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Bringing the tradition of sustainability full circle.

Everything about coffee is steeped in tradition, from the cultivation of the famous shrub--some coffee terraces in Yemen date from the eighth century--to processing, roasting and the familiar rituals of the coffeehouse. Even the business of buying, exporting and distributing coffee is laced with tradition: third-generation coffee traders are not uncommon. So is the rise of the sustainable coffee movement a break with tradition?

Not at all, argues Karen Peters, a third-generation farm manager in Costa Rica. "Sustainability often means guarding traditions and inherited knowledge as a way of ensuring the future," she says. The traditional practices on her farm, La Luisa, result in prize-winning coffee quality, and her family also carries on the tradition of conservation: almost one third of her farm is virgin forest.

Simon Wakefield a second-generation specialty supplier in London agrees. "We didn't call it 'sustainability' 20 years ago, but the three elements of sustainability--environment ethics and economy--are deeply rooted in the coffee culture worldwide," he says.

Leopoldo A. R. Sant'Anna of Daterra's Farm in Brazil says sustainability and tradition have always been compatible. "What has changed is the growing recognition of conservation practices by farmers and markets," he says. "Working together with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) aria scientists, we producers have better defined sustainability. The Rainforest Alliance--through its certification program--provides guidance on eliminating harmful production methods, promoting market incentives and raising the prestige of the seal of approval for adopting the best practices."

When the Rainforest Alliance and its partner NGOs in the Sustainable Agriculture Network began talking to coffee farmers about sustainability in the early 1990s, they found a wealth of time-honored practices that favored the environment, such as mixing farming with forestry. Coffee farming areas were often islands of tranquility and rural cohesiveness amidst political and economic tumult. The colorful customs of the coffee farm--especially the harvest season--pervaded the culture, social norms, music and dress of most coffee farming regions.

But other traditions, such as dumping coffee hulls and pulp into streams and neglecting to provide seasonal workers with sanitary facilities and clean drinking water, had to change. In addition, many farmers were abandoning the traditional practices they learned from their grandfathers and taking new shortcuts to productivity, a trend most apparent in the increasing reliance on agrochemicals.

Some new "traditions," such as providing schooling and health care to workers and establishing forest reserves on the farms brought new social and environmental gains. In addition, innovative technologies such as biological control of pests and Cenicafe's Belcosub watermiser depulping machines were positive additions to the sustainability equation.

The Rainforest Alliance found most farmers willing and even eager to maintain or adopt sustainable farming practices, assuming that investments in social and environmental improvements paid off in better production, quality and/or prices. Production and quality gains could be demonstrated on the farms, but the quest for price improvements meant engaging the rest of the industry.

Some specialty coffee suppliers were early pioneers in the sustainability movement. D.R. Wakefield & Company, Volcafe Specialty, Balzac Brothers, Boyd Coffee Company, Royal Cup, Java City, Susan's Coffee & Tea and others added Rainforest Alliance Certified coffees to their menus of highly select beans for their most discerning clients. The rise of internet marketing opened new possibilities, and sustainable coffees are now available to shoppers at sites managed by roasters and NGOs such as National Audubon Society.

Origin-based exporters such as the Colombia Coffee Federation, Expocafe in Colombia, and Ucraprobex in El Salvador also grew the pipeline of sustainable coffees from farms to buyers. Tokyo-based importer Itochu Corporation sources certified coffee from Guatemala and El Salvador, which is roasted by Kohikan and served in 400 gourmet cafes, and me importer Kanematsu Corporation works with large Japanese roasters to offer certified beans to home-users in Japan. Urs Hess, a seasoned coffee broker, manages Cafe Gourmet, which offers certified coffees to institutional buyers in Switzerland.

These channels bring coffee from certified farms to consumers who are passionate about coffee and who care about causes such as ensuring a square deal for farmers and conserving the vanishing rainforests. "The support of these progressive suppliers, whose products and marketing often attract society's thoughtful leaders, was absolutely essential," says Frank Hicks, the director of the Rainforest Alliance's sustainable agriculture program. "But in order to build a bridge to the typical on-the-go coffee drinker, we needed to involve the large-scale, commercial trading houses as well."

In order to "mainstream sustainability," the Rainforest Alliance brokered agreements with ECOM, Neumann Kaffee Gruppe and Volcafe, the three leading exporters who together handle about one third of the world's coffee trade. All three companies are actively researching sustainable farm-management and trading practices. And they all support model farms and projects in rural development, improved coffee quality, and business and organizational skills training to producers and cooperative leaders.

Exporters have a central role in the new age of sustainability that builds on their traditional services. They identify farms that can be put on the path toward sustainability, support technical assistance to producers, seek out and aggregate coffee from certified farms and provide credit and harvest financing.

While sustainable farming practices attend to the environment, workers, communities and conservation of natural resources, sustainable trading practices are built on transparency and traceability. These assets are increasingly valuable to roasters retailers and consumers. Some specialty roasters nave used traceability to market "relationship coffees" that tell the story of the farm to interested consumers.

Now, even the largest roasters want more information about where their coffee originates, the conditions on the farms, the labor and ecological issues. For an industry that has evolved around coffee as an exchangeable commodity, traceability from farm to cup seems almost impossible, but the ground rules of sustainability value traceability and exporters are in the best position to begin adding it to their portfolio of services.

Transparency is also a fundamental element of sustainable trading, as stakeholders want to know more about the terms of the contracts as coffee moves along the supply chain. NGO activists and many within the industry itself are seeking ways to assure more equity in the supply chain, especially on behalf of the beleaguered producers; the degree to which equity and fairness can be monitored depends on the level of transparency.

Nestle Nespresso S.A, the Swiss company which developed a clever espresso machine and capsules of roast and ground coffee to feed it, has an obsession for quality. The company's green coffee management head Orlando Garcia, says "we tell our suppliers that we require sustainable quality and that traceability is the necessary link between the coffee beans and the coffee farmers."

Producers are willing and even eager to protect their traditions and adopt sustainable farm-management practices. The specialty suppliers and roasters have found that certified sustainable coffees are a growth sector with huge potential. Mainstream exporters are adapting their business to support sustainability. The next challenge, then, in getting sustainable coffee to the consuming public is the mainstream roasters.

As reported in the last issue of Tea & Coffee, the Kraft company made an unprecedented commitment to purchase large and increasing quantities of certified sustainable coffee. The certified beans will be mixed into mainstream brands, demonstrating the company's determination to integrate sustainability into its sourcing strategy, thus directly supporting improved conditions on farms and in rural, tropical communities, in late 2004. Kraft will also launch a 100% certified product.

Annemieke Wijn, Kraft Foods' Senior Director for Commodity Sustainability Programs, notes that Kraft sees certified sustainable coffee as an element in the company's long-standing commitment to coffee farmers. "Promoting sustainability is fundamental to the success of our business and is the best way forward for coffee growing. Sustainable coffee production aims to grow coffee without damaging the environment, with improved social conditions for farmers and in a way that provides farmers with better returns for their coffee."

"A credible seal of approval is an important linking mechanism," says Frank Hicks of the Rainforest Alliance. "It ties together guaranteed benefits to farmers, workers and wildlife, plus traceability, transparency and communications to the consumer."

Hicks also notes that the Rainforest Alliance is talking to all of the major roasters. "Most of them will move in the direction of certification in the near future. These large companies need time to research and develop a sustainability program that meets their needs. We NGOs have to remember that the economics have to work for the company's stockholder and stakeholders as well as for the farmer. If the economics don't work at both ends, the program is not sustainable," he says.

Henk Campher, private-sector policy advisor for Oxfam, says that, "There is no single, magic solution to getting more equity for smallholder producers. We support Fair Trade as one alternative; Rainforest Alliance Certified is another. Both of them together could be quite interesting."

Gampher also believes a credible, NGO-led certification program helps build equity and transparency into the supply chain and brings coffee companies closer to the farmers; that gives them a foundation for developing coffee sourcing policies that are fair and sustainable.

With the farmers, traders and roasters climbing aboard the sustainability bandwagon, the supermarkets and coffee shops have more options to serve as the final link between farmer and consumer. Some have been enlarging shelf space for certified products for years--organic, fair-trade, eco-friendly and sustainable goods are flying off the shelves in many areas.

The coffee industry is wide-awake on these issues and joining with NGOs and research agencies to develop long-term plans to incorporate sustainability into the way it does business. Even supermarkets with longstanding reputations for corporate responsibility are looking for ways to improve their sustainability programs, and making visits to certified farms to learn firsthand about where their raw materials come from.

Several coffee companies are involved in the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform. According to Hans Johr, head of agriculture for Nestle and one of the founders of the SAI Platform, the coffee companies compete in marketing but research on sustainability issues can be "pre-competitive." The platform has an active coffee committee looking at those tools needed for sustainability, such as farm assessment instruments.

The German Coffee Association and the German Agency for International Development and the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit, or GTZ, has pulled together producers, trade unions, NGOs and coffee industry representatives to develop "common codes for the coffee community." The mission, according to project director Ulrich Sabel-Koschella is to get universal agreement on the borderline between acceptable and unacceptable coffee farming practices and then support continual improvement in practices through the purchase of coffee from progressive farms.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development in cooperation with the United Nations Trade and Development department, recently announced a Sustainable Coffee Partnership that will help coordinate the on-going global initiatives in sustainable coffee and support them through research on keystone questions.

For more information on certified sustainable coffee: Procter & Gamble's Millstone, ction=Signature%20Collection&Coffee=Rainforest/Alliance Kraft Foods: Cafe Gourmet: Beantrends: Good Coffee: Daterra:

For more information on sustainable coffee initiatives: RainForest Alliance: www Common Codes for the Coffee Community. Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform: Sustainable Coffee Partnership:
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Title Annotation:Cup Service
Author:Wille, Chris
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 20, 2003
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