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236. 2012: The year of the impact-at-origin baseline?

I had a long conversation last week with a specialty coffee luminary that ended in a surprising statement about how little the industry really understands about its impact at origin after all these years.

We talked about the state of sustainability in the coffee industry in general, and the current controversy in the Fair Trade marketplace in particular.  I shared with him one of my most fervent New Year’s wishes: that CRS could be part of a system-wide impact assessment of all the variants of Fair Trade in coffee.  To see which ones are really working for smallholder farmers and other marginalized actors in the coffee chain.  And to bring some independent, results-based evidence to all the ideological debates about what kind of FT delivers the most value for farmers.  I further suggested that we might include other trading models in the assessment, including the ascendant Direct Trade model and all its variants.  I told him I thought the widely held belief that improvements in coffee quality lead to improvements in quality of life was largely untested.  And I confessed that while we have invested in our projects to support improvements in coffee quality, we have not comprehensively calculated the returns to smallholder farmers on different kinds of investments at origin.

I was not surprised by his enthusiasm for the idea.  I was surprised by his suggestion that after a generation of pathbreaking work on sustainability in specialty coffee, this kind of comprehensive assessment using uniform indicators still has not been done.  “We so desperately need this kind of baseline,” he concluded.

The FT4All initiative has only re-energized and complicated a long-standing debate about which kind of Fair Trade is the fairest of them all: smallholder coops, estates, unorganized smallholders, certified, non-certified, direct, indirect, indie roaster, corporate, etc.  And this is just within the Fair Trade movement.  When you zoom out to see the industry as a whole, the picture gets significantly more complex.

Coffee companies have been arguing for years that their version of the coffee trade is (check all that apply): fairer, greener, cleaner, bird-friendlier, farmer-friendlier, direct-er, transparent-er, etc.  In my experience, the companies that make these arguments are mostly true believers in the brands of trade they are promoting.  They have seen evidence of positive impact on their trading partners during visits to source.  But they are generally arguing based on ideology and personal experience, not rigorous comparative data.  And, let’s face it, there is no small amount of commercial interest involved.  The differentiation of a company’s brand based on its trading model is a source of competitive advantage in a marketplace that is increasingly concerned about traceability and sustainability.  So it may be good for business to pioneer a new and different approach to trade.  But is it necessarily good for farmers?

To answer that question in a way that is credible and comprehensive would require a system-wide impact study that applies a single set of evaluation criteria to all the different approaches to the coffee trade.  It would also require industry leaders to put farmers first, opening themselves to independent evaluation of the impact of their businesses on smallholder farmers.  It may be too much to hope for.  But without it, the evidence of impact that we gather will continue to be fragmentary and the way we engage smallholder farmers who look to the coffee trade to elevate their status will be driven more by guesswork, ideology and commercial interest than the result of rigorous inquiry.



  • Michael says:

    The fine work happening through COSA certainly deserves mention here, and should at least be a starting point for anyone driven to measure impact in a broad-scale and systematic way.

    Though many people are involved with COSA, Daniele Giovannucci in particular should be acknowledged for his efforts there.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      COSA is indeed the preeminent example in my mind of a hugely ambitious and rigorous approach. The project, and Daniele’s visionary work, merit not just mention but broad support. We have been linking our field work to this efforts in some places and hope to feed more data into this system.

      While COSA and COSITA, as far as I have come understand them through Daniele’s patient explanations, has the potential to be the authoritative industry database on sustainability, I think there may also be a complementary need for something that operates at a micro level. For instance, a farmer in Colombia is deciding whether to plant the high-yielding, leaf-rust-resistant Castillo cultivar whose cup quality has been called into question, or Caturra, a cultivar that produces a great cup profile but may be ravaged by leaf rust in the absence of effective husbandry, leaving the farmer with little coffee to bring to market. Different trading models are competing for this farmer’s loyalty — one that privileges volume of “good-enough” coffee and another that privileges quality above all else. His decision will clearly affect his market options, and likely his livelihood. How do we measure, across a cohort of a few hundred farmers facing this choice and opting for different approaches, the return to smallholder livelihoods?

      Similarly, how do we think about the return on a special-process microlot that requires new post-harvest infrastructure and an increase in labor? Prices may be eye-catching, but what is the real cost when all production factors are taken into consideration? What is the return on that investment in terms of a farmer’s margin?

      I don’t think we have clarity on questions like this that will go a long way to shaping livelihood outcomes in the coffeelands into the future. I believe that initiatives like GCQRI, which have been cultivating support industry-wide for R&D into coffee quality, would do well to include an impact assessment component to measure the impact of new technologies and quality improvements on smallholder livelihoods.


  • Ian Agnew says:

    This is a really interesting and topical article. We’ve also been asking the same questions at the Black Gold Foundation, about the real impact on small coffee farmers of the current state of the industry, the split in the US between FT USA and FLO, and also the record high coffee prices. Whilst many farmers are receiving higher prices at the moment, it is also fuelling a surge in coffee production which may lead to over-supply and a corresponding crash in prices over the next couple of years. We would love to re-post your article on our blog and for people to also look at the contributions from others who have written for the blog. We’re trying to keep trade justice issues in the coffee trade in the limelight. Thanks for the posting.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for the kind words and please do feel free to re-post.

      The issue of impact measurement at origin is one that has generated some good discussion here that has proven helpful as we design the monitoring and evaluation system for our Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia and Ecuador. I will provide an update soon on what that system looks like and how we think it will help us advance the discussion on impact at origin and the returns to smallholder farmers of specific initiatives in the coffeelands.


  • Miguel says:

    Hi Michael,

    This is a super important subject and I am glad you are highlighting it in your posts. I am here in Brazil this week and talking with a couple of individuals working on impact evaluation to see if we can get something meaningful to evaluate impact at the farm workers level. I am thinking of working a little with the COSitA indicators to begin and see how to apply them to this reality. Do you have info on specific metrics for the COSitA indicators? I have only seen the general indicators but I have not found specific ways to measure them


    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for your comment. I think I have what you have — a list of the COSitA indicators. I do not have my hands on any survey instruments that have been used to collect these, but there are obviously lots of industry actors that have participated in data collection related to the COSA/COSitA project that would have developed them, including at least one that used an iPad app to collect them electronically. We are planning to gather data on many of these indicators in connection with our Borderlands project, and I would be delighted to share the data collection instrument we use once it is developed.


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