Sustainability at 3fe: Week 11

14 March 2019

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be doing a series of posts that dive into sustainability in coffee, as a way for us to give a deeper insight into how we source coffee, the pros and cons, and come out the other side with a coherent explanation of our purchasing principles, and how we’d like to improve in the future.

Before we get into what it is we do, we need to set the scene for the industry as a whole.

There are many sustainability issues affecting the coffee industry currently, however it is our view, shared by many others, that the economic sustainability of the industry is one of the most pressing issues, and has knock-on effects on all of the other environmental and social issues.

Although the popularity of coffee is increasing at this end of the chain, at the growing end things are becoming harder and harder. World coffee prices have fallen by two-thirds in real terms since the early 1980s, and the real earnings of coffee farmers have halved in that time.


C-Market Commodity Price for coffee, 2016 - 2018 (Source: Specialty Coffee Transaction Guide)

To paraphrase Chad Trewick from Reciprocafe, imagine you worked in a job for 40 years and were paid the same amount that entire time, whilst costs for every aspect of your life and work rose?

We are now at a stage globally where farmers are often paid less for the coffee than it costs to produce, and the volatility of the prices makes it very difficult for farmers to plan and invest in their farms. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that as well as being detrimental to the livelihoods of the farmers, farmworkers and communities that depend on coffee growing, it will mean that there are less and less farmers able to produce coffee for our ever-increasing demand. Kim Elena Ionescu, Chief Sustainability Officer for the SCA, summed up the importance of economic sustainability for the industry:

“I often hear (and I repeat) the prediction that climate change will cut the amount of land suitable for coffee production in half by 2050, but with market conditions like the ones we’re living in, I wonder if the sector might lose half of its farmers by 2030.”

Put simply, if we all want to have nice coffee to drink in the future, it is our responsibility at this end of the chain to make sure it is a profitable option for farmers. Our own purchasing aims to do this, with higher, stable prices maintained through long-term relationships with farmers and exporters. However, it's not without its own challenges and limitations! Tune in next week for more info.

For more info on the state of the industry: Hivos Coffee Barometer 2018