In-depth: Specialty roaster and wholesaler Counter Culture Coffee’s latest sustainability report details its relationships with 67 different farmers and farmer groups, aiming to provide transparency into its environmental, social and fiscal sustainability. It also provides information about each of the 354 coffee contracts the company made over the last two harvests. And in conjunction with the new report, it has snagged a business opportunity with a limited release: Frank, a coffee meant to bring attention to the amount of money farmers make, in comparison with actual living wages. Such challenges in the coffee supply chain is something that many in the coffee industry are facing head-on.

Counter Culture focuses much of its report on its supply chain partners – farmers, cooperatives, importers, etc. – because the company believes that only by maintaining long-term partnerships based in resilient growing communities can it ensure a sustainable supply of consistently high-quality product. The coffee supply chain is long, complex and international, and Counter Culture sees that as an opportunity to have a meaningful impact.

With that in mind, the company has decided to dig deeper into its supply chain in terms of prices, with a goal of knowing the price specific farmers get paid for each of its coffees. “A fundamental issue is the ability of farmers to make a profit growing… and understanding the ways we can address that issue,” the company says. With the release of Frank – a blend of beans from Mexico and Kenya – Counter Culture Coffee is exploring “what it means to have transparency about the prices farmers receive and how that transparency can transform supply chains.”

The goal of Frank is to raise awareness about this issue with consumers. “We want to be honest about what we know and don’t know, and to the extent that consumers start to demand sustainable prices paid to farmers, that puts a healthy pressure on the industry to address this issue,” Meredith Taylor, sustainability manager for Counter Culture, told Environmental Leader. “The two coffees in Frank were chosen specifically to highlight the contrast in the level of information a roaster might have about two coffees that they buy – sometimes we know a lot, like in the case of the Kenyan coffee where we negotiate prices directly with farmers, and sometimes we don’t know much at all, as is the case with the Mexican coffee in Frank.”

 

Complicated Supply Chain

The long coffee supply chain makes for a difficult process when it comes to tracking information down to the farmer level, but it is a process Counter Culture is determined to complete.

“Our goal is to know how much farmers got paid in every one of our value chains,” says Taylor. “Once we have this number, we can compare it to what it costs those farmers to produce coffee.”

When this equation doesn’t result in a sustainable wage for farmers, the process needs to be explored in order to fix the problem in that particular value chain. “For example, we might negotiate with other value chain actors, like exporters, to see if there’s a way to lower their costs and increase farmer margins,” Taylor says. “We could also explore ways to lower the cost of production. Sometimes, it might be that we need to pay more for a coffee – the answer will look a little different for each purchasing partnership.

 

Counter Culture Coffee’s Not Alone

Italian roaster Illy is another that cultivates relationships as part of a move toward making the industry more sustainable. In fact, sustainability and fairness are the most critical considerations when forming partnerships, the company’s chief executive told Fast Company last year.

The topic of sustainable coffee has gone mainstream as companies acknowledge that consumers care about where their coffee comes from. Starbucks, for example, says the company is committed to buying 100% ethically sourced coffee in partnership with Conservation International. They are also a founding member of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a collaborative effort to stimulate greater demand for sustainable coffee that launched during the 2015 Paris climate meetings.

And last year, convenience retailer 7-Eleven – citing a 2016 study which found that sustainably sourced coffee is recognized by almost half of Millennials as an important attribute when making their selection – made plans to swap the Colombian product it was serving for a new Rainforest Alliance Certified, single-origin Colombian product.

But building a sustainable future for the coffee is a challenge that the entire industry needs to face. With coffees like Frank, “we are trying to advance the conversation around coffee prices by putting that discussion out in the open,” says Taylor. “We want to encourage other to join that discussion because we’re definitely not going to solve this issue on our own.”

Initiatives like the Frank coffee and 7-Eleven’s switch to Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee are backed by solid business sense. “The business case for us is that we want to be able to buy high-quality coffee five, ten, twenty years from now, and if we want that supply of coffee to be available, the people producing it cannot continue to operate at a loss,” Taylor adds.



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