Coffee’s Big Sustainability Challenges

By Miguel Zamora, Head of Americas Region, UTZ


Coffee farmers in Uganda at farmer field school. Photo: UTZ

The sustainability issues that the coffee industry face will get bigger and more pressing in the coming decades. Climate change, labor shortages, human rights issues in coffee production, and production profitability are examples of threats to the future of coffee.

These are complex questions that require sector-wide approaches to find solutions.

The impact of certification

Certification programs, like UTZ, go a long way towards tackling these challenges.

UTZ-certified coffee is produced in 24 countries by 187,000 farmers and 257,000 workers. Independent studies in Colombia and Brazil show that UTZ certified farmers increased yields, reduced costs of production and increased income while using inputs more efficiently and effectively.

Certification has also helped farmers to use water and soil more wisely while protecting these resources so future generations can use them too. In Vietnam, for instance, the Coffee Climate Care project has helped coffee farmers to adapt to and mitigate challenges from climate change.

But is that enough?

We know that certification is vital – but certification alone is not enough. No single initiative can bring sustainability to coffee farming. Bringing sustainability to farming communities all over the world and to the coffee industry will require sector-wide approaches that include industry, farmers and civil society organizations at origin.

For example, it’s all very well supporting farmers to adapt to climate change and mitigate their own contribution – but it would be naive to say that’s a full solution to the problem of climate change. We need to support companies to build programs that secure the long term sustainability of their supply chains while supporting farmers and workers to advocate more successfully for favorable policy change in their countries. By strengthening the voice and advocacy capacity of farmers, workers, and civil society in decision making forums, we can help the coffee sector to build more support for coffee farming communities in producing countries. Together we can help and influence local governments to support coffee farmers and workers more effectively. This is good for farmers, workers and the coffee industry.

At the same time, for greater sustainability in the coffee sector we need to see investment in technology and systems to gather more information at farmers’ level. This will help farmers to make better agronomic decisions, farmer organizations to provide better support to smallholder farmers and coffee companies to understand better the sustainability performance of their suppliers. Access to more sustainability data in the supply can help farmers and companies make better decisions and more impactful investments.

Companies are also looking for ways to get more information from their supply chains, and they want to run sustainability initiatives tailored to their realities and opportunities. We are already working with industry leaders in Europe to build customized sustainable programs that may include but go beyond certification and verification. 

Bringing business on board

 UTZ-certified coffee is consumed in 87 countries all over the world. UTZ’s main consuming market has been in Europe, traditionally. But North America has been increasing significantly in the last couple of years and will be a focus region for us in the future.

We believe that the North American coffee industry can be a key catalyzer for positive change for coffee farming communities. And as the major consumer of coffee, the U.S. is a major stakeholder for the sustainability of the coffee sector in the future. We are looking for somebody to lead our business development efforts in North America. We are looking for a leader who can help us bring our sustainability services to coffee and cocoa companies in North America.

If you know someone interested in helping us bring sustainability solutions to the coffee and cocoa industries in North America (or are interested yourself), please consider this opportunity.


Miguel Zamora has been involved in agriculture for almost 20 years.  His work focuses on building and strengthening more sustainable supply chains and creating opportunities for sustainable trade between farming communities in the global south and coffee companies in the global north. Miguel leads UTZ  work in the Americas, supporting the sustainability efforts of coffee, cocoa and tea companies in the U.S. and Canada, and the work of UTZ representatives in Latin America. He blogs about his work on Coffee Gente.


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