Sustainability. We see the word everywhere, we’re all talking about it, and we’re even buying coffee because of it – but when we try to define it, it seems no-one can. And how can the coffee industry move towards sustainability, if we can’t grasp what it actually means?
I spoke to three members of the Colombian Coffee Federation (FNC) on this very topic: Roberto Vélez, the CEO, and Natalia Osorio and Jhon Muñoz, from the Sustainability division. They’ve pledged to make Colombian coffee sustainable by 2027 – and their first action is to define sustainability across the coffee supply chain.
Read on to discover how they’re working towards a definition of sustainability that meets the needs of the entire supply chain – and why they believe they can achieve sustainability in just 10 years.
The roots of coffee run deep in Colombia. Credit: Café de Colombia
Why Does Sustainability Matter?
More than half of the municipalities of Colombia – a country almost twice the size of France – produce coffee, with nearly four million people relying on the income it provides. Most producers here are smallholder farmers.
So for Colombia, coffee is of vital importance. And sustainability within the coffee industry is important for the land, important for the communities, and important for producers – many of whom may otherwise be forced to give up coffee farming.
According to FNC, at least 42% of Colombian farms have sustainable certification or practices to some degree. But Café de Colombia want to increase that figure. What’s more, they know that many coffee farmers are applying sustainable practices but unable to pursue certification due to lack of resources or finances.
Vélez tells me, “We thought, let’s start working to bring the whole country to sustainable standards. Let’s think big.”
But to do that, they need to know what sustainability means – and create a plan for achieving it.
Why is it important that Colombian coffee is sustainable? Credit: FNC
What Does Sustainability Mean?
In 1987, The UN Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs.”
It sounds simple – but what needs? Do we all share the same ones? Who is the future generation? Could, in fact, that future generation be us?
“One of the biggest challenges is having definitions,” Jhon says. “I heard someone say that talking about sustainability is like talking about the square of the circle. There are many interpretations. And there are things that are possible and other that are not. But what we can do is develop end goals.”
“From many of the discussions that I have been in, the definition that most of us can agree on is that sustainability is the right way to live,” Jhon continues. “That’s the principle of it, and it’s centered on welfare for all.”
It’s commonly accepted that sustainability is built on three pillars: environmental, social, and economic development. So is sustainability the right way to live for development in these areas? And, as a coffee industry, can we develop shared industry-wide goals related to this?
The co-creation of Colombian Coffee Sustainable is symbolically marked at Cenicafe, Chinchina, in Colombia. Credit: FNC
Sustainability Must Work for Everybody
The Federation tells me that they are aware of the need for sustainability goals to be adaptable to diverse contexts. They must reflect the reality of the entire supply chain. As of such, the body is working on a voluntary Code of Conduct, and they are listening to as many voices as possible in the process.
“The ISEAL Alliance recommends that we start with a public consultation,” Natalia tells me, “…and we know that not everyone has access to the internet or forums to express their opinion.”
So instead, they began with a meeting with members of the coffee institutions and experts. They wanted to both define sustainability and look at practical ways to achieve it. Next, they will hold forums across the country with coffee producers, agricultural educators, sustainability experts, and exporters. “We want to be a coffee sector that moves towards sustainability as a whole,” Jhon says.
After that, the project will enter its pilot phase. Sustainable Café de Colombia will test all the initiatives agreed on in the workshops. And then, finally, after all this research, debate, and finessing of concepts, they will have developed a Code of Conduct for Sustainability in Colombia.
Representatives from organisations including Cenicafe, Procafecol and Almacafe discuss sustainability. Credit: FNC
Will The Code of Conduct Be Effective?
Vélez tells me that this means “that… all the coffee coming from Colombia will comply with economic, social and environmental sustainability standards that are being developed by the Federation.”
This Code of Conduct is currently being developed to follow the three strands of sustainability:
- Economic: Incomes, productivity, and cost production management
- Social: Social investment, rural education, and health insurance
- Environmental: Natural resources management and sustainable agronomic management
But there’s another element that they are adding: an institutional one. For Jhon, this means the whole body of coffee producers working around a single purpose. He believes that by coming together as an institution, they will see transparent trading, greater services assessment, and more democratic values.
“It’s a great challenge,” he tells me, “but we believe that with the collaboration of the industry, and the collaboration of the union and institution on an internal level, we can achieve this project.”
2027: Will FNC Meet Their 10-Year Target?
Becoming sustainable is ambitious. Becoming sustainable by 2027 is even more ambitious.
“If someone says, ‘Next year, we will be sustainable,’ that’s a headline,” Vélez tells me. The FNC wanted a goal to focus their efforts, and energize others into joining them. But they also wanted it to be a realistic goal. “This whole plan is a process; you have to have a reasonable time to do it in. So we asked ourselves, ‘How much time would it take?’”
What’s more, 2027 will be the 100th anniversary of the founding of the FNC – what better year for the country to mark becoming sustainable?
Producers rake their drying coffee on a patio. Credit: Café De Colombia
Transforming The Coffee Industry
“We want to educate people,” Natalia finishes by telling me. “The code will allow the coffee grower to adapt… The idea is that people will really apply these practices, considering the future and the market, and so sustainability will be the norm.
“So, in some ways, we want to take the lead, eliminating any barrier in the market so that Colombia is not left behind.”
And with the first ever World Coffee Producer’s Forum in Medellin, Colombia in July, you can be sure that there will be intense dialogue over the FNC’s newest mission. It strikes us as no coincidence that leading economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who has published several books on global economic development, is the keynote speaker.
(See our Events Calendar for more events like this.)
Colombian coffee farms. Credit: Travel Life Experiences
Sustainability is an ambitious target, but it’s one that the coffee industry needs to work towards. Because without it, we are just farming, roasting, and consuming coffee on borrowed time. We need to protect members of the coffee supply chain today – without harming those who will be a part of it tomorrow.
So how do you set out to make sustainability the norm? By bringing together the coffee community. Establishing priorities. And setting a date.
Written by Karla Ly Quiñones García. Please note that all interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated into English by the author.
Please note: Café de Colombia is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.
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