New 2020 Coffee Barometer: Coffee companies must start proving their sustainability impact

January 14, 2021

The largest coffee companies in the world are failing to report transparently on their 2020 commitments, and doing too little to ensure sustainability for farming and farmers.

These are among the findings of the new Coffee Barometer – the latest report from a collective of organizations in the sustainability field; Conservation International, Hivos, Oxfam Belgium and Solidaridad, and produced by Ethos Agriculture.

Inaction is not an option

In coffee producing countries, roasters and traders could play a critical role in many of the most pressing environmental and social challenges identified in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Unfortunately, their individual policies, plans, and funding are often disconnected from the local realities, from each other, and largely focus on single issues.

The report shows that 15 of the major traders and roasters are not meaningfully contributing to key SDGs that would improve livelihoods and conserve nature, and transparency is still lacking across production, trade, and consumption. While some companies have comprehensive policies in place, many large traders and roasters mentioned in the report remain unclear about their commitments, any progress on promises, and lack a comprehensive sustainability strategy with measurable targets over time. No one is doing enough.

Stefaan Calmeyn, Coffee Program Manager for Oxfam Belgium, responds to the report: “Big coffee companies need to actually prove their supply chains are free from human rights violations and deforestation, and that they are investing in higher farmer income, better labor standards, and climate change adaptation. Policies are not enough; if you want us to believe you’re doing good, you have to show it.”

Bambi Semroc, Vice President of Sustainable Markets and Strategy for Conservation International, said: “We have 10 years to meet the UN SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement. There is an urgent need, and a compelling opportunity, for the coffee industry to take the lead, drive investments to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and find solutions that benefit people, nature, and coffee in producing landscapes.”

Coffee farmers reeling from shock after shock

Behind many of coffee’s problems is a stubbornly low coffee price for farmers. Many coffee farmers already operate well below the poverty line, and it can be even worse depending on farm sizes, productivity levels, or how efficient national structures are. This is in stark contrast to the billions made from coffee consumption, which are highly concentrated in the USA and Europe.

Farmers are also unable to invest in their farm or make production more sustainable – which is essential if they are to adapt to climate change. The last decade has been the warmest on record, bringing droughts, hurricanes, and a worsening of coffee-specific pests and diseases, such as the ‘La Roya’ fungus or the coffee berry borer. With farm revenues decreasing, costs rising, and the situation around them worsening, smallholder farmers’ livelihoods are under threat.

This puts producers under constant pressure to cut costs, especially those related to labor and the environment, and prevents farmers covering basic needs like good wages, reducing their environmental impact, or providing for the needs of rural communities. COVID-19 only made things worse, leaving an end-of-year surplus of 1 million bags of coffee beans after widespread office and café closures.

Sjoerd Panhuysen from Ethos Agriculture said: “There is general awareness in the coffee sector that we are way off track to meet even the most basic economic, social and environmental goals. Companies’ sustainability activities tend to focus on the expansion of coffee production at farm level. Even if some specific gains are made, they are never sufficient to transform the sector at large.”

Move from talking to action

The 2020 Coffee Barometer calls for existing actors in the industry to step up. All the major billion-dollar coffee corporations are part of one or more partnership initiatives with the potential to influence the global governance of sustainability policies and agreements. With some traders and roasters publicly asking for mandatory sustainability regulations, they have the opportunity now to get ahead of the curve and use these partnerships to achieve real impact. There is no reason for more delay.

If more of the value generated from coffee is to get into the hands of coffee farmers, then multi-stakeholder initiatives need binding commitments, robust mechanisms that confirm progress in the field, and more than shoestring budgets so we can see this concrete impact being delivered.

Andrea Olivar, Global Program Manager Coffee for Solidaridad, said: “The dawn of a new decade brings a wave of attractive new initiatives, while companies in the coffee sector struggle to report on commitments they made in the last decade. If we want to avoid being part of everything and delivering nothing, we have to move from narrative to action.”

What is the SAFE platform?

SAFE (Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Environment) is a multi-stakeholder platform, powered by the IDB Lab and managed by Hivos, that aims to make coffee and cocoa landscapes more people-centered and inclusive through sustainable, climate-smart agricultural practices.

The SAFE Platform, a partnership between front-runner private sector participants, donors and non-governmental organizations, creates and supports land-transforming projects that demonstrate it is possible to produce coffee and cocoa sustainably. SAFE uses technology to innovate, and encourages trust and accountability among partners. It also promotes pre-competitive collaboration between partners at different project levels, which combines the strongest attributes of different stakeholders. The projects scale up innovative approaches in four areas: promoting responsible supply chains and sourcing methods; adapting production and making land resilient to climate change; opening up access to financial services, and focusing on women and youth.

SAFE projects, publications, and experiences have impacted the lives of over 143,000 people, mostly small-scale farmers, by providing grants, credits, information and innovative approaches in production systems and is active in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru.