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Field Testing Key To Achieving Sustainability Commitments

In Chiapas, Mexico, farmers dry shade-grown coffee beans in the sun. | Image credit: © Cristina Mittermeier/iLCP

In recent years, there’s been a significant uptick in companies announcing sustainable sourcing commitments — from basic pledges to reduce water and energy usage to more complex ones like providing financial support to smallholder farmer suppliers. 

The recent commitment 500 of the world’s top companies made to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 as members of the Consumer Goods Forum is a noteworthy example. Agriculture and land-use change contributes to nearly 30 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, so making good on this promise would be a monumental accomplishment. 

In order for our planet to support the 9 billion people we expect by 2050, it is essential that our corporate leaders set ambitious sustainability goals, particularly around their sourcing commitments. Supply chains, however, are intricate, complex and confusing, and many companies are struggling to find the right solutions to ensure their commitments become a reality.

Working Both Ends of the Supply Chain

At Conservation International, we partner with companies to evaluate the most efficient and effective methods to deliver on their sustainability goals, and we have noticed that many corporations need our help pinpointing how to improve sustainable practices at one of the most critical points in the supply chain — the base.

The role farmers and other providers play at origin in ensuring that sustainable inputs are available for sourcing poses the greatest risk to a company’s sustainability efforts. Producers face a number of challenges that are significant and varied, including minimal access to water during times of drought, little or no access to credit, and depending on markets that may be inefficient or governments that institute unclear policies.

Since many large companies have vast webs of producers and markets included in their supply chain, they often focus their attention on the parts of the chain that they know best  their direct suppliers. However, failing to address the inefficiencies and/or gaps faced by producers at origin, where inputs are grown, harvested and initially processed, can impact the integrity of everything else the company is doing to achieve their sourcing goals.

Testing Strategies Before Scaling Solutions

To effectively implement and scale sustainable practices, Conservation International recommends that our partners first pilot test practices with farmers in the field. After testing environmental, economic and social strategies or programs, companies can then replicate an assortment of these best sustainability practices and integrate lessons learned at appropriate points throughout the chain. With this approach, they are able to gain market efficiencies while also providing benefits to communities who depend upon companies’ sourcing commitments for their livelihoods. Our work with Starbucks Coffee Company is a perfect example of this.

Starbucks and Conservation International have partnered for more than 14 years on developing and continuously improving its ethical sourcing coffee guidelines known as Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices. This program — a series of environmental and social best practices for farmers to follow to ensure a productive, sustainable and ecologically sound source of coffee incentivizes farmers to achieve most, if not all, of the guidelines in exchange for benefits at origin, including improved contract terms, capacity building and targeted price premiums. 

Origins Approach in Practice

After developing C.A.F.E. Practices, Starbucks committed to purchasing 100 percent ethically-sourced coffee by 2015 (they are already at 86 percent). Conservation International helps Starbucks meet this goal by testing practices and monitoring trends in coffee-growing geographies and integrating the lessons learned back into the C.A.F.E. Practices program.

To do this, Starbucks has invested in three targeted Conservation International field projects in in Chiapas, Mexico; Sumatra, Indonesia; and Minas Gerais, Brazil. At these project sites, we are testing approaches and methods to help improve coffee production in the face of climate change, conserve and restore natural habitat, and facilitate community economic development across various landscapes.

In Chiapas, we tested strategies for carbon sequestration improvements and found that communities benefit from tree-planting initiatives in two ways: (1) farmers are able to earn additional income from carbon credits sold into the voluntary carbon market, and (2) they are able to diversify their income by selling new commodities the trees produce (fruit, palm fronds, etc). In Sumatra, farmers are also seeing higher-yielding harvests after planting shade trees.

A coffee farmer in Chiapas, Mexico loads shade-grown coffee berries for processing. | Image credit: © Cristina Mittermeier/iLCP

These climate-change mitigation and adaptation techniques are now a component of tools provided to farmers in C.A.F.E. Practices training programs worldwide. 

Follow the Leader

By having the foresight to test and scale best practices on the farm, Starbucks gains much deeper insights into its supply chain and the effects of the C.A.F.E. Practices program. This will not only help the company meet and maintain its ethical sourcing goal but also increase benefits to farmers and the environment.

Virtually every successful company has a sustainability commitment on which to deliver and an origins-based demonstration approach can be leveraged by any company or industry that has a direct source. In the long run, focusing on the base of the supply chain will deliver the most efficient solutions to creating a sustainable future.

To learn more about the collaboration between Conservation International and Starbucks, visit

Joanne Sonenshine is a director in the Sustainable Food and Agriculture Markets team within Conservation International’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business where she works with the corporate sector on integrating and implementing “climate-smart” agriculture approaches into investment considerations.… [Read more about Joanne Sonenshine]

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