19. Sustaining Sustainability

If there’s one thing I know about the coffee industry, it’s that we love being sustainable. We wear it like an industrial badge of honor. We have solar roasters, compostable cups, bio-degradable bags, community gardens, and my personal favorite, shops with rainwater catchment systems—but there are many times when I think we’ve missed the forest for the trees. One of my favorite posts this year on coffee and sustainability is by Mr. Sheridan of the CRS. I highly recommend reading it for two reasons: it’s short and it references the Princess Bride, which is a timeless classic. The ability to incorporate coffee and “Inconceivable!” into one post should get you some type of award. What the post really underscores is the nebulous definition of sustainability as understood by the coffee community at large. With that in mind, and as someone who is ever-learning, I’d like to present three things sustainability is and three things it is not. This list is no way comprehensive, but I think will help us all get on the same page.

Three things Sustainability is:

  1. A Worldview
    Wait, what? How is sustainability a worldview, or more accurately, dependent on your worldview? My personal favorite sweeping definition of sustainability is from the EPA:“Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”

    Well, that sounds pretty great, which is why I like it, but let’s dig a little deeper and ask some questions. Who defines humanity’s well-being? What is productive harmony? Who defines productive harmony? What level of support should we offer present and future generations? How many future generations are we talking about? How large are those future generations?

    And the questions keep coming! Almost every clean and simple definition of sustainability can be dismantled with the right questions, which is why an individual’s (or organization’s) worldview is so critical in determining how they go about sustainability. For example, is the purpose of humanity simply survival, is that productive enough? Or to relate it to coffee, is the survival of the coffee industry the goal of our sustainability efforts?

    To really emphasize how our worldview effects our sustainability efforts, I’d like to pursue a thought exercise on the genetic modification of humans. This is becoming a major hot topic in the scientific community with the discovery of CRISPR/CAS9, which will allow researches to actually do what they have long theorized about. So the question is, should they do it? Should they play with nature? Let’s look at it from a sustainability perspective. Would it not be in the interest of future generations to be faster, smarter, and healthier? Hold on! Won’t that require human embryo testing? Yes, it would—and quickly sustainability enters the personal ethics and morality realm, which is heavily dependent on your worldview.

  1. Balance
    The heart of sustainability is harmony and balance. We are trying to balance production and consumption, our environmental impact and economic limitations, and policy and human behavior. For instance, the all members of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) could decide that all washed coffee must be purchased from a mill with state of the art wastewater treatment (I can dream can’t I?) in the name of sustaining the environment. Sounds like a great plan until the economics catch up, such as market price shocks due to cooperatives trying to offset the treatment installation costs and the disappearance of millions of pounds of coffee from the market due to farmers not being able to afford new treatment technology and switching to another crop. So, it’s a balance and we need to be working towards improving our industry with that balance in mind.
  1. Complex
    I like water. It is kind of important. So naturally, I am a big fan of conserving it when possible, which is why I like rainwater catchment systems. However, what if an entire town put in rainwater catchment systems? Let’s also assume that town was near a small river that was the lifeblood of the local environment. Now we have an entire town retaining rainwater and drawing less from the nearby aquifer, which sounds pretty great until we notice the trees on the riverbank slowly begin to die and that the downstream rafting industry begins to tank because the river is so low. Turns out all those rainwater catchment systems retained so much rain that not enough of it was making it to the river and the water level began to drop creating an adverse impact on the environment. True, this is a hypothetical situation, but not as far-fetched as it may seem. Studies exist where land-use changes in the name have sustainability have created a negative impact on the environment. Basically, sustainability is messy and complex. We need to do our due diligence when proposing a sustainable solution.

Sustainability is hard. We need to begin to really think through it. Yes, that may delay our next green marketing campaign, but if we really pride ourselves as a sustainable industry then I think it’s time to put aside the gimmicks and start investigating solutions that will actually sustain the coffee industry—all aspects of it.


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