Betting the farm on the farm

Why sustainability is good for people, planet, and profitability


In my job, I am often asked what ethical sourcing really means. At its most basic — it means ensuring that coffee is grown in a way that is good for people and the planet. This means our customers get high quality coffee— and because it’s sustainably sourced, we can continue to deliver that quality for years to come.

The idea is simple: Healthy communities grow healthy coffee. But in practice, it’s complicated. In 1998 we partnered with Conservation International (CI) for help. Together we created C.A.F.E. (Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices. At the time it was one of the industry’s first comprehensive set of sustainability standards, verified by 3rd party experts.

We chose to build our own program for a number of reasons. Existing certifications don’t necessarily have quality as a prerequisite, and that was a necessary piece for us. Also, we buy from large estates, unorganized smallholders, organized smallholders, farmers of all sorts. We wanted to make sure our program fit all of the relationships that we have with farmers.

Conservation International was instrumental in helping us do this. “They provided expertise on issues such as: conservation and biodiversity, deforestation. Starbucks knows quality beans, how to grow them efficiently but CI understood how coffee could be part of the solution to issues like climate change and deforestation.

The idea is simple: Healthy communities grow healthy coffee.

And our suppliers play an absolutely essential role in helping farmers adopt C.A.F.E. Practices. They are on the ground every day and have teams who can partner with our technical assistance to share knowledge and improve lives.

C.A.F.E. Practices verification not only confirms sustainable agronomy practices were used — but also ensures coffee farmers, their families, and communities are cared for and supported as well. This is for us, the meaning of ethically sourced, a verification program, built on the notion of continuous improvement.

Photo by Michael Hansen for Starbucks Coffee Company

Our Journey

In 2008 we announced a goal: To ethically source 100% of our coffee by 2015. An audacious goal to be sure — but what makes it truly remarkable is the circumstances surrounding that commitment.

Looking back, 2008 wasn’t the best time in our company’s history. Our stock price was at an all-time low, our company performance wasn’t strong, and we were re-evaluating everything we were doing: From how we delivered a cup of coffee to our customers, to how we treated our partners (employees), and ultimately — what our company stood for.

Coffee is our heritage, our lifeblood and our legacy.

Out of this gauntlet of economic challenges emerged a clear vision. Fundamental to that vision was the idea that we were not going to wait for others to solve problems that affected our company. Whether it was coffee farms, societal issues, economic, or environmental issues, we were going to define our own path. Putting that stake in the ground gave us permission to tackle challenges — and go into uncomfortable areas.

Coffee is our heritage, our lifeblood and our legacy. At a time when everything seemed to be going the wrong way — we made a point to say “We will grow. It may be a tough time right now but we’re going to grow, and we need coffee to do that.” We invested in coffee for the long term, and everyday we see the ripple effect of that decision around the world.

Photo by Michael Hansen for Starbucks Coffee Company

A tale of two farms

When you look at a bag in one of our stores — it’s a beautifully packaged product. But consider what’s inside the bag, and the journey of those beans. Every bag of coffee begins with a family.

Several months ago I was in Guatemala. There were two brothers who had coffee farms literally right next to each other. You could just walk from one farm to the next. The proof of C.A.F.E. Practices couldn’t have been clearer. One brother was operating under C.A.F.E. guidance — beautiful lush coffee trees. The other was not, and sadly all the leaves on his trees had died.

“I put all my hope in this— because I have 3 little mouths that I need to feed every day.”

What had happened was la roya, rust. A disease caused by a fungus — which gets on the leaves of coffee trees and once there, is incredibly hard to stop.

I stood with the brother who’d been operating under C.A.F.E. Practices on a steep muddy slope, among healthy trees — surveying his brother’s devastated farm. I looked at him and asked, “Why you?”

He said, “I put all my hope in this, because I have 3 little mouths that I need to feed every day.”

That really struck me. It’s about so much more than coffee. It’s about families and communities that serve as stewards of the environment. An environment we desperately need their help in partnership to protect and preserve.

Photo by Michael Hansen for Starbucks Coffee Company

The mission missed — and what really matters

In 2008 we thought there was going to be a moment in time when every single coffee contract we held in 2015 would have an active C.A.F.E. Practices verification associated with it.

That didn’t happen. Here is why —

According to our coffee team, 99% of the coffee we purchased in 2015 was C.A.F.E. Practices verified. We will continue to strive to hit 100%. We’re extremely proud of this accomplishment, but it’s critically important to understand that the goal has always been more about people than percentage.

That last 1% of our 100% goals means we’re committed to areas where important work needs to be done. One example is East Congo. Since 2014 we have been buying coffee from this war-torn region. Suffice it to say, coffee farmers in East Congo do not have the infrastructure necessary to be C.A.F.E. Practices verified in 2015.

We’re buying this excellent coffee not only to share it with our customers — but also because we believe going to places like this is critical to the commitment made in 2008. The health and well-being of coffee-growing communities is integral to that commitment. We also believe that one day they will be part of the verification program and we will work to get them there.

Photo by Michael Hansen for Starbucks Coffee Company

Big coffee

In 2004 we were buying about 40 million pounds of C.A.F.E. Practices verified coffee. Today we’re buying about 600M pounds — and expect that to double in the future. 400 million pounds of coffee is not insignificant, but it represents just 3% of the world’s yearly production. Our ability to help our own coffee farmers through C.A.F.E. Practices is real — but we can’t stop there.

Starbucks achieving the milestone of 99% ethically sourced coffee is great for the over 300K farmers that we partner with. The benefits for those farmers and their communities are real — and absolutely unprecedented.

The goal has always been about people — not percentage.

But there are 25 million coffee farmers in the world. If we’re able to share what we’ve learned with all those communities — and let them realize improvements in their product and their economic stability, while protecting the environment where coffee grows — everybody wins.

We’re doing more for coffee growing communities around the world than has ever seemed possible before, and in doing so we’re proving commodities can become a sustainable foundation for developing economies — but it’s not enough.

Photo by Michael Hansen for Starbucks Coffee Company

Together

Part of my job is to work with our competition — and I say that with a smile because in coffee growing regions they’re really our partners. In my mind, there is no competitive advantage in the regions where coffee is grown.

We can be fiercely competitive in how we roast, package, and deliver our coffee. But in those growing regions, we need to be working together. It won’t do Starbucks any good if 97% of the coffee industry is unsustainable and its workforce is struggling. The well-being of all coffee farmers is a business imperative for everyone in the coffee business.

We know what we want to do next. We want to affect 25 million coffee farmers. And make coffee the world’s most sustainably-sourced, ethically grown commodity. An audacious and uncomfortable goal — which only confirms we’re on the right track.

The well-being of all coffee farmers is a business imperative for us — all of us.

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