New Research Helps Starbucks Improve Ethical Coffee Sourcing

A worker in Chiapas, Mexico rakes coffee beans as part of the drying process. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

When it comes to reducing the environmental impact of a daily coffee habit, many people do their part by replacing disposable cups with reusable mugs. But did you know that your choice of coffee itself can have a positive social and environmental impact?

If you’ve seen CI’s Team Earth Chiapas story, you probably already know that Starbucks is one of our long-standing partners. We’ve collaborated on a variety of projects over the years, but developing Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices — Starbucks’ ethical sourcing guidelines that help the company purchase coffee that is responsibly grown and ethically traded — has been one of our greatest accomplishments together.

Today, 86 percent of Starbucks coffee is sourced through C.A.F.E. Practices, and you can find CI’s logo on the back of many of its coffee packages. The program is currently improving livelihoods on more than 100,000 farms in 20 countries.

When we set out to develop the program requirements for C.A.F.E. Practices eight years ago, Starbucks’ goal was to ensure that the coffee producers it purchased from were not only producing high-quality coffee, but were also being good stewards of the environment and maintaining quality of life for their families and employees. The program seeks to achieve this by supporting producers in meeting a set of environmental and social best practices. The company works with third-party organizations to conduct verifications and also provides financial and technical support to help producers meet certain requirements.

This month, CI and Starbucks will release our latest results assessment report (read the executive summary – PDF, 1.12 MB), which aimed to gain a better understanding of the program’s strengths and weaknesses, and what Starbucks can do to help producers adopt more of the program’s best practices over time. This is the second global report we have produced, in addition to field study reports from two sample regions: Guatemala and Colombia.

Coffee beans are thoroughly washed before being dried in the sun. (© CI/Photo by Miguel Angel de la Cueva)

While we are only beginning to identify program trends with three years of data analysis, here are a few key things we’ve learned about the program:

  • C.A.F.E. Practices is working. Comparing coffee producers participating in C.A.F.E. Practices to a group of producers that are not in the program allows for a quantitative assessment of C.A.F.E. Practices’ on-the-ground impacts. Through the Starbucks assessment, we found that although changing social and environmental conditions is a long-term process, there were significant differences between the participant and non-participant groups. We found that the sustainable practices encouraged by C.A.F.E. Practices are related to improved conditions on the ground. For example, nearly 100 percent of all farmers verified from 2008-2010 did not convert any natural forest area to agricultural production.
  • There’s room for improvement. Asking program participants about ways in which they find the program valuable (or not valuable) provides the company information about how effective and efficient program management is, as well as ways in which the program could be improved. Many coffee producers that participated in our field surveys identified training, capacity-building and assistance as important factors in improving practices, and suggested specific areas where they could use more assistance. For example, small farmers could benefit from additional assistance in the adoption of cover crops and leguminous trees to maintain soil fertility over time. Starbucks will use this feedback to leverage its network of Farmer Support Centers to address these kinds of issues.
  • Some regions implement a greater number of best practices than others. Identifying areas with particularly high and low rates of C.A.F.E. Practices compliance — and which practices are particularly easy or difficult to implement in each region — allows program managers to focus their investments on assisting participants with particular challenges and away from areas that do not require much support. Exploring regional differences in data also allows Starbucks to tailor expectations and programming for specific coffee farming systems common to different cultures and geographies. For example, shade systems are less common in African countries such as Tanzania and Rwanda. These countries have lower performance against some shade management indicators compared to Latin American countries — such as Colombia and Guatemala — where shade systems are common in coffee growing landscapes.

Coffee workers bag coffee beans before loading them onto a truck. (© CI/Photo by Miguel Angel de la Cueva)

Very few supply chain verification and certification programs invest in monitoring. Starbucks, however, has found the monitoring process to be extremely valuable because it indicates that C.A.F.E. Practices has been worthwhile and is impacting farm management practices. Rather than assume certification programs are delivering the intended results, I hope to see more companies and ecolabels follow Starbucks’ lead by developing systems to monitor and improve their programs over time.

Elizabeth Baer is the senior manager of food and agriculture in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB). To learn more about the connections between coffee, conservation and climate change, check out our Team Earth Chiapas story.

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