Coffee companies must improve their sustainability impact: Coffee Barometer

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According to the latest edition of the Coffee Barometer report, the largest coffee companies in the world are failing to report transparently on their 2020 commitments, and doing too little to ensure sustainability for farming and farmers.

These Coffee Barometer is a report from a collective of organisations in the sustainability field: Conservation International, Hivos, Oxfam Belgium and Solidaridad, and produced by Ethos Agriculture.

“Big coffee companies need to actually prove their supply chains are free from human rights violations and deforestation, and that they are investing in higher farmer income, better labour standards, and climate change adaptation. Policies are not enough; if you want us to believe you’re doing good, you have to show it,” says Stefaan Calmeyn, Coffee Programme Manager for Oxfam Belgium.

Inaction is not an option
In coffee producing countries, roasters, and traders could play a critical role in many of the most pressing environmental and social challenges identified in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Unfortunately, the Coffee Barometer says their individual policies, plans, and funding are often disconnected from the local realities, from each other, and largely focus on single issues.

The report shows that 15 of the major traders and roasters are not meaningfully contributing to key SDGs that would improve livelihoods and conserve nature, and transparency is still lacking across production, trade, and consumption. While some companies have comprehensive policies in place, many large traders and roasters mentioned in the report remain unclear about their commitments, any progress on promises, and lack a comprehensive sustainability strategy with measurable targets over time.

“We have 10 years to meet the UN SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement. There is an urgent need, and a compelling opportunity, for the coffee industry to take the lead, drive investments to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and find solutions that benefit people, nature, and coffee in producing landscapes,” says Bambi Semroc, Vice President of Sustainable Markets and Strategy for Conservation International.

Shock after shock
Behind many of coffee’s problems is a stubbornly low coffee price for farmers. Many coffee farmers already operate well below the poverty line, and it can be even worse depending on farm sizes, productivity levels, or how efficient national structures are. This is in stark contrast to the billions made from coffee consumption, which are highly concentrated in the United States and Europe.

Farmers are also unable to invest in their farm or make production more sustainable – which is essential if they are to adapt to climate change. The last decade has been the warmest on record, bringing droughts, hurricanes, and a worsening of coffee-specific pests and diseases, such as the ‘La Roya’ fungus or the coffee berry borer. With farm revenues decreasing, costs rising, and the situation around them worsening, smallholder farmers’ livelihoods are under threat.

This puts producers under constant pressure to cut costs, especially those related to labour and the environment, and prevents farmers covering basic needs like good wages, reducing their environmental impact, or providing for the needs of rural communities. COVID-19 only made things worse, leaving an end-of-year surplus of one million bags of coffee beans after widespread office and café closures.

“There is general awareness in the coffee sector that we are way off track to meet even the most basic economic, social and environmental goals,” says lead author Sjoerd Panhuysen, from Ethos Agriculture said:

“Companies’ sustainability activities tend to focus on the expansion of coffee production at farm level. Even if some specific gains are made, they are never sufficient to transform the sector at large.”

From talk to action
The 2020 Coffee Barometer calls for existing actors in the industry to step up. All the major billion-dollar coffee corporations are part of one or more partnership initiatives with the potential to influence the global governance of sustainability policies and agreements. With some traders and roasters publicly asking for mandatory sustainability regulations, they have the opportunity now to get ahead of the curve and use these partnerships to achieve real impact.

If more of the value generated from coffee is to get into the hands of coffee farmers, then multi-stakeholder initiatives need binding commitments, robust mechanisms that confirm progress in the field, and more than shoestring budgets so we can see this concrete impact being delivered.

“The dawn of a new decade brings a wave of attractive new initiatives, while companies in the coffee sector struggle to report on commitments they made in the last decade. If we want to avoid being part of everything and delivering nothing, we have to move from narrative to action,” says Andrea Olivar, Global Programme Manager Coffee for Solidaridad.

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