Barista In The Wild, Part 3: Working Toward Coffee Sustainability

Note: Serious Eats contributor Allison Hemler is a NYC-based barista who recently traveled to Seattle to check out the internal coffee college at Starbucks HQ. This week, she'll be educating us on tidbits she picked up in class, today's focus being on the improving relationships between coffee bean farmers and roasters.


Coffee farmers in Chiapas, Mexico. Photograph from tonx on Flickr

As the second most traded commodity in the world after oil, coffee has acquired more frequent flier miles than any of your produce could hope for. In fact, more coffee enters the United States than any other food product. There's a clear reason why we don't have coffee trees in our backyards and why we rely on shipments from Mexico, Brazil, or Vietnam--our climate can't sustain the quirks of the coffee tree. We can't claim our coffee as part of the "local" movement, but we can learn where it comes from and how it gets here.

As much as you or I might want to despise Starbucks for being an evil corporation, they are making huge progress in sustainability awareness. A trip to any local store will introduce you to the concept of Shared Planet, a set of principles in global responsibility that Starbucks plans to adhere to now and in the future--with many goals hoping to be reached by 2015. I'm most concerned with how they're approaching the trip the coffee bean takes to the cup: support for the small farms, concern for pesticides and amounts of water used in coffee berry washing methods, transparency in coffee pricing, and building direct relationships with farmers.

So many of us look for certification labels to ensure we're buying a quality product, but just because something is labeled Fair Trade or Certified Organic doesn't mean it's a high quality product. Some of the best coffee beans come from small farmers who are unable to afford the certification processes. What I want to see more of is direct trade, where coffee roasters build long-lasting partnerships with farmers and work with them to help improve conditions and bring more money directly to the farmer, instead of a third party.

Starbucks has developed a program called C.A.F.E. (Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices, a set of standards which will not only lead to better quality coffee, but higher payouts to farmers, better working and living conditions, greater development in social projects like schools, and greater concern for the natural environment where the coffee beans grow by taking proper care of the soil and conserving water in the washing process (a table of all the standards can be found in a PDF at Scientific Certification Systems conducts exams of the farms, but Starbucks provides assistance in getting the farm in shape for evaluation. A passing grade in the system ensures Starbucks will continue to buy coffee from the farm in the future.

Critics will be skeptical since it sounds just like another certification process. However, since most small farms provide coffee to a local supplier, Starbucks encourages the formation of farmer networks so the supplier can assist in simplifying paperwork, creating a more efficient verification, and in turn decreasing cost to the individual farms. The system is clearly working--in 2008, 77 percent of all the coffee Starbucks purchased--295 million pounds--was from C.A.F.E. verified suppliers. The goal is to have 100 percent of coffee ethically sourced by 2015. At this rate, and with the development of more Farmer Support Centers (two already exist in Costa Rica and Rwanda, with a plan for one in Ethiopia), even more suppliers can get involved and ensure a massive roaster like Starbucks will consistently buy from them, guaranteeing living wages for the next year.

I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid here—I think Starbucks is paving a pretty fascinating path. Peter Torrebiarte, who works in ethical sourcing and buying for Starbucks and previously a coffee farmer, discussed coffee pricing in the industry during one session at coffee college. He informed us that last year Starbucks paid $1.49/pound on average for coffee, substantially more than the New York C (commercial) market price. Depending on the location, production can eat up a huge amount of that price, leaving not very much for the farmer to live on. For example, African coffees are extremely expensive to purchase, but that's because they endure much more work to prepare the green coffee (since most African coffee is sun-dried, this requires more time-consuming labor). In the end, farmers are getting paid nearly the same in Africa as they are in Guatemala. In Costa Rica, about $1.10 per pound is going toward production and real estate costs due to an increasing tourism boom, leaving a very small amount for the farmer. Realize these are actually supposed to be living wages. Starbucks getting involved in best practices for the farmers can only help increase profit in the future, and ensure living wages.

Many other roasters are talking about sustainability these days. Intelligentsia has created their own Direct Trade (note the capital letters) label, which indicates personal relationships with coffee farmers. Gimme! Coffee is involved in "relationship coffee" where growers and roasters connect directly, allowing the farmers to know the worth of their product. Starbucks just happens to be bringing the roaster-farmer relationship to mainstream awareness.