How She Leads: Sue Garnett, Ecom

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Sue Garnett, the Director of Sustainable Coffee Business and Senior Coffee Trader at Ecom Agroindustrial Corporation. Ecom is a global commodity trading and processing company specializing in coffee, cotton and cocoa. Garnett is responsible for developing and implementing Ecom’s sustainability strategy around coffee, positively affecting every level of its supply chain, from farmer to roaster to coffee mug. She has extensive knowledge of the long-term supply, demand, and risks associated with coffee, the second-most traded commodity in the world.

With Garnett’s leadership, Ecom brings coffee consumers and farmers closer together by promoting a more sustainable way of coffee production. The company’s process also allows for increased traceability and transparency. Ecom estimates that more than 15 percent of the coffee it exports has been verified as sustainably produced. Ecom Coffee Group now has farmer training and development programs in countries located in every region of its each origin it has export operations such as Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. Recently, Ecom created its Sustainable Management Services to develop a company-wide, coordinated approach and platform for inter-company exchange around its sustainable development programs.

In this interview, Garnett shares the personal and professional journey that brought her to the sustainable coffee industry.

Maya Albanese: Can you explain how you achieved your current role?

Sue Garnett: I joined Ecom in the late 1990s after working at Cargill. My job was to help Ecom establish its European sales office when the market price of coffee was at an all-time high. By 2002, the price had fallen to an all-time low. Many coffee roaster clients were concerned about the future supply and quality of coffee after several farms abandoned the industry during the years where prices were below the cost of production.

Since Ecom has built its business on close relationships with farmers, we’re in a good position to provide solutions to both farmers and roasters. In 2003, we started to put more structure to this, and I became the Director of Sustainable Coffee.

In this position I also challenged roasters to engage in addressing the problems that the coffee industry faced. Two of our clients at the time, Starbucks and Nespresso, stood out as businesses that not only recognized the challenges caused by extremely low prices in the market, but were prepared to invest in building up supply chains to ensure that the farmer survived and continued to produce the best quality coffee possible.

MA: Why are you passionate about working for social and environmental responsibility?

SG: Before joining Ecom, I ran the East Africa coffee trading desk at Cargill and was aware of the inequality of living standards and opportunities for workers in developing countries. I was also troubled by the lack of transparency -- particularly in regards to cash flow -- within the coffee supply chain. It pleasing to now be part of a process that is trying to redress the imbalance of the opportunities by ensuring that producers share the profits.

MA: Could you explain the major functions of Ecom?

SG: Ecom is one of the world’s top three merchants in coffee and one of the top five merchants in cotton and cocoa. It’s also one of the largest coffee millers in the world. With our heavy investment in infrastructure in countries producing these products, it is extremely important that it is economically viable for the farmers to continue growing these soft commodities.

Photo of Sue Garnett courtesy of Sue Garnett

Next page: Why focus on coffee?