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What is Sustainability and Why Does it Matter?

by Erika Koss, @AWorldinYourCup

World Coffee Research trail in Huye Mountain, Rwanda (photo: Erika Koss)

The word “sustainability” evokes an alarming quantity of definitions, redefinitions, and interpretations, for a word that became popularized less than 35 years ago. For this reason, when I teach a Sustainability course to professionals in the specialty coffee sector, I urge them to consider the definition that leads their own philosophy and practice, whether they are in the business, or nonprofit sector.

Teaching this course has been instructive for me as well, since in less than a year, people from Hawaii to Hong Kong, from Nairobi to the Netherlands, have enrolled in my course. Some students enter without ever having deeply considered the definition of Sustainability, even though their introductory email expressed their high esteem for it. Other students take my course precisely because they are not working in coffee, but they want to be in the future. For these individuals, the course offers a way for them to gain some knowledge or training, as they seek to determine their place in the global coffee value chain.

Indeed, finding one’s role in such a complex chain, especially if one wishes to focus on Sustainability, is indeed a great challenge in many parts of the world. For example, a student from Kuwait taught me that since there was no word for Sustainability in Arabic, the concept is a challenge for him, or anyone else in his country, to adopt, or even discuss. For an industry that includes more than 72 countries as coffee producers, and dozens of others as coffee consumers, how is it possible to work toward Sustainability, if we lack the very words needed in all of the languages represented by those working in coffee?

Defining Sustainability

Perhaps such language barriers are one reason why it’s so easy to employ Sustainability as an umbrella word–a word that explains an overall concept rather than something specific or precise. For example, I have seen Sustainability defined as broadly as “helping poor people not to become poor,” or as “integrating green practices such as recycling or composting.” I have seen it used to describe everything from gender equity to wastewater initiatives, or with vague aspirations such as “ensuring economic growth for future generations.” But while all these may be desirable ideals, these are outcomes of Sustainability, not the meaning of actual the word itself.

Thinking about such complexities always leads me back to my favorite dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED). And given my own background in English literature, I confess my bias that to understand ‘sustainability’ (or any word), one must first consider its origin, or its etymology.

The OED tells us that the origin verb, “to sustain,” literally comes from two Latin roots, sub + teneo, which means “to hold up, to uphold. ” We also learn that “sustain” is an action verb with at least four original meanings: (a) “to bear, to withstand, to endure”; (b) “to defend, to support, to continue”; (c) “to provide for (especially subsistence)”; and (d) “to uphold, to hold up.”

But did you know – and as a former teacher of poetry, I love this connection – that the word “sustain” has a rich history that began with poet Geoffrey Chaucer?

Perhaps some of you reading this essay may have read some of the stories from his legendary collection, The Canterbury Tales, in your High School English class. If you did, you may have learned that Chaucer created more than 2,000 new English words, many of them revealed for the first time in his fourteenth-century collection that describes the comic adventures of a group of pilgrims as they journey to Canterbury.

It’s likely that the word “sustain” made its grand debut in one of Chaucer’s well-known poems titled “Merciless Beauty”:

“Your yen two wol slee me soddenly; / I may the beautee of hem not sustene,

So woundeth hit thourghout my herte kene. / And but your word wol helen hastily / My hertes wounde while that hit is grene, /

Your yen two wol slee me soddenly; / I may the beautee of hem not sustene.”

This poem is a rondel, or a song, that carries its music through three song cycles that repeat in a specific pattern, so the first line repeats most often.

While Chaucer’s Middle English poem is not readable today to most English speakers, it has been translated dozens of times into contemporary English. For our purposes, a more literal translation of the opening two lines may suffice:

“Your two eyes will slay me suddenly / The beauty of them, I may not sustain.”

I wonder what inspired Chaucer to create this new word. Maybe he needed something to keep his alliterative pattern for “slay me suddenly,” or perhaps he just wanted to create a new word.

But whatever his original motive, the fact that the first appearance of “sustain” is linked to beauty, feels particularly poignant to me. For despite all our twentieth-first century challenges, so many of our solutions are rooted in a desire to maintain beauty. We love our earth, we love all the unique animals and birds, we love the oceans, we love coffee. We want all these beautiful things to be available both for our lifetime and the next generation, yet how do we sustain this? In this sense, our human quest for beauty links with our motive to seek Sustainability.

A Very Brief History of Sustainability

Fast forward to 1986.

A global commission is led by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female Prime Minister, titled the World Commission on Environment and Development. The report that this group of world leaders wrote, “Our Common Future,” articulated the principle of sustainable development for the first time at a global level. Published in 1987, the report articulated the now-classic definition of ‘Sustainable Development,’ as that which meets “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In my courses so far, it is rare that anyone younger than age 40 has heard of this commission, let alone knows this definition.

But what is more often known is an analogy known as the Three pillars of Sustainability. The analogy goes like this: for any stool to stand, it must have three legs that are equally balanced. For Sustainability, these are Social, Environmental, and Economic. But I would take it further to add that it’s not enough for the stool to merely have three equal legs. The stool also needs a firm foundation from which it can stand. True sustainability must be built on a strong ground, not sinking sand.

Why Defining Sustainability Matters

Kenya Coffee Cherries, Kiambu County (photo: Erika Koss)

Without a doubt, the challenges of putting sustainability into action are rife in our industry. There have been many meetings, with many calls by leaders in coffee to develop a united vision for coffee sustainability, and for improved alignment of sustainability efforts. This led to Vision 2020, and the call for: “A collaborative approach between public and private parties to foster resilient coffee farmers, improve livelihoods and create strong farming communities”.

Yet we are far away from making that statement a reality. The challenges in the twenty-first coffee sector range from the scientific to the social – and many things in between.

We all care about Sustainability, yet there are botanical challenges, as dozens of coffee varietals are becoming “threatened with extinction.” As Dr. Aaron Davis from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, explains, “If it wasn't for wild species we wouldn't have as much coffee to drink in the world today. Because if you look at the history of coffee cultivation, we have used wild species to make the coffee crop sustainable.”

We all care about Sustainability, yet there are human challenges, since coffee farmers worldwide are aging. For example, a recent study demonstrates that the average age of coffee farmers in Kenya is 63 years old (Wairegi et al, 2018), while one focused on Indonesia observes the average age as 60 (Foxwell, 2016). This, along with the global youth disinterest in and departure from agriculture, combined with increased rural youth migration to urban centers, will lead to diminished numbers of farmers to grow, harvest, and process coffee in the decades to come.

These are only two of the many challenges for the twenty-first century coffee value chain. How Sustainability is defined for the sciences vs. the social sciences may differ, but as solutions are sought for each problem, so must a shared definition be considered. For without a common vision of the goal, how can various people and organizations unite around a solution? Or, to put it another way: if dozens of different people are trying to meet at a destination, how can they all arrive together unless the road is not clearly marked?

For example, the surge of mergers, acquisitions, and collective action platforms in specialty coffee increase may find their strength to unite diverse partners and actors together around mutual goals. Collective action can build more effective, inclusive, and relevant initiatives. But the top companies and initiatives all have different definitions of Sustainability, with multiple ways of reporting their methods. In this case, such variance of measuring success may make it difficult for partners to advocate or effect real, long-term change.

Sustainability Solutions

Connect Coffee Empowerment Centre, Nairobi, Kenya (photo: Erika Koss)

Developing solutions to sustainability challenges is complex, given the global and diverse nature of the coffee supply chain. Climate change, fossil fuels, carbon and other emissions, and changing weather patterns, combined with the human challenges of aging coffee farmers, lack of interest in youth in agricultural, and gender inequities, are among the greatest challenges for the future of coffee. Current approaches have brought us a long way, but we must do better to ensure that the three legs of the stool are equally valued both within communities and across the value chain.

The specialty coffee industry is filled with talented and passionate people who are not content to just sit by and watch these Wicked Problems get worse. While its true that far more research is needed to understand the complexity and specificity of coffee challenges, several organizations and individual scholars are investing in learning more, so that actions taken are based on evidence.

While many examples could be chosen, here are two admirable models that I’ve encountered through my research in Kenya.

Connect Coffee is a Nairobi-based roastery and café, which brews and sells Kenyan coffee beans. But in 2019, they extended their impact when they opened their Coffee Empowerment Centre. Beyond their coffee education courses and coffee bean delivery service for the public, The Connect Coffee Academy focuses on addressing solutions to youth unemployment in Nairobi, by offering training programs for Baristas, Café Management, and Coffee Knowledge. As they train youth “one brew at a time,” the Academy also creates excitement around coffee for the next generation – a vital challenge given the numbers of Kenyan farmers who are uprooting their coffee trees or abandoning their farms.

At the farm level, World Coffee Research continues its ambitious, global reach through its Global Coffee Monitoring program. This new initiative installs hundreds of on-farm demonstration trials, in order to compare current varietals used by farmers, with new varietals. Among its goals is to address economic sustainability by testing ways to increase profitability through new varietals and new soil treatments. The goal is to see if these will increase monetary return to coffee farmers. By doing this globally, WCR will be able to aggregate results so they can recommend climate-smart technologies to inform future research and practice. Currently there are 82 trials spread throughout Africa. In Kenya, the first trial plot began in 2019 in Kericho county. Now with 10 projects, WCR plans to create more throughout Kenya in the future. Although the results take years to determine, the Kericho coffee farmers involved so far are enthusiastic and optimistic about the project so far.

Concluding Thoughts

While we each play a role in addressing sustainability challenges in the industry, I encourage my students to each be honest and realistic about what that looks like, and how we might best use our own talents and resources to address the challenges at whatever part of the coffee chain we may find ourselves.

As someone who lives in Nairobi and travels regularly to talk to coffee farmers, the word ‘sustainability’ is far from an abstraction: it’s tangible. For embedded in this word, “sustain,” is the idea of holding. Dozens and dozens of human hands hold the coffee seed, the coffee cherry, the coffee parchment, the green coffee, the roasted coffee, all before coffee ever transforms as a liquid drink that I hold in a cup with my hands.

This beverage took the ingenuity, determination, and hard work of many people to achieve. That I get to drink it, is something I don’t inherently deserve. It is a privilege, something for which I’m very grateful.

Let us realize that when any of us holds a cup of coffee, we are holding a gift.


About the Author

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Erika Koss now lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where she is a Research Associate at the University of Nairobi.  In 2018, she launched “A World in Your Cup” out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she is also a PhD candidate in International Development Studies at Saint Mary’s University. Erika’s research centers on gender equity, sustainability, and resilience in the global coffee trade, particularly in East Africa. A former barista and Re:Co fellow, Erika is also a SCA-certified AST for Introduction to Coffee and the Sustainability Coffee Skills programs. Other career highlights include working at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC; the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California; and as an assistant dean at Northeastern University. She has taught literature, writing, and politics at several universities. She holds a B.S. from The Master’s College; an M.A. in English literature from San Diego State University; and an M.A. in Political Science from Northeastern University. She is a regular contributor to several coffee magazines and is working on her first book.  Read more on her website www.AWorldinYourCup, or follow her on Instagram @aworldinyourcup.



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