From South Carolina to Sumatra — All Thanks to a Cup of Coffee

Coffee farmers participating in Starbucks' recent Origin Experience gathering in Sumatra, Indonesia receive coffee tasting mugs from CI and Starbucks.

Coffee farmers participating in Starbucks’ recent Origin Experience gathering in Sumatra, Indonesia receive coffee tasting mugs — a gift from CI and Starbucks. (© CI/photo by Fazrin Rahmadani)

Boots, hat and sunscreen on, I lead my group among the paths of a northern Sumatra coffee farm in Indonesia. How did I get here? Oddly enough, the story starts with an impromptu visit to Starbucks a decade ago.

I am part of Generation X — the generation of men and women who have struggled to find “the something else that’s out there.” I have felt that struggle for many years, wondering what more I could do to make this world a better, more peaceful place.

Before class one morning in grad school in South Carolina, I popped into my local Starbucks for a latte. While waiting for a friend, I happened to read the back of the coffee cup. I learned that Starbucks was partnering with an organization called Conservation International (CI) to consider how Starbucks’ business practices impacted the people growing their coffee. I thought to myself then — and feel the same way today, if not more so — that this type of work is the answer to the question: “What else can be done?”

Fast forward 10 years — I’m now a CI staff member, working with Starbucks on their Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices ethical sourcing program and climate change investments. I’m in Indonesia for Starbucks’ annual Origin Experience trip, learning together with Starbucks partners (how Starbucks refers to their employees) about how coffee is grown, processed, milled and eventually brought to market.

farmers and Starbucks employees meet during Starbucks' annual Origin Experience trip in Indonesia

Indonesian coffee farmers greet Starbucks “partners” (employees) participating in the company’s Origin Experience trip. This annual trip educates high-achieving employees about how coffee is grown, processed, milled and eventually brought to market. (© CI/photo by Fazrin Rahmadani)

This unique field trip was created to educate high-achieving Starbucks partners about where the company’s coffee comes from, how farmer communities depend on this coffee for their livelihoods and how the Starbucks supply chain functions. On this trip, I‘ve learned how a leading Fortune 100 company is making investments down their supply chain to produce quality, sustainable coffee, protect the environment and contribute to farmer health, wellness and economic equality — all at the same time.

For example, Starbucks invests in farmer training programs in order to educate coffee growers about the techniques necessary to maintain healthy coffee tree growth, berry color and soil quality. The company also provides resources to cooperatives in farming communities, enabling them to educate their youth. CI serves as an advisor to Starbucks on their C.A.F.E. Practices program, helping them think through the environmental and social implications of coffee sourcing.

Being able to recite statistics about the impacts of the program is one thing, but to see store managers, regional leadership and even high ranking leadership from Starbucks headquarters in Seattle look on wide-eyed as a village leader shares stories about how the company’s coffee purchasing has improved the lives in his village — now that was something special.

Joanne Sonenshine and Sharp Xia

Joanne with Sharp Xia, a Starbucks store manager from China. (© CI/photo by Joanne Sonenshine)

One afternoon, I joined Sharp Xia, a Starbucks store manager from Guangzhou, China, for lunch. In almost perfect English, he shared his enthusiasm about joining the Origin Experience trip, learning about C.A.F.E. Practices firsthand from Starbucks experts, meeting staff from CI and most importantly, seeing coffee trees up close. Until now, he had only seen pictures.

Sharp has been an employee with Starbucks for more than five years, and has learned a lot about ethical sourcing and the C.A.F.E. Practices program. However, after this experience, he feels he can return to Guangzhou and be an even stronger advocate for sustainable coffee sourcing. He has seen firsthand why it’s so beneficial to our environment, to quality coffee production and — most importantly — to the lives of the men and women who grow the coffee we drink every day.

We all might feel a little differently about our daily cup of coffee if we saw the impact of our purchase so directly. I certainly feel even better knowing I am contributing a little something to the beautiful people of Sumatra.

Joanne Sonenshine is the director of food, agriculture and fresh water in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. Stay tuned for upcoming blogs from Joanne’s Indonesia trip later this week.

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