,” said Pacheco. “Brands need to pace themselves and I think consumers will appreciate any effort, provided that the brand is committed to making a difference and is it in for the long haul.”

  • Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based in Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at:[email protected].

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