Five Reflections on the 2015 NCA Sustainability Summit
The National Coffee Association (https://www.ncausa.org/About-NCA), is one of the largest supporting governing bodies in the American Coffee Industry having been in operation since 1911. Members of the NCA are comprised of people from a wide array of portions of the coffee industry. From retailers to farmers, each portion of the industry is represented and left with an equal measure of input as the industry continues to move forward. As an NCA member, Westrock Coffee has enjoyed immeasurable benefit from the expertise that is lent through dialogue and research with our industry peers that membership within the NCA affords.
In late October the NCA hosted one of their annual coffee summits in Austin, TX. Specifically this summit was focused on the current state of sustainability within the industry and some of the key issues that need to be addressed for the continued viability of the industry as a whole. Hundreds of people gathered from all over the world to engage in the summit. It was refreshing to see the commitment of people taking the steps necessary to improve the coffee industry for all involved. The weekend consisted of a variety of different speaker-led sessions, with topics ranging from the Chinese Water Shortage and its effect on the Chinese Coffee Industry, to how “Millennial” coffee drinkers think about sustainability. Overall the speakers and discussions led from the talks that were given were very informative and helped me to think critically about some of the issues Westrock faces as a completely vertically integrated coffee company that deals in each portion of the supply chain. Below are five reflections that I had on the topics that were shared. If you’d like to learn more about Westrock and what goes into each wonderful cup of Westrock Coffee, please follow this link (www.westrockcoffee.com/process/) to see more of our story!
- We need to be aware of “choke-points” that are a real threat to every industry. The current water and energy shortage that is facing the Chinese coffee industry is a real world example of industry reaching an impasse. This crisis illustrates the scarcity of natural resources and the reality that all industry needs to be more aware of the levels of consumption of things that seem to be unlimited, such as clean water and energy. Jennifer Turner’s discussion of this helped me to think critically about the larger effects even simple things such as brewing a cup of coffee could mean in the bigger picture of energy consumption. On the ground in East Africa, there are a variety of things that would be considered “choke-points”, including access to clean water sources, which can be a major hindrance in many communities. Around some of these communities Westrock has partnered directly with local leaders to provide a clean water source for the community, benefiting many of the farmers and their families in the surrounding region.
- There is no “one-size fits all” sustainability solution. While at the conference I was surprised to see that amount of opinions and passions from some of my industry peers in regard to sustainability. The issues faced and addressed at Westrock day-in, day-out may be similar to issues faced at other companies, but by no means encompass all of the issues that others are facing. It was nice to see the industry moving toward a greater definition of what sustainability is and what it could be in terms of something that is beneficial for all of the stakeholders in coffee. At Westrock, we continue to develop our sustainability programs in line with this, contextualizing many of the solutions or programs we face to fit the farmers that we work with at origin. We work hard to ensure that the programs we implement address go beyond coffee farming, but that the programs address many of the issues faced by the farmers within each of their respective countries.
- Sustainability needs to go beyond “origin”. One of the recurring themes throughout the weekend was the idea that sustainability within the coffee industry is heavily “origin focused,” meaning that often it is focused on the farmer side of the supply chain. In fairness, this is obviously the side that needs to be addressed more than anything and fair treatment of the farmers is the greatest issue facing the industry as it stands today. However, what was helpful was to see that corporate thought about sustainability needs to be holistic, addressing all of the supply chain and each step that goes into making a cup of coffee. While most of our work occurs at origin, it is an aim of our team to constantly be immersing ourselves in sustainable coffee industry initiatives going on both at origin and here domestically in the United States.
- Millennials are the future of coffee. It was apparent from the conference that Millennials (18-35 year olds) are the most “coffee-focused” generation within the coffee consuming world right now and will continue to be for a long time to come. Beyond that, they are also the most concerned with the actual validity of the claims that companies make. They are less likely to trust just a label and are far more likely to actually delve into the truth behind claims that companies are making. If what a company is claiming and what is actually true are not aligned, they are very likely to vocalize this and actively seek out other like substitutes. Hopefully this continues to lead into a greater transparency within the industry as a whole. Our Agribusiness Programs in East Africa were developed with transparency in mind. We seek to build trust and foster relationship with the thousands of farmers that we work with, and we do this by building relationships with them face-to-face at the source.
- Finally, the future for coffee is bright! As I said previously above, it was very refreshing to have such a transparent and honest weekend with people from all parts of the coffee industry. There really seems to be a concerted, measured effort from a variety of stakeholders to make the coffee industry a more transparent, sustainable industry for generations to come. We at Westrock are excited to continue along with our peers, and we aim to lead out in the industry to a more sustainable future.