Sustainability Beyond Origin: Q&A with Counter Culture Coffee’s Meredith Taylor

girl-coffee-farm

Source: Neil Palmer (CIAT) via Wikimedia Commons

“Coffee has a lot of potential to effect positive change in the world.”

Meredith Taylor, Sustainability Manager, Counter Culture Coffee, on the issues threatening the coffee supply chain, “pre-competitive collaboration,” and how any company can start taking action – today: 

How would you describe your role as the Sustainability Manager for Counter Culture?

As the Sustainability Manager for Counter Culture, I’m responsible for managing our existing sustainability programs, which touch on everything from our coffee-buying relationships, to our employees, to our local community donations. I’m also responsible for keeping up on the latest sustainability news and setting the vision for where Counter Culture wants to go in the future.

That being said, we try to weave sustainability considerations into everything that we do, so that often means I’m working with other departments, like marketing, coffee, and production, because almost every part of the business has a sustainability aspect.

This is a relatively new position – how does it compare to your expectations?

I came into the sustainability department at Counter Culture as a coordinator, under my previous boss Kim Ionescu. Shortly after I began, Kim took the position as Sustainability Director for SCAA, so I had to learn fast.

It’s been a dream to finally bring my passions for coffee and sustainability together into one position, but it’s also been very challenging. More specifically, I didn’t realize how much of this job is about good communication. In order to get everyone on the same page, even within the company, I do a lot of explanatory writing.

What are the critical sustainability challenges facing the coffee industry today, especially in relation to the supply chain?

The issue of farm workers and the availability of farm labor will become a big issue in the next 5-10 years. As an industry I think we’ve generally thought of the supply chain as ending at the farmer, but there’s a lot of seasonal labor that goes into coffee harvesting and we haven’t really accounted for those workers or those costs in our coffee prices.

Seasonal agricultural work, whether it’s harvesting coffee in Guatemala or strawberries in the U.S., is often done by migrant populations with little to no workplace protection. If we don’t start to include these workers in our supply chain accounting, the labor pool will dry up. We’ll potentially have coffee growing without enough people to pick it.

The bright side of this issue is that it really lends itself to pre-competitive collaboration — coffee companies working together to solve an issue that will affect everyone. If we can figure out how to work collaboratively and pool our resources, then we can head off the farm worker issue before it jeopardizes the coffee supply chain.

What trends are emerging in the sustainability sector?

More consumers are starting to pay attention to companies’ sustainability practices and make buying decisions based on what they learn.

As a largely traded agricultural good, coffee has a lot of potential to effect positive change in the world. What will be challenging, in my opinion, is to communicate sustainability practices and values in a clear, concise way that allows customers to make more informed decisions without overwhelming them with information.

How would you describe the relationship between new technology and sustainability initiatives?

For Counter Culture, technology has allowed us to have better communication within our supply chains. This better communication allows us to give feedback on coffees in real time and solve potential issues with coffees in real time – something that’s really important when a crop only has one harvest per year. We’re also starting to incorporate technology into the way we physically assess our green coffees. That added level of objective data, even at this early stage, has helped us see where we can make improvements.

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Source: Counter Culture Coffee

What’s the most common misconception about sustainability you’ve encountered?

Most people still go straight to the physical environment when they think about sustainability. Environmental impacts are arguably the easiest to see and easiest to measure, but social sustainability is important as well. It’s difficult for a community or co-op to produce high quality coffee year after year if there are underlying social issues, like food insecurity, affecting producers.

We’re definitely guilty of  weighting our past sustainability efforts at origin towards environmental issues and it’s only in the past few years that we’ve really begun to look at what we can do on the social side.

Why should businesses care about sustainability?

At its most basic definition, to sustain something is to keep it going indefinitely.

For product-producing industries like coffee, that means we need to have coffee to buy and sell. If we don’t put work into producing coffee more sustainably, then we’ll face issues like climate change and labor shortages that will effectively dry up the supply of coffee to sell.

I think sustainability can be – and should be – much more than the availability of inputs, but that alone is an extremely important and very basic business argument for caring about sustainability.

What are the key steps companies (especially those with limited resources) can take to become more sustainable?

Measuring resource use, even just tracking utility bills, is a great place to start. It’s hard to tell if your sustainability efforts are making a difference if you don’t start with a baseline.

Once you have that baseline, setting reduction targets and communicating those to everyone in the company is a great way to get everyone involved with sustainability.

Related reading: Exploring Sustainability in Coffee: Why Transparency?, Counter Culture

NCA-Coffee-Summit-2015

Join the conversation: Taylor will lead a keynote presentation on “Sustainability Beyond Origin” at the NCA Coffee Summit in Austin, TX, Oct. 28-30. 

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