Is there concrete evidence that coffee companies' sustainability efforts have an impact?


Sustainability in coffee is a term that is being tossed around a lot these days. Sustainability means better wages for the coffee workers, transparent costs, being a little impactful on the environment as possible (ideally being net-zero carbon emissions), greater efforts in traceability of the coffee and a more equal redistribution of the earnings from the coffee sales.

Companies fill their mouths with this word. I've previously written and lauded the efforts of some coffee giants in this area, like Nespresso and Starbucks, right here on Newsbreak. But are those efforts enough? Do they have any concrete impact on the life of the workers, especially the farmers, and the environment?

According to the Coffee Barometer, no. Let's see why.

Many words aren't often followed by adequate actions

The Coffee Barometer is a yearly report written by a group of global non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In their 6th edition of their analysis of the coffee industry, they looked at the role of the private sector players, which in coffee mean that the top 10 represent around 35% of global trade of green coffee (coffee that is not yet roasted).

Photo by Akil Mazumder from Pexels

With an average decrease of coffee prices of 30% compared to ten years ago, coffee production is increasingly not a viable crop for many farmers. Especially in countries where coffee is a marginal crop. There's a rift between high-producing countries and smaller, more specialised ones: in most of the former group coffee remains a valuable crop, while it is the opposite in the latter. Overall coffee producers' annual income has decreased significantly over the last 2 years, putting at risk some famed single origins in Kenya, El Salvador and Mexico, among others. The proportion of producers living below the extreme poverty line ($1,9/day) has dramatically increased in a good deal of coffee-producing countries, reaching the maximum increase in Cameroon (44%) and Nicaragua (50%). With labour costs accounting to up 60% of the total costs of production of coffee, with a few notable exceptions like Brazil, it is easy to see how fluctuations of the coffee price cause increased pressures on companies and large cooperatives of farms to offload the reduced gains on the workers.

It is unnecessary to say that these numbers go against the repeated "increased efforts" towards sustainability that we often hear from large coffee companies.

Environment is increasingly suffering too, despite the sustainability claims

Sustainability means also to not weigh on the environment. Being net-zero in carbon emissions by using clean sources of energies and/or planting more trees to offset the CO2 produced by the coffee processing are all roads that large coffee companies are following to be more sustainable.

Is it enough? According to the Coffee Barometer, no, not even close. Whereas the deforestation caused by the coffee cultivation is orders of magnitudes smaller than the one driven by palm oil, soy and cattle farming, it still reaches peaks as high as 25% of the total area of forest that has been deprived of trees for agricultural reasons, like in Peru. In many coffee producing countries, a large part of the area considered suitable for coffee cultivation from today to 2050 is forested and often unprotected.

The growing demand for more coffee, and of higher quality, isn't helping either. To meet it it would mean doubling or tripling coffee production before 2050, meaning an additional 10-20 million hectares that will largely be deforested to accommodate the demand of coffee. It is obvious to see how this goes in direct contrast with the sustainability efforts claimed by many coffee companies. This scenario directly undermines any of these efforts.

The usual certifications like FairTrade, 4C, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ are also criticised by the Coffee Barometer report. Their claims of production volumes are never actually verified, with only a fraction of the coffee that these organizations claim to be produced respecting their standards being verified. In cases like 4C, less than one fifth of all coffee with this certification was verifiable so. Others fare little better, with UTZ being only half verified to respect the standards, and Fairtrade only one third.

Still in 2019, only 25% of all coffee sold worldwide respected any of these sustainability certifications. Only Nestlé and Starbucks managed to have a majority of their coffee coming from sustainable farming, with all other big players in the coffee market failing to even reach a quarter of their total production.

Transparency doesn't fare much better either

Multi-stakeholder initiatives like SCC and GCP have been asking coffee roasters to be more transparent for a while now, in vain. SCC reports that they requested over 160 companies on the origin and traceability of their coffee, receiving around 120 replies, vaguely formed and lacking reporting on progresses (SCC, 2019). GCP didn't receive any more info, with only five roasters and retailers providing insight into the origins and volumes of their coffee of their sustainable product purchases.

Both SCC and GCP united their efforts into a common "Sustainability Framework" in 2017, which has been updated since then. Perhaps surprisingly, none of the companies' reports refers to this framework to disclose their information. They largely ignore it.

This is clearly a large discrepancy between the amount of words that are spent to laud the sustainability of each of these companies by their marketing teams and what is actually done. Climate change will put the sector under higher stress in the coming years, and being sustainable should no more be a nice term to be used on advertisements but a clear, transparent, verifiable action that every coffee company should undertake right now.

The Coffee Barometer paints a gloom present on the sustainability efforts of the coffee industry as a whole. This doesn't have to be the future too. The booming profits of the global coffee industry sharply contrasts with the difficulties and shrinking wages of the producing countries' workers, but also shows that there is ample margin to switch resources from one side to the other, creating a more equal, transparent, and sustainable coffee sector.

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