This is not a TED talk, thoughts on sustainability in the coffee supply chain from our latest cupping club
By Becky Wooden
In January we were joined by Matt Randell of coffee importer Langdon Coffee Merchants, responsible for some of our stand-out Colombian coffees over recent years, to open the conversation on sustainability across the specialty coffee supply chain. Here, he shared valuable insights directly from producer and exporter partners to explore what sustainability means for individuals in the coffee industry, highlighting ways we can evaluate and improve our practices to best serve each hand our coffees pass through. In the interests of transparency (it’s key … read on for more around this term) we wanted to share that conversation with all of you.
The cupping club started with a preface - this is not a TED talk. These talks follow a format where a clear and succinct argument or discovery is presented within 18 minutes or less. The work of improving sustainable practices within our industry cannot be presented in an easy digest format. It’s a long, slow and analytical process that involves taking the time to deeply listen to the perspectives of those that grow our coffees, to continue to re-evaluate our business decisions and to ensure we make the most sustainably minded choice given the information and knowledge we’ve built so far. We don’t always have the answer, but the work comes in questioning, challenging and constantly improving the ways we operate.
We took a look at perspectives and barriers to sustainability from producers, exporters, importers and roasters before opening the floor to conversation from our barista team and wholesale partners.
The Producer / Smallholder
Definition: the first step in the coffee supply chain. These are the people that cultivate, harvest, process and store green coffee. This work is multi-skilled and often reliant on generations of knowledge and expertise. Producers can range from smallholder coffee farms of less than 3 hectares who often work within co-operatives, to sites working on a much larger scale.
Matt caught up with Benjamin Paz of Santa Barbara, Honduras who shared his outlook on sustainability. For Benjamin, sustainability means …
“... being able to produce and process coffee with the lowest impact on the environment whilst also turning a profit.”
Here he highlights the importance of economic as well as environmental sustainability. This turns out to be a repeating theme through our conversations and something that is echoed in SCA’s recent article ‘One Size (Does Not) Fit All’ which highlights that for Vietnamese coffee producers the term sustainability is often translated as ‘sustainable development’ and is considered in terms of long-term economic growth, with best environmental practice considered as an additional consideration once a producer is consistently turning profit and the essentials of education and infrastructure are secured.
Benjamin highlighted that coffee importers, roasters and baristas need to become aware of the cost of production as well as how much money contributes profit for a smallholder. As costs of production rise - in his region of Honduras by up to 300% - we have to recognise that as our prices do not go up by the same degree it is ultimately the smallholders that are the most squeezed of profit. Producers are additionally faced with increasing labour costs, as rural populations move to urban areas for work. It’s important to note that coffee producing regions situated within the ‘coffee belt’ either side of the equator are areas most at risk from the effects of global climate change and unpredictable weather conditions that can impact production. The greatest risk sits with the producer.
Economic sustainability here circles around developing long-standing relationships and committing to repeat purchasing, where importers and coffee roasters consistently work with the same coffees year on year allowing producers to plan crops ahead of time. With the promise of repeat purchasing producers can plan financially, accounting for the 3 years from setting seed to harvest as well as providing a regular and secure income for their employees. This economic stability can also help producers absorb the impact of the unexpected and help reduce the risk associated with their investments.
Definition: connecting coffee producers to buyers. Can be responsible for cupping, grading and quality control of coffees. These are the people that meticulously monitor market prices to ship coffees for the best possible price.
Again, beginning with transparency, we started this conversation by opening up about the coffee buying process, something that can feel mysterious to those at distal ends of the supply chain.
In short, coffee purchasing operates according to the ‘C Market’, a global exchange in which the world’s Arabica coffee is bought and sold, ie. traded, every day. This price provides a benchmark based on the stock exchange and therefore fluctuates over time. There may be long periods where it remains high and others where it hits a low, with these changes being unpredictable and affected by external factors.There is chatter in the specialty scene about moving away from the C Market, but to do that is easier said than done at this time. The work here surrounds protecting producers from the volatility of the market by empowering farmers to decide what cost their coffees should be.
Matt gives the example of Colombian transparent exporters Cedro Alto and Azahar, the team behind the delicious Passiflora, featuring regularly in our Broadway Blend. Their definition of sustainability …
“... for Azahar, sustainability is very much related to the income for coffee producers and pickers. Our ultimate goal is that producers and everyone working on coffee farms, pickers, workers and family members are able to earn enough money to live as coffee producers. We would like them to see this as an activity and a job that gives them and future generations a sustainable livelihood.”
Azahar has established a transparent format in coffee pricing, where the cost paid for a coffee can be translated into a real terms wage scale for producers. They have communicated this in terms of a poverty, minimum, living and prosperous wage scale. With aiming towards a prosperous wage for all of their producer partnerships they are allowing the farmers they work with to not just survive but thrive, allowing for economic growth year on year.
Definition: organising the complex logistics of bringing green coffee to roasters through multiple producers and exporters. A valuable conduit of information from farm level to roaster and finally consumer.
An importer will purchase coffee by the container load (that’s up to 19 tonnes of beans!) often from multiple producers and exporters before bringing these coffees to roasters.
For Matt at Langdon Coffee Merchants …
“... the real work is done with ongoing relationships. With coffees that are profitable across the whole supply chain.”
As a relatively small importing company, he recognises that the scope of what they can achieve is limited. However there is real power to impact the smaller number of producers they work with directly. By ensuring fair pricing structures and working with trusted, transparent partners, an importer can help work towards economic security. As a small business, improving the economic conditions for just a handful of producers is valuable work.
We come back to the power of repeat purchasing. Sometimes this means making purchasing decisions not based on the glory of cup scores, which may encourage roasters to jump from one producer to another, seeking the highest most vibrant, unique flavour notes, but instead move towards ongoing relationships and acknowledging an unavoidable slight variability in the coffee with each harvest. Importer’s may work with a minimum quality mark with each producer, acknowledging that one year might not be identical to the next but knowing that there is a greater value to the ongoing economic sustainability for the producer in buying consecutively, year on year.
The Coffee Roaster
Definition: purchasing green coffee on any scale and roasting to the optimum profile. Roasted coffees are then stored, packaged, marketed appropriately and distributed for customers to enjoy. There is a crucial opportunity here to share stories from the rest of the supply chain to end consumers.
We are proud to say that 90% of the coffees we roast at Climpson & Sons are bought through repeat purchasing. This has been a cornerstone in our sustainable ethos from the start and has allowed us to form close and trusting relationships with our producer partners over many years. It’s also proved to be a smart business decision, giving us a consistent offering and the opportunity to bring back your favourite coffees each season to taste again and again.
Coffee prices are set by our producers, empowering them to decide on a price that will allow them to operate sustainably. We’re not interested in haggling over 10p and would instead prefer to see our producers set a price that allows them to provide a prosperous wage for their employers and invest in their future growth.
From here it’s a chance to evaluate how we tell the stories of coffee producers. We’ve had feedback from producers that they love that customers and baristas know their farm name and share an awareness of where their coffee comes from. Taking this a step further, wouldn't it be great if we could also talk about our coffee in reference to the name of the producer, giving credit where credit is due by acknowledging the skill and work at the very start of the supply chain. Perhaps this is a simple shift to include producer names, websites and social tags in our communications to allow the open stream of information between producer and end consumer.
As a roaster we have a responsibility to communicate the work at production level appropriately, using imagery that is openly shared from farm level. It’s a joy to get a WhatsApp update from producers, seeing in real time the technical skill and precise agricultural methods that go into producing the coffees we go on to roast. Our aim is to always share his information respectfully and with permission of the subject, given the abuse of imagery and ‘poverty porn’ associations sometimes found in coffee marketing strategies.
Our longest standing ongoing purchase is with Daterra in Minas Gerais, Brazil, the home of our classic espresso The Baron. We have been working consistently with this coffee for more than 10 years now, not just because of its smooth decadent flavour profile, but also for the stand-out environmental credentials. After being the first global coffee producer to receive Rainforest Alliance as well as B Corp Certification, they are now on the road to becoming energy self-sufficient. After a pilot project in 2020, they are now investing 1.3 million USD in photovoltaic plants made up of 3000 solar boards which will provide green energy to their industrial sites and offices. In time, this investment will pay for itself. This example on a large scale displays the environmental awareness and investment that can become possible when economic sustainability has been secured.
The power here really comes in recognising the impact we can have in our decision making. By choosing to work with the same producers year on year we can help to achieve economic security at farm level. By working with fair pricing set by our producers, we move towards a more balanced relationship where the risks of working within the coffee supply chain do not sit solely on the producers shoulders, but are instead carried by each hand in the process. Once this economic stability is found, great environmental work can find the roots to grow. There is also ongoing work to do in elevating the voices and stories of entrepreneurial and knowledgeable producers to communicate the skill, specificity and great efforts of their work to our customers.
What does sustainability in the coffee chain mean to you? How can we better share the work of our producers with you? Connect with us @climpsonandsons to share your perspective.
Sending a big thank you to Matt and everyone that joined us for Cupping Club. Sign up here for our next edition including more conversations on coffee sourcing with Indochina Coffee on 28th February 2023.