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Sustainable Coffee Importer Champions Supply Chain Transparency; Pours Profit into Farmer Training

September 10, 2012 |

Sustainable Harvest, of Portland, OR, was born of the desire to make the coffee industry more sustainable. The for-profit specialty coffee importer formed as a response to the lack of transparency and the disconnect within the global coffee market.

“The problem is that most of the members within a supply chain approach a series of short term transactions,” says Ezra Spier, director of technology solutions for Sustainable Harvest. “Farmers are trying to sell the coffee they have today. Co-opers are scraping by today. And, importers like us are buying low and selling high. This can have serious implications for the world. It makes it really difficult for any organization to make long-term business investments. There is a huge gap between the information everyone has. Even consumers may not know where their coffee is coming from, and coffee farmers don’t know where coffee is being sold.”

But, this is where Sustainable Harvest comes in. It imports green coffee beans from farmers and co-ops in Latin American and East Africa, who are struggling to compete in the global market, and they sell the beans to coffee roasters that include Green Mountain Coffee, Allegro Coffee, Peet’s Coffee, Cafe Moto and a number of other coffee roasters throughout the country. The for-profit company uses a hybrid business model, making money on the coffee it imports, but also reinvesting about one-third of that money into farmer training programs.

As an answer to the disconnect within the coffee industry, Sustainable Harvest has developed what it calls the Relationship Coffee model, which helps bring greater transparency to the coffee industry by connecting each member of the supply chain. “The founder of Sustainable Harvest (David Griswold) was working in Mexico in the ‘90s and was working with coffee growers who were trying to sell their coffee, but who didn’t have solid understanding about the coffee business. They brought in coffee so far from being ready to sell. They had a huge lack of information and lack of [business] relationships,” explains Spier. “We have created the Relationship Coffee model rather than utilizing short-term transactions. We build long-term relationships, transparency and trust.”

Within this model, Sustainable Harvest invests in farmer training and community development. For every dollar earned, Sustainable Harvest saves 2 cents for earnings, invests 1 cent in training and capacity building, pays for importing costs with 3 cents, pays another 3 cents for company operations and administration, and pays the remaining 91 cents to coffee cooperatives for green coffee beans.

As part of its initiative to provide training and skills to undereducated coffee farmers, Sustainable Harvest recently released a mobile training iPad app, RITS (Relationship Information Tracking System) Ed: Cupping. According to Spies, the coffee importer has led farmer-training programs for many years, but with a staff of 40, it was impossible to train every farmer that works with Sustainable Harvest. But, with the new app, the company is able to share a library of educational videos (in Spanish and English) to train coffee farmers who would not otherwise have access to information on coffee growing, specialty coffee processing and quality control. “This educational platform is the best kind of tool to put in the backpack of trainers to train the farmers,” says Spiers. “As a tech person, I am always nervous about asking people to use new tools. But, we found with RITS Ed, people have really embraced it.”

Sustainable Harvest is also is Certified B Corporation, created by the non-profit B Lab. Having the certification means that Sustainable Harvest meets Certified B Corporation standards and benchmarks, ensuring that it is using its business to solve social and environmental problems, including sustainability and environmental issues.

And, as its name implies, sustainability is a huge piece of Sustainable Harvest’s mission. The company focuses on organic and fair trade practices, but for the coffee importer sustainability is about more than just protecting the environment. “When we talk about sustainability, it isn’t just environmental stewardship, but also people’s livelihoods,” explains Spier. “It is sometimes overwhelming to see some of these [coffee growing areas] filled with poverty. What we really focus on is helping these farmers lead sustainable livelihoods. We take a holistic approach to sustainability.”

Though it is very successful, Sustainable Harvest does encounter challenges from time to time. Because its customers are large coffee roasters, the company must insure the coffee that it sells satisfies the needs of the end consumer. “If it’s not something that people want to buy, we’re in trouble,” says Spiers. “But, most people are really interested in getting fair trade coffee.” And, much like others within the sustainable agriculture realm, Sustainable Harvest finds that financing is very difficult to acquire for the coffee co-ops or farmers that need money for things like labor and fertilizers. “We work with organizations that can bring money to coffee growers,” he explains. “But, there isn’t a lot of money there. It is very hard to access.”

Despite these challenges, Sustainable Harvest has enjoyed 41 percent sales growth annually since 1997, and the company brought in 78 million dollars in sales last year. Building upon its success, Sustainable Harvest has many plans in place to increase its reach to more coffee harvesters and to diversify its coffee roaster customer based. “Coffee is one of highest traded commodities on the planet,” Spiers says. “The way that we really see ourselves is we’re constantly trying to innovate. The more we can grow, the more impact we have around the world.”

Video on Sustainable Harvest RITS Application:

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