A recent report from Conservation International (C.I.) has revealed that coffee giant Starbucks’ ethical sourcing program is yielding greater-than-expected positive changes across the coffee sector. The program, known as the Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices program, was created 20 years ago in partnership with C.I. in view of improving social, environmental and economic outcomes for coffee farms. Other coffee chains, coffee shops, coffee suppliers and coffee producers are following the same precept, aligning their business strategies with the similar sustainability goals. As a result, the area of verifiably sustainably grown coffee has now expanded by over 64% since 2008.
What exactly is the C.A.F.E. Practices program?
The C.A.F.E. Practices program has stemmed from a series of standards set in the 1990s. At that time, the coffee chain Starbucks had the idea to devise some guidelines meant to act as a barometer to recognize, evaluate and reward producers of the finest sustainably-grown coffee. That was even before the notion of ethical sourcing was familiar. Starbucks soon started collaborating with C.I. to design the guidelines and standards that became the C.A.F.E. Practices program. It was launched in 2004.
The C.A.F.E. Practices program allows the coffee giant to assess the social, economic and environmental characteristics of all the coffee entering its supply chain, based on over 200 indicators. To date, coffee producers from 23 have taken part in the program, directly and indirectly affecting the revenues and living conditions of over a million farmers and farm workers. In 2015, Starbucks was already the largest coffee retailer with 99% of its coffee supply being ethically sourced.
C.A.F.E. Practices are believed to be the right way to grow coffee today, according to experts in ethical sourcing programs. For the coffee consumer, this eventually translates into purchasing the finest cup of coffee that simultaneously supports coffee farmers and related workers. Starbucks also shares its research and resources through its Farmer Support Centres located in coffee-producing countries across the planet. These centres remain open to farmers regardless of whether they sell to the coffee chain or not. The coffee giant has also been donating millions of disease-resistant trees to help farmers fight threats such as coffee leaf rust. The coffee chain is identically investing $50 million as financing for farmers to give them the opportunity to renovate their farm or to follow more sustainable practices.
C.A.F.E. Practices are generating positive outcomes across the planet
The C.I. report furthermore highlighted an interesting fact: Starbucks is seen to influence far more coffee than it actually buys. Even if recently it purchased only about 5% of the world’s supply of Arabica coffee, in 2015, approximately 18% of that supply was being produced as per C.A.F.E. Practices. In 2017, data pointed out that such practice was making up 26% of the world supply.
C.A.F.E. Practices are proving to be very beneficial to global sustainability endeavours. They have been embraced in 23 countries where 190,000 hectares have been conserved. 1.3 million workers have been recruited by farms and mills under this program and 1.1 million temporary workers are even earning more than the minimum wage. The C.I. report equally underlined that 99% of farms operating under the program have not converted any natural forest into coffee production since 2004. These findings come as a fresh gust of hope for the coffee industry that is considered in peril because of soaring worldwide coffee demand and climate changes.
In this critical time, it is believed that sustainable strategies in the coffee sector can result in strong positive outcomes. Even more, as three-quarter of participants sticks to the C.A.F.E. Practices program year after year. These participants affirm witnessing a 14% improvement in their overall scores as well.
Sustainable coffee poised to become the only option in the future
Coffee is grown only in tropical countries and specifically in regions home to the world’s remaining tropical forests. To expand coffee plantations, farmers have had the habit of cutting down the surrounding forests as it is the easiest thing to do. At the same time, coffee is cultivated on steep slopes that can lead to sedimentation of waterways and erosion if proper care is not taken. Coffee processing, being water-intensive, can also end up contaminating rivers and streams. As a result, many practices in the cultivation and production of coffee can rapidly become unsustainable, damaging nature instead of preserving it.
Around the world, some 120 million people depend on coffee for a living, the majority being small-scale farmers and farm workers. As in any other market, coffee buyers are known to want to buy at low prices and to sell at high prices to increase their profit margins to the maximum. The coffee market, being a volatile one, has not always been in favour of farmers and farm workers and it happened that they were exploited simply for maintaining low prices artificially. To meet the need of keeping low prices, farmers have been compelled to clear more forests, use low-quality pesticides and rely on cheap labour to manage to make some profits.
By making coffee a sustainable product, the lives of these 120 million people around the world can be improved. However, it is a fact that sustainability issues in the coffee industry cannot be solved by one company alone. The best solutions require the participation and collaboration of every player: coffee producers, retailers, traders, roasters, importers, industry associations, governments, and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are, in fact, all building a sustainability roadmap for achieving a fully sustainable coffee sector. One example of such an endeavour is to tackle the issue around ageing trees and focus to support tree replacement or rehabilitation.
An increasing number of coffee chains and suppliers are participating in sustainability programs by implementing innovative technology and data platforms to offer coffee farmers more financial empowerment and share real-time data along the whole chain. Various types of traceability technology are equally being adopted to ensure transparency across the complete chain, to guarantee positive impact to farmers, and at the same time to gain the trust of coffee consumers who increasingly demand to know the story and the journey of their coffee beans.