Collective Action: An Opportunity For the Entire Coffee Industry

Miguel Zamora at the National Coffee Association Convention. ©2019 Decisive Moment

The power of pre-competitive collaboration to address labor issues at origin.

By Miguel Zamora, Director, Core Markets at Rainforest Alliance & member of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge Advisory Council

View the original post on LinkedIn


The coffee industry depends on the work of millions of workers who arrive to coffee farms all over the world during the harvest to pick coffee. Labor represents the largest portion of cost of production for coffee farming all over the world.

Although they represent millions and are key to the production of coffee, as an industry, we do not understand their situation, challenges, and opportunities enough.

That’s not only wrong, but a big risk for coffee.

In the last few years, there has been a surge of interest on the issue of labor from governments all around the world – the UK, France, the Netherlands, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada. We have seen an increase on legislation targeting procurement practices and relating to forced labor and, in other cases, to child labor.

This is in line with research that shows most consumers (and this includes coffee consumers) care about human rights issues/violations in the products they purchase. It is one of the most important sustainability drivers for consumers

We are seeing legislation that require more transparency, legislation that requires more due diligence on procurement and even legislation that restrict certain imports (the case of the US). All over the world, governments are acting.

These new developments present an opportunity for the coffee industry to improve the sustainability of their supply chains while reducing risk of labor abuses in coffee farming.  In addition to the important human rights issue and social issue, the issue of labor is also an issue of compliance with regulations and brand risk. 

At the latest National Coffee Association (NCA) Convention in Atlanta, we had the opportunity to discuss, as an industry, how we can collectively work to improve the situation of labor in coffee farming.

The Sustainable Coffee Challengehosted a meeting of the Labor Action Network. Companies and NGOs met to understand some of the challenges and opportunities for labor in Brazil and globally, and discuss what we can do collectively.

Sustainable Coffee Challenge Labor Action Network meeting during the National Coffee Association Convention in Atlanta - March 2019
Sustainable Coffee Challenge Labor Action Network meeting during the National Coffee Association Convention in Atlanta

That meeting was complemented by a presentation during the NCA sessions in which Andrew Sargent, Coffee Relief Services, and I discussed the situation of labor in coffee and the best alternatives for the coffee industry to act.

We focused on how social compliance systems are one of the best tools that we have to assess and address potential labor concerns in coffee.

A social compliance system is an integrated set of policies and practices that a company uses to maximize compliance with a code of conduct that cover social and labor issues. It is recommended by the U.S. Dept of Labor as a good way to mitigate risk and strengthen compliance with a code of conduct.

An integrated social compliance system includes:

  • engaging stakeholders and partners, assessing risks and impacts
  • developing a code of conduct
  • communicating and training across the supply chain
  • monitoring compliance
  • remediating violations
  • independent review and reporting performance

Social compliance systems help us understand and address labor risks in supply chains. They help us to monitor, prevent, and remediate the potential presence of major labor abuses – including forced labor.

Different companies can benefit from the same social compliance system in the same origin.  There is a clear opportunity to work in a pre-competitive basis with other coffee companies.

social compliance system description - created by UTZ/Rainforest Alliance in 2017

With all its benefits, social compliance systems can be resource-intensive and take a lot of effort for individual companies. This is an example of how collective action can benefit the industry.

By working together, companies and NGOs can build strong systems that help to improve working conditions and minimize the risk of labor abuses.

The opportunity for the coffee industry: pre-competitive collective action

Pre-competitive collective action on labor issues is a more effective and more efficient approach. It is the smarter approach too. Coffee companies working together and collaborating with NGOs working at origin is the biggest opportunity we have in coffee to address labor issues.

It is more effective since we can have access to better information and knowledge together than individually. We have a stronger voice with governments and policy makers around the coffee world. 

It is more efficient because we can use limited resources together better than every company or NGO building its own knowledge or system. Not one single roaster or brand buys all the coffee from one country and one region. Working together creates better conditions and lower risk that can benefit all coffee companies.

It is the smarter approach. Working together at a space such as the Sustainable Coffee Challenge Labor Action Network provides more support to companies than facing these issues individually

By working together and joining forces with NGOs interested in working on this issue, you can strengthen your supply chain, reduce risk for your brand, improve compliance – and at a much lower cost than trying to do it by yourself. That is the opportunity we have ahead of us as a coffee industry.

The Labor Action Network of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge presents that pre-competitive space in which we can work together on this issue. One step you can take right now is joining this labor action network with the intention of collaborate, learn and act together. Many of us see this opportunity and we want to work collectively.

And most importantly – you are invited too.

Read the original post on LinkedInand learn more about the Sustainable Coffee Challenge.

Visit the NCA Sustainability Showcase for initiatives and inspiration from our member organizations.


Miguel Zamora is the Director, Core Markets at Rainforest Alliance. Miguel has been involved in agriculture for 25 years, and has worked in production, research, extension, business development, and international development.

Miguel is member of the Advisory Council of the Sustainability Center of the Specialty Coffee Association; and a member of the Advisory Council of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge. He holds an Agricultural Engineering degree from Zamorano University in Honduras and a Masters in Agricultural Economics from Michigan State University. Miguel is a native from Ecuador and has also lived and worked in Honduras, Brazil, and the United States.

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