Conservation News

News, views and stories from the front lines of conservation


All recent news

Coffee giant changing the sustainability game, report shows

A Starbucks ethical sourcing program is brewing larger-than-expected changes across the coffee sector, according to a recent report from Conservation International.

The Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices program, developed 20 years ago in partnership with Conservation International, targets improvements in social, environmental and economic outcomes for coffee farms — and smallholder farmers — that participate.

The program has continued to expand, according to the report, drawing in more suppliers and increasing the amount of area of verifiably sustainably grown coffee by more than 197 percent since 2008.

But perhaps the most significant finding: Starbucks is influencing far more coffee than it consumes. The company buys just about 5 percent of the world’s supply of Arabica coffee — yet by 2015, some 18 percent of that supply was produced according to C.A.F.E. Practices. That influence continues to grow: preliminary data for 2017 shows that C.A.F.E practices-produced coffee is on track to make up 26 percent of the world supply.

In addition, nearly 190,000 hectares (465,000 acres) have been conserved across the 23 countries where C.A.F.E. Practices can now be found. Some 1.3 million workers have been hired by farms and mills operating under the program — with 1.1 million temporary workers earning more than the minimum wage. And remarkably, 99 percent of farms operating under C.A.F.E. Practices have not converted any natural forest to coffee production since 2004.

The new report comes at a critical time for coffee, with recent research showing an uncertain future for coffee as demand surges and the climate changes.

The report is confirmation that C.A.F.E. Practices is working, says Bambi Semroc, vice president of sustainable markets and strategy at Conservation International. Three-quarters of participants remain in the program year over year, she noted, and participants who go through a verification see a 14 percent improvement in their scores. The report not only is a testament to Starbucks’ commitment to transparency, Semroc says, but speaks to the outsize effect that the company is having on its market.

“We know Starbucks is impacting a lot more coffee than they buy, and more farmers than they buy from,” she said. “And so with this report we were able to say, This is the number. That’s really important.”

“C.A.F.E. Practices is, we believe, the right way to grow coffee,” said Kelly Goodejohn, director for Starbucks’ ethical sourcing programs. “Ultimately for the consumer, this translates into the finest cup of coffee that also supports farmers.”

From theory to practice

Starbucks’ idea for a set of standards to evaluate, recognize and reward producers of high-quality sustainably grown coffee took root in the late 1990s — in the days before anyone talked about “ethical sourcing.”

Soon, the company was collaborating with Conservation International to develop standards that became the C.A.F.E. Practices program, which was launched in 2004.

C.A.F.E. Practices enables Starbucks to evaluate the economic, social and environmental aspects of the coffee that enters their supply chain. These aspects are measured against a defined set of more than 200 social, economic and environmental indicators that take into account performance throughout the supply chain.

To date, producers from 23 countries have participated in the program, affecting the incomes and living conditions of more than one million farmers and farm workers. Participating farms also have designated 121,000 hectares (nearly 300,000 acres) in any given year for conservation. In 2015, Starbucks announced that 99 percent of its coffee was ethically sourced through the program, making the company the largest coffee retailer to achieve this standard.

What’s next?

The next step, Semroc says, is building on the findings of the report. “We want to do deeper dives on what the stats mean,” she said, “and how we can help spot trends and help Starbucks improve — and in turn, to help the entire industry improve.”

This is not the first environmental sector-wide foray for Starbucks. The company was a founding member of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, an initiative launched during the 2015 climate talks in Paris that aims to make coffee the world’s first completely sustainable agricultural product. The Challenge has united more than 100 participants from across the coffee sector — growers, traders, roasters and retailers — to stimulate greater demand for (and spark bigger investments in) sustainable coffee.

There would be no Sustainable Coffee Challenge without C.A.F.E. Practices — or Starbucks’ leadership, Semroc says.

“Conservation International’s logo is on bags of Starbucks coffee because we believe in C.A.F.E. Practices,” she said, “and we want to understand a lot more about how it’s working and how we can make it even better.”

The future of coffee may depend on it.

Bruno Vander Velde is Conservation International’s editorial director.

Further reading