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Sustainable living world wide: what's the next step?

I just returned from attending the National Coffee Association (NCA) Conference in Boca Raton, where I was hoping to experience a presentation that would ignite my inspiration to inform you of something on this subject that is fast becoming rhetoric-weary. While I didn't receive a burning bush of a revelation that I had so hoped for, there were speakers, panelists and attendees who will be burned if there aren't steps taken soon as a united industry.

However, even without a united front, there are many sustainable projects that are working, individually, and showing results. From a recent survey conducted by the NCA, the industry reports 70 projects completed or underway. So maybe the answer is to develop projects specifically for the indigenous cultures and businesses represented. 'What's good for a coop in Mexico may not work for Guatemala.

Gabriel Silva, the new general manager of the Colombian Coffee Federation summed up the sustainable issue very succinctly, stating global objectives: 1. A common definition for production and distribution; 2. Common principles; and; 3. A common agenda. Silva also stated that sustainability includes coffee quality and quality standards. Continuing his theme of suggestive solutions, he proposes the coffee industry adopt the ICO 407 resolution standards.

On the subject of the International Coffee Organization (ICO), adopting resolution 407 would resolve the standards criteria. Furthermore, since the coffee industry is trying to position coffee as much more than a commodity, support from the ICO would provide the catalyst needed to propel these programs forward. Since we're really emphasizing quality products with higher prices attached, which at least in theory would benefit the entire coffee process, quotas make sense, because the coffees in question are being produced regardless of the standard supply and demand.

Bridging the Communications Gap

What is missing in many of these projects is how to bridge the communication gap...i.e., the gap between grower and importer or roaster, reaching the "gap generation" (also referred to as Gen- X and Y) who represent the growing coffee generation, and of course, the experienced seasoned generation. All are missing something in common....consumer education. All the "white papers," coffee standard papers, NGO papers, GO papers are only going to be shuffled unless strategies for communicating the benefits of sustainable coffee are delivered and understood by producers and buyers.

William H. Hempstead, a coffee grower from Guatemala, expressed one of the prime examples of the missing link during the NCA Conference, as he lamented his concerns about how to communicate benefits and qualities to customers. "Thanks to the Cup of Excellence program and the integration of best business practices, Guatemala has identified seven distinctly different taste profiles among its growing areas. The question is: What are the selling opportunities and how does this translate into better revenues throughout the sales process?"

Guatemala is an example of many similar projects, which are the culmination of co-operative programs, alliances and partnerships between growing and consuming countries. For these types of programs, the Cup of Excellence has been a saving grace.

And, an offshoot to that, which will carry forth additional awareness of the acute crisis the industry faces, is the new Coffee Corps program under the auspices of Coffee Quality Institute. In an effort to continue the search for global sustainable solutions, Margaret Swallow, executive director, CQI, is leading a group of experienced volunteer coffee professionals from all sectors of the industry to continue the goals and objectives of "The Coffee Summit" set forth in February 2002.

While the coffee industry has always been viewed by insiders as "fragmented," we continue to demonstrate that tag because we don't work together as one voice. Unfortunately, this trait was further illustrated during the NCA Conference as some presenters -- not all -- pointed fingers at their competition for doing things "wrong" or at least what "they ought to do."

We don't need to berate the other guy, but rather keep the line of communication open. There is room for everyone and to slight the competition only dilutes our message.... whatever that is when we finally decide to act on one.

Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Oxfam, TechnoServe, USAID, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and community conscious companies like Starbucks, Green Mountain Roasters, Procter & Gamble, Equal Exchange, Thanksgiving Coffee, Seattle's Best and many others ARE making a positive difference, a step forward, albeit tiny, toward long-term solutions.

Reaching the End User

Because of the very culture and mission of coffee-related organizations and companies, perhaps the solutions should be implemented in the same method they were developed. Just don't truncate the process by slinging your own company's culture and mission against others. We're all committed to the same goal -- and if sustainability isn't resolved, we're all out of business. So, the challenge in promoting coffees like these excellent Guatemalans lies in how to educate the consumer. Here are several examples of what companies are doing.

Two natural food chains, Whole Foods and Wild Oats, have programs in place that rakes the sustainable message to consumers. If a distributor or roaster is fortunate to pass all of the strict vendor specifications, and have their products sold through either of these large chains, they are not only helping their products, but others. Why? Because the more information consumers have about the product, its value and reasons for the higher price, the more they will purchase.

Green Mountain is the current primary coffee supplier for Wild Oats. The first criterion for selling coffee to Wild Oats is that it must be certified Fair Trade. According to Mary Multy, senior director of product development and standards, there are opportunities to sell coffee through regional offices if the coffee is high-end and is roasted locally (that is, in addition to being Fair Trade certified). Furthermore, for regional consideration, a company must submit samples to the merchandise department with prices and ingredient standards. After passing the merchandise department, the products go to the standards department where more information is needed regarding ingredients, e.g., farm, process, etc. Vendors must also participate in environmental and socially responsible programs.

If the product is tea, Wild Oats sells only private label and it has to be high-end, certified organic and Fair Trade. Numi, which sells a line of sustainable/organic teas, has built a profitable relationship with UNFI, the largest natural foods distributor in the U.S., and distributing to leading natural foods stores all over the country. "Quality and packaging are key when making a sales presentation to distributors", said Ahmed Rahim, Numi's founder and c.e.o. What stores UNFI doesn't distribute to, Tree of Life does and that is the other main NUMI distributor.

"Marketing materials, great merchandising programs and demos are part of our sales program", said Rahim, who has sold a line of certified organic teas since the day he started the company. While organic teas don't comprise NUMI's total product portfolio, the company plans to extend its organic line based on consumer demand. Along with organic certificates, the mission of NUMI is to support the earth by maintaining as close to a chemical free life as possible." NUMI teas are sold at Whole Foods stores as well as other natural foods and specialty outlets.

What about selling sustainable coffees on the Internet? Certainly, Costa Rica's Cafe Britt was the pioneer in establishing that sales niche. Selling directly from firm to consumer offers customers additional value because products have the perceived value of not only "hand-picked, farm-grown", but also the freshest available, possibly still warm from the roaster.

Pura Vida, an Internet-based company in Seattle, is growing its marketing channels from starting its relationships with firm coops and small importers. John Sage, Pura Vida president works with Bill Harris of Cooperative Coffees based in Americus, Georgia, to import coffees from the coops that Harris works with in Central and South America. With one firmer coop in Nicaragua (Esperanza), Sage uses the beans in "Mission Blend," one of his best sellers, and which is a product produced in conjunction with World Relief, a relief and development agency. World Relief introduced Pura Vida to the coffee farmers who supply the beans for this product, paying premium prices for coffee and helping continue to improve the community where it's grown. Today, not only does Pura Vida sell via Internet, it provides coffee to growing niches including businesses, colleges and universities, churches and other socially conscious organizations. Fair Trade/organic coffees account for about 70% of his current volume and Pura Vida is w orking toward making its entire inventory sustainable and certified by June of this year.

Another small enterprise that exemplifies another approach is Counter Culture coffee, based in Durham, N.C. Master roaster and green coffee buyer, Peter Giuliano says they have a namber of customers who already have sustainability standards for the coffee they buy. Active in the Fair Trade movement, Counter Culture's coffees are all sustainable with pertinent certifications. One of the company's distinctive brands is "Under Cover Coffee", a shadegrown line for the Wild Bird Centers, a chain of bird-oriented stores. In addition to relationships directly with producers, Counter Culture works locally with organic farming groups in North Carolina. "Our work with local farmers is to increase solidarity and understanding about coffee as it relates to locally-grown, environmentally-friendly and small-farmer issues", said Giuliano.

And why don't we look at other commodity boards and associations who do a great job of communicating to consumers. The Soybean Association, Pork Council, National Peanut Board, and others have consumer marketing programs that educate and inform consumers on the latest developments on health, nutrition and usage. The Organic Trade Association has brought a level of consumer awareness that sways consumer opinion such that the government has to listen. In response to what Katherine DiMatteo, OTA executive director said about the government's sneaking in an amendment that makes a "mockery of the national organic labeling law," the OTA has launched a national ad campaign calling on U.S. consumers to "join the fight to protect organic standards".

With the North American organic industry members now representing $11 billion and growing, there are enough educated consumers who can tally on the association's behalf. The Organic Consumer Trends Report produced by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) and SPINS reports that 39% of the U.S. population uses organic products.

The Organic Trade Association has one voice and it's strong enough to make a difference in government policy and persuade public awareness and opinion.

Granted, certified organic/sustainable coffee has a different set of standards than food, but if we can speak with one voice, carrying a unified sustainable message based on industry criteria that encompasses all the white papers' criteria, and an agreement between the trade associations, the action will come.

The Specialty Tea Institute and U.S. Tea Association already have a head start, having long educated consumers to the health benefits and distinctive differences inherent in the leaves and processing.

All said, to date, all sustainable programs have raised global awareness about the crises we face, the lives it affects, the economic impact and a growing need to restructure business models to meet today's issues. Let's just "do it."

Suzanne J. Brown is a coffee marketing specialist and writer for the coffee and tea industry. She has been following the sustainable issue for several years and continues to analyze and report them in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal.
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Author:Brown, Suzanne J.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Apr 20, 2003
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