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Will coffee be the first 100% sustainably sourced commodity?

Starbucks and Conservation International are helping growers produce shade-grown, ethically sourced beans. Can they wake up the entire industry?

This article was originally published on Conservation International’s blog Human Nature.

Recently at Starbucks’ annual meeting of shareholders in Seattle, the company announced a major milestone: This year, 99 percent of beans bought by the world’s largest specialty coffee company will meet ethical and sustainable sourcing guidelines.

This achievement marks a remarkable and determined 15-year journey. It also demonstrates what great partnerships are able to achieve: the transformation of the most valued tropical agricultural commodity, coffee, from a force of ecological and social destabilization to a powerful engine of farmer equity and sustainability.

In the mid-1990s, scientists at CI’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (now the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans) recognized that the expanding footprint of agricultural commodities was at the heart of rapidly increasing tropical deforestation.

The team also recognized that the growing global demand for coffee was at the heart of this trend. Additionally, our scientists and agronomists recognized that there were alternatives to clearing forests for coffee production, and that coffee could be grown in the shade of the rainforest using less fertilizer and pesticides than sun-grown coffee.

It became evident to us that if CI could figure out ways to reduce the negative environmental impacts of coffee production without undercutting the income that smallholder farmers earn from coffee, we had a win-win for nature conservation and community livelihoods.

All we needed was the right business partner.

Powerful partners

In the late 1990s, Starbucks was a fast-growing entity — a company known for leadership on social issues that seemed right in line with the notion of sustainably and ethically produced coffee.

As we began our partnership, we soon learned there was an enormous gap between growing consumer demand and the limited supply of coffee that met Starbucks’ quality standards. To address this gap, in 2004 CI and Starbucks created Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices, a comprehensive set of social, economic, environmental and quality guidelines that establishes coffee-growing standards for farms that sell coffee to Starbucks.

The challenge was not just increasing production, but actually transforming the way the farmers grew coffee, and providing them with the bridge financing they needed as they improved their methods to meet the new standards.

Reaching the 99 percent ethically sourced milestone is an incredible accomplishment, particularly for a company with a complicated global supply chain that presents social and environmental challenges.

This target encompassed other victories as well. Ninety-nine percent of participating farms haven’t converted any natural forest into coffee production since 2004. Almost 4 million workers are employed by hundreds of thousands of coffee farms. Each year, participating farms set aside 121,000 hectares (almost 300,000 acres) for conservation.

The 99 percent ethically sourced landmark is not the end of our partnership. We have two more goals. First, we can’t stop at 99 percent. Starbucks will get to 100 percent. And second, both Starbucks and Conservation International share an aspiration to move the entire coffee industry to achieve sustainability.

Changing food worldwide

As the world’s largest coffee retailer, Starbucks has incredible power — both as a supplier and a model — to engage other producers, roasters and retailers in supporting sustainably and ethically produced coffee.

Through strategic partnerships such as the one with Starbucks, in both coffee-drinking and coffee-producing nations, Conservation International has a very real opportunity to succeed in achieving our ambition to help make coffee — the most widely traded tropical agriculture commodity on Earth — the first completely sustainably produced commodity.

Tuna in ocean

The implications of this accomplishment will go beyond coffee. The experiences CI and our partners have had, the mistakes we’ve made, the lessons we’ve learned — all this has taught us how to transition the production of a commodity onto a sustainable path. We are perfectly positioned to take what we’ve learned from coffee and move toward market-wide sustainability of other global commodities such as palm oil, soy and tuna.

Achieving complete sustainability of a global commodity is a lofty goal, and not something that can be achieved by one organization alone. But with a growing awareness of the environmental challenges affecting global supply chains, there is great momentum within the business sector to keep moving the needle toward true sustainability.

Our journey with Starbucks started out aspirational, yet in a relatively short time we’ve made remarkable progress. Over the years, CI’s involvement with Starbucks has been led by an extraordinary team of devoted experts in a range of disciplines, including scientists, economists and communications specialists. I’m sure they all join me in celebrating Starbucks’ progress — not as an end goal, but an essential step toward getting the world where it needs to be.

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