The Role and Impact of Coffee in Global Development

Seattle will soon play host to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) whose annual exposition runs April 9-12 at the Washington State Convention Center. Featuring a full schedule of events to promote coffee’s unique history and taste to the world, the expo will include the World Barista Championships; lectures by experts on everything from bean to cup; coffee from Yemen, Brazil, Peru, Rwanda and Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee; and representatives from organizations such as Fair Trade USA, Stumptown and Seattle’s own Theo Chocolate. In all, Seattle will welcome 12,000 coffee growers, retailers, importers, exporters, non-profit organizations, companies and government trade ministries from around the world.

It is no surprise that the SCAA is returning to Washington state, after holding their 2014 annual event right here in Seattle. Home to a thriving coffee culture and some of the industry’s most recognized brands, the Daily Beast recently concluded that Seattleites consume more coffee than citizens of any other American city. We have 35 coffee shops for every 100,000 residents, and we spend an average of $36 per month on coffee.

Furthermore, Seattle-based organizations continue to lead in the creation of a sustainable value chain that leads to a world-class coffee experience. As we recognize Seattle’s influence on the future of coffee, Global Washington is exploring the role of coffee in international development and looking at how GlobalWA members contribute to sustainable economic growth through innovative programs in coffee communities worldwide.

Given coffee’s role in the economies of commodity export-heavy developing countries, a sustainable approach to coffee production and trade is imperative. As the International Coffee Organization and DR Wakefield report address, the coffee industry faces a litany of challenges. The most pressing issues are disease, climate change, urbanization and the loss of farmland, fluctuating prices, an aging workforce and urban migration. The coffee industry has looked at how to address these issues in ways that support the triple bottom line of profits, people and planet.

What is Sustainable Coffee?

The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainable coffee comprises economic, social and environmental components that relate to the challenges facing today’s coffee industry.

Economic Sustainability

The coffee industry employs roughly 100 million people worldwide, the majority of whom live in developing countries. Many small-holder farmers lack the business skills necessary to consistently produce quality coffee for the international market. Certifiers and roasters have invested in education programs since improved farming husbandry usually yields better coffee harvests and higher prices from companies looking for a stable and long-term supply of coffee. Farmers then use this money to access education, health care and food supply, thus raising their overall standard of living. Training programs also help farmers diversify their crops in order to weather price fluctuations that have historically hurt communities heavily dependent on one commodity.

Social Sustainability

Once coffee production becomes more stable and economically sustainable, it can have positive spillover effects on other areas of society as cooperatives and communities invest in improved facilities, risk management tools and education. Many organizations and cooperatives focus on institutional capacity building, gender-based programs that bring women into the formal economy or microfinance projects that support the local economy as it grows around coffee. These programs provide economic and social opportunities to young people who previously had to migrate to larger cities in search of work.

 Environmental Sustainability

The coffee industry has been active in the environmental sustainability debate, as changes in climate inevitably affect the quality and taste of your latte. NGOs and companies are creating programs to improve farming practices and post-harvest processing, develop disease and drought-resistant varieties, enhance soil fertility and explore new production models. Whether in regards to deforestation, ocean acidification or drought, the coffee industry is exceptionally aware of the importance of a healthy environment in bringing coffee from bean to cup.

Most industry experts foresee global demand outstripping supply, especially due to growth in emerging markets like China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia. Much like the cocoa industry, coffee finds itself in a unique position. If we rely on yesterday’s solutions, we may find ourselves enduring the gray Seattle winter with neither cappuccino nor dark chocolate. Luckily, we live in a city with organizations that see coffee’s challenges as opportunities to “do well by doing good.” By strengthening the economic, social and environmental sustainability of coffee, several Global Washington members are building stronger communities along the value chain through innovative partnerships and programs that ensure the future of a product none of us want to go without.