Sustainability is a “hot” word right now. It is used in many different contexts, from development work in the third world all the way to marketing plans for companies who are trying to reach a conscious and informed market. Have you ever wondered what the phrase “to be sustainable” actually means? One of the three definitions that the Merriam Webster dictionary gives for sustainable is the ability "to last or continue for a long time”. When we use that word in the context of coffee, essentially we are asking -"does the coffee farm make a profit?" If the answer is yes, then the farm can remain on the same level or improve but if we answer no, then the farm will not be able to carry on. They would eventually have to stop growing coffee in order to survive. Coffee farmers grow coffee to feed themselves and their children, to provide medical care for them and provide an education for their children. Whilst many coffee farmers love coffee, it is not a choice of convenience or taste but rather of survival.
So what actually enables a coffee farm to make a profit and be sustainable?
The simple equation is...
The price the farmer receives for their beans/cherries minus all the time, energy and capital they spend growing and harvesting the coffee = their profit.
But then you need to answer the following equation...
Is the profit ≥ the needs of the farmer and their family over the period of time in which they took to produce the coffee.
What makes coffee and other perennial crops (a plant having a life cycle that is more than two years long) unique is they can easily grow it without maintenance and it can continue to be harvested even if the plant or crop is not achieving a healthy and optimum harvest. In other words, coffee can be grown with very little expense but will produce a fraction of its potential quantity and quality.
What does this for mean sustainability? What can you do?
1. As a farmer: The jump in progress needed for a farmer to become sustainable requires farmers make a conscious effort to develop their farming practices and give coffee the same effort that is usually given an annual cash crop such as corn or other vegetables.
2. As an influencer: Companies and organizations focused on improving sustainability will need to address the farmers needs for coffee agronomy knowledge and skills. New machinery and equipment is helpful but may only aid the farmer improve the quality of their coffee until the machinery is broken or needs to be replaced.
As the coffee quality improves, so should the price. Reward for hard work is a integral part of any development plan. Regions in the world where development is hindered usually have strong influences preventing reward for hard work. Such as, conflict zones where hard work is destroyed by war or neglect, secluded rural areas where middle men take advantage, the farmers distance to the market, or knowledge of the market.
And if you're not directly connected to the coffee industry, be a storyteller and advocate for farmers by supporting other coffee companies that sustainably source.
3. As a consumer of coffee: It starts by being informed, but the bottom line is you have to be willing to pay a little bit more money for your cup of joe. Do it as a thank you, to help those that keep you going and add joy to your day.