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245. Coffee, impact and “Big Data”

Recent discussions here on the topic of assessing impact at origin have mapped into broader currents of conversation within the specialty coffee industry and society at large about how increasing data flows affect our day-to-day decision-making.  Or don’t.

I have written here of our past work monitoring and evaluating our coffee work, and our commitment to improve our M&E performance moving forward.  And when I suggested that even sustainability leaders think we have a long way to go in understanding the industry’s impact at origin, industry stakeholders responded — some online, but most off — to remind me of ongoing efforts to assess impact at origin or to tell me about new initiatives.

The truth is that there are worthy efforts underway at both the industry level and within individual companies.  And that we still are only beginning to scratch the surface in terms of really understanding how the specialty industry interacts with and impacts countless thousands of communities in the coffeelands around the world.  Getting a handle on coffee data is the first step in the process.

One industry-wide initiative with this goal is START, the SCAA’s Sustainability Tracking and Reporting Tool, which has been patiently led by members of the SCAA Sustainability Council, Al Liu of Atlas Coffee perhaps foremost among them.  To the (limited) extent that I know START, it seems appropriately named: the industry’s important inaugural effort to centralize information on its impacts in the coffeelands.

COSA, the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, led by the eminent Daniele Giovannucci, is arguably the most comprehensive effort to assess the industry’s impact on social, economic and environmental sustainability at origin.  The cleverly named “COSitA” indicators include over 100 variables spread across each of the three facets of the “triple bottom line,” and represent the broadest set of indicators adopted by the largest number of industry actors in their efforts to track impact.

And individual coffee companies are becoming increasingly sophisticated about measuring and reporting their social impact.  I have written here about the extraordinary efforts of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to measure the social impact of its growing reinvestment in the coffeelands through its Reporting Collaborative and its embrace of standardized impact indicators.  In recent weeks, I have been in discussions with two other companies about their separate and worthy initiatives to measure and communicate around the social impacts of their business models.

All of these are efforts to make sense of the broadening flow of data downstream from origin to the market, and to harness it for better decision-making – part of the “Big Data” trend that The New York Times suggests defines our age and influences virtually every aspect of the human experience.  Including coffee.

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