Innovation, Sustainability, and the Global Coffee Industry


Source: Conservation International, Cristina Mittermeier ©

By Bambi Semroc, Conservation International

Innovation is all around us.

From a 3D printer that enables doctors to construct human tissue, to a virtual reality headset that transports a policymaker in Washington, DC to a remote village in the Amazon to experience projects helping prevent deforestation. Things we never dreamed of 20 years ago are changing our daily lives. And, innovation is not just defined as “the next hot thing” – it’s critical to ensuring the sustainable growth of an industry.

The coffee sector is continually innovating. Consider the new roasting and brewing techniques that led to cold brew and single serve coffees. Or, consumer engagement through creative retail shops offering everything from hands-on technology to fully compostable cups.

That said, innovation in coffee also includes things the everyday drinker might not know about – from researchers developing new varieties and improved practices, to small-scale farmers adopting those varieties and experimenting with new techniques on their farms.

One of the most important innovations the coffee sector has been leading includes the work being done on sustainability.

Many of the sustainability certification standards began with coffee before expanding to other commodities like cocoa and palm oil. At Conservation International, coffee was one of the very first industries we tapped into 20 years ago, when we started working with farmers growing coffee in the buffer zone of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico to identify and test better practices that promote biodiversity conservation alongside economic and community development.

This led to a joint initiative between the Consumer’s Choice Council, Rainforest Alliance and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to develop the Conservation Principles for Coffee Production in 2001– which paved the way for the development of the Rainforest Alliance, Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification programs and the Starbucks Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E. Practices) program.

Over 15 years later, the coffee sector continues to rely on innovative approaches to advance sustainability. This has resulted in a wide variety of approaches to sustainable coffee production – certification, verification, direct trade, and direct investment on key issues such as renovation, technical assistance, cooperative development and smallholder finance… just to name a few.

More recently, the sector has identified a need for closer alignment and coordination of our sustainability efforts to effectively address critical issues and achieve impacts at scale. This has led to new pre-competitive collaborations to achieve impacts at a landscape scale, like the Coalition for Coffee Communities; at the national scale via commitments by Costa Rica and Colombia to transition their entire coffee sectors to sustainable production; and at the global scale through multi-stakeholder collaborations such as the Sustainable Coffee Challenge and the Global Coffee Platform.


While all of this work has led to great progress, we still have a long way to go before we have a fully sustainable coffee sector. Some of what we have achieved is what one might call picking the “low-hanging fruit,” which raises the question of how we build a higher ladder to reach the rest. While innovation is an important factor in building that higher ladder, we must now also focus on leadership and across-the-sector dissemination of key learnings to get to the next rung.

We must broaden the dialogue beyond the usual suspects – the traditional leaders in sustainability – and engage those who may be just beginning their sustainability journey. We must also be leaders who inspire others to follow. This means sharing our experiences and lessons learned – the good, the bad and the ugly – so we accelerate the rate of change across the sector. As the Sustainable Coffee Challenge makes the pivot to collective action in 2017, we are identifying new ways of facilitating a dialogue around a set of collective goals for the sector.

And, as we continue to focus on innovation, our success ultimately depends on some fundamentals: listening, sharing and celebrating together. We must listen to the needs of others (in the case of coffee, listen to the producers in particular), share our collective knowledge and experience (the good and the not so good) so we get more people on those high ladders, and celebrate each milestone together as a community.

To learn more about this project, join Bambi Semroc, Conservation International and Annette Pensel, Global Coffee Platform for “Making Coffee the First Sustainable Commodity,” a breakout session at the NCA Annual Convention 2017, March 23-25, Austin, TX.

How can the coffee industry work towards a more sustainable future? Share your thoughts – or ask a question – in the comments below. 

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