Sustainability in the coffee industry, a practical approach

By Pascal Héritier, COO at MZBG

The current situation: Environmental challenges and sustainability

Coffee is the second most important raw material sold worldwide, being produced in about 70 countries located in tropical areas with hot and humid climates.

The intensive cultivation adopted by large producers with the aim of maximizing returns through monoculture and the abundant use of synthetic chemicals cause the deterioration of the land and the surrounding environment, threatening biodiversity. It has therefore become necessary to rethink the paradigm of industrial commodity production, introducing the concept of sustainability. But what does this word mean?

 According to The State of Sustainable Coffee- A study of 12 international markets”, (ICO)Sustainability is a dynamic continuum and can best be perceived as an ongoing process rather than a static achievement. Sustainability has been defined in several ways and {..} the term {…}, states that in order to achieve sustainability, long-term environmental, social, and economic needs must be met in an integrated manner without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The common minimum denominator for the challenges posed by sustainability can therefore be translated with the slogan “giving back to the community”.

Market responses

The challenges facing coffee producers are therefore multiple: on the one hand, to guarantee very high levels of production, on the other hand, to ensure respect for the environment and to promote social cohesion and improve the workers’ living standard.

Over the years, an attempt has been made to respond to a need which, while safeguarding product excellence, also guarantees an economic return and benefits in environmental and social terms. This has led to the creation of organic, ecological and fair-trade coffees – whose higher than average price also reflects the goal to enhance the living conditions of the people involved in the production chain, and to satisfy a niche market characterized by a higher sensitivity to the matter. 

The challenging elements in the world of sustainable coffee

Talking about sustainability in the food industry is always challenging given the many aspects that come into play. The elements to be analysed are numerous and range from responsible use of water resources, to the materials used for product packaging and initiatives aimed at supporting local communities.

 Water and respect for groundwater

Careful use of water reserves has always been difficult to match with large-scale intensive farming. However, this issue has to be tackled as a most high priority, especially in times where we are witnessing progressive desertification and increasing global warming concerns.

In this respect, a best practice in the industry comes from Kauai Coffee, the largest coffee plantation in the United States – with over 4 million coffee plants on the island of Kauai in Hawaii – owned by the Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group. Kauai has in fact become the world’s largest drip irrigation coffee company, with over 2,500 miles of drip tubes, a system that allows water to be saved and recycled in the fields.

The use of chemicals is another key aspect. In 2018, Kauai set the objective of reducing the use of all types of pesticides by 70% by 2021 and completely eliminating “Restricted use pesticides” in its processes.

Packaging

Manufacturers face big pressure also in regard to the materials used in the product packaging process. While they play a pivotal role in the optimization of costs, timing and ways of distribution and delivery, they are also the cause of a waste production that must be hindered.

A further element to consider is the fact that the materials used for packaging allow to preserve intact the freshness, the aroma and, in general, the qualities of the coffee. These are important elements in any industry, but especially crucial for coffee, which is a living product that tends to change its organoleptic qualities according to even the slightest variations in climatic conditions. For this reason, the materials used play a key role in determining the success of a brand or a company.

In this regard, Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group launched several initiatives aimed at reducing as much as possible the impact of coffee capsules on the environment: among these, the example of Segafredo Zanetti France stands out. In 2019, the French company of the group launched 100% biodegradable and compostable capsules; last January, the product was awarded “product of the year”in France. Furthermore, the Group is about to introduce other innovative solutions on the market in the coming months.

Another brand owned by Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group, Boncafè International, was among the first to sign the terms contained in the Singapore Packaging Agreement, an initiative launched in 2007 and supported by the local government, aimed at reducing packaging waste, which today accounts for one third of household waste.

Local communities

Improving the living conditions of populations involved in the cultivation and harvesting of coffee is another key aspect to be considered with a view to achieving a 100% sustainable approach. This is an even more challenging task due to the volatility of the price of green coffee.

In this respect, Boncafè lnternational and Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA decided to join the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, an initiative that aims to promote sustainability along the supply chain, focusing on the well-being of local populations. Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA has devised a project in relation to the education of the local population in one of the main countries of supply for the company.

The Boncafé Group, which has been a partner in the initiative since 2017, has already developed and undertaken its commitment, that is ensuring the long-term well-being of farming communities, by promoting training initiatives aimed at internal and external stakeholders on the importance of traceability and sustainability in coffee growing practices.

All that being said, there is no shortage of sustainable initiatives in the coffee production and distribution chain. The real challenge is to give them a direction, which is first and foremost a matter of vision. Getting them up and running and creating a real culture of sustainability are the natural following steps. Some companies are proving to be one step ahead of others.