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Sustainability in practice

Earlier this month I was scheduled to faciltate a panel during the The SCAA Event titled “Sustainability in Practice”–a conversation with five women who are among the best thinkers (and doers) on sustainability issues in specialty coffee:

  • Sarah Beaubien
    Vice President of Sustainability
  • Tracy Ging
    Vice President of Sustainability and Special Initiatives
  • Kelly Goodejohn
    Director of Ethical Supply
  • Kim Elena Ionescu
    Sustainability Manager and Coffee Buyer
  • Shauna Mohr
    Sustainability Manager for the Americas

I was excited for the opportunity to convene this conversation.

I worked with the panelists over a period of several months to create a list of topics that would draw out their insights and draw in the audience.

Together we developed a great list of questions.

Then after all that work, I had to miss the panel.  So I am reconvening the conversation here for the benefit of those who–like me–weren’t able to attend, starting with this question: is it coincidence that you are all women?



Women represent less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs but more than 40% of CSOs.  Is it coincidence that you are all women?

KELLY: Interesting question.  I hadn’t noticed.

Ha!  You are like Stephen Colbert, who famously didn’t see the color of his guests on the Colbert Report.  Seriously, why do you think there are so many women in this role?

SHAUNA: Sustainability is an area where women are showing leadership. For some reason women are drawn to the complexity, meaning and potential for impact in a job fundamentally focused on bringing about a just, thriving and sustainable human existence on the planet.

TRACY: I think the importance of collaboration in this field is clear and that happens to be a leadership trait many women excel at…in addition to being strategic thinkers and otherwise capable, of course. Collaborative leadership certainly isn’t exclusive to women, but I think we women have a lot to offer by way of bringing diverse stakeholders together and finding common goals, mutually beneficial paths forward.

KIM ELENA:  I often see the business fields where women excel, like human resources and sustainability, referred to as “soft,” and I find that kind of insulting. The same goes for sciences. Who decided that biology is “softer” than physics? What are the units in which softness is measured? I think we have a cultural bias toward the roles that appeal to men, which is exemplified by our contemporary obsession with innovation and seeming disinterest in how innovation turns into action. The narrative implicit in so many success stories celebrates the idea and then ignores the work that supports it. Knowing the women on this panel, I think a quality that we have in common is the ability to work through a lot of ideas in order to figure out what works and then use that information to guide business. To put it in terms of the title of the panel, we turn good ideas into good business practices.



Is it a good time to be a sustainability professional?  One of you told me recently that you feel “sustainability is THE conversation” in coffee.  Do you all feel that?  A sense of moment or momentum?

SHAUNA: It’s a great time to be a sustainability professional. In the past 10 years or so, sustainability has gone from a “feel good side project” to a central strategic issue. It’s real: population growth, resource conflicts (water, minerals, energy, land, food), poverty, migration, urbanization – these are already having an impact. Climate change amplifies these pressures and adds uncertainty. Businesses that ignore this reality will be at a disadvantage.  Those that address these issues will more successfully navigate coming decades. C-suites have started to get this.

SARAH: It’s an amazing time to be a sustainability professional because there is paradigm shift underway. Sustainability is no longer just fringe. It seems that there is a growing awareness that we cannot tackle some of the critical ethical and environmental issue as individual companies. We have to work together and collaborate in order to affect change. It’s not just about reacting anymore, it’s about protecting and strengthening for long-term success.

KELLY:  When you overlay global risks and challenges over business growth strategies you clearly see the bullseye for sustainability. Gone are the days of relying on governments and NGOs to solve these challenges and the role of business is increasingly important.

Tracy, when we talked about this, you mentioned something you heard in a talk by the author Andrew Winston (Green to Gold, The Big Pivot). What did he say that struck you?

TRACY: He described sustainability as the strategy for business, and that certainly seems true. You can’t look at your brand, your business operations, your cost structure, etc. without considering people and natural capital in a more meaningful, strategic way.



In my experience it is not uncommon to see a gap between the values and vision of sustainability professionals on one hand and their colleagues on the commercial side of the business in the other.  How does that gap get narrowed and closed to “functionally ingrain” or “fully integrate” the sustainability function within the core commercial function?

KELLY:  If sustainability is viewed as a “nice to do” and is relegated to a sustainability team then it will indeed get marginalized. But, when the value is recognized and deemed critical to the business strategy and fully integrated then you have magic. The sustainability agenda and the business strategy shouldn’t be built and operated in silos but rather, working in support of each other.

TRACY: I agree.  It helps when integration starts from design. I started down the sustainability path with my colleagues on the commercial side of the business, so our sustainable sourcing strategy was something we developed together. But I have to say, what helped to lessen any gaps that might have occurred had nothing to do with the sustainability strategy. It had to do with really learning and understanding our respective roles and how we function. What we came up with makes sense for me, makes sense for them and enhances their ability to assure supply, manage risk, and build supplier performance. Sustainability professionals really need to learn other business functions as well as their own.

KIM ELENA: I am struck by the fact that Kelly and Tracy responded to this question in the same way.  They both talk about making sure that they, as sustainability leaders in their companies, understand the functions and challenges of other departments, for example the costs and market conditions that the coffee buyers were facing at a given moment or in a particular origin. The literature on sustainability drives home how important it is for every single person at a given company to understand sustainability, but doesn’t necessarily exhort the sustainability team to understand every single function of the company. Referring back to the above question about this being a good time to be a sustainability professional, being effective as a sustainability person in the coffee industry depends on being a coffee person and understanding the business of coffee.



Several years ago the New York Times columnist David Bornstein wrote that success in addressing the great development challenges we face “hinges less on big new ideas than on collections of small old ideas well integrated and executed.”  More recently (and a little closer to home), Willy Foote of Root Capital cited this passage in one of his columns for Forbes magazine and reminded readers “we do not have a shiny new object and there is nothing that revolutionary about our model.”  Are they right?  Is true innovation less about the luminous moment of insight than the power of persistence and perspective?

KIM ELENA: We all loved this question and insisted that the facilitator read the quote to the audience!  Based on my experience, it’s valuable to keep old ideas that didn’t succeed close at hand because sometimes they end up working later in a context you wouldn’t have expected. I have started a lot of projects and started down a number of paths that seemed like dead-ends at the time I began but ended up being useful a few years later.

SHAUNA: I’m with Willy: solutions are everywhere. This is more about applying and scaling them with persistence and patience.

KELLY: We need the best ideas (whether they are old or new ones) and some stamina. Hopping to the next big idea isn’t always the best thing to do.

Sarah, when I asked you about this you had a kind of back-to-the-future moment. Can you say more about that?

SARAH: We are a 100-year old company. When I talk about sustainability to our Board of Directors and with other people in the company I often find myself hearkening back to the early days of Roy Farmer, who was all about sustainability. He didn’t call it that, of course.  He talked about efficiencies and treating employees like family and taking care of people in your community and supply chain because they are your partners. But what we are doing today is really nothing that innovative or different from what he was talking about. Now we just call it sustainability. There are important innovations of course, like smartphone technology that allows us to survey growers on the other side of the world in real-time, but the focus is the same: hearkening back to an era when we did look out for our neighbors.



The sustainability challenges specialty faces are huge but your work is mostly firm-specific.  I don’t think we will be able to really move the needle on the big issues–climate change, poverty, hunger–if we continue to work within our individual supply chains and don’t reach out across them.  One of you shared with me a vision that specialty companies should be “fiercely competitive in the marketplace and fiercely pre-competitive at origin.”  It is a catchy line and an inspiring ideal.  But is it realistic?  Is it happening?  If not, what will it take to foster the kind of collaboration we need for systemic change to take place?

KELLY: Collaborating on critical issues should be viewed as a must. We can be competitive in the roasting and marketing of our coffees but at origin we need the best and brightest ideas to come to life. Only when we work together can we find those pockets of greatness. By working together we can begin to address the most critical issues facing coffee which can range from climate change to the notion that all people should benefit in this supply chain.

TRACY: I agree with Kelly in that there is broad agreement that collaboration is key, however I think we’re still searching for the right forums and structures within which collaboration can take place. That’s why most of us are heavily invested in initiatives like World Coffee Research and the Coalition for Coffee Communities. World Coffee Research is a more established example of how to collaborate around science and research and the Coalition for Coffee Communities is emerging as another vital initiative, poised to help us address some of more complex livelihood challenges and policy issues.



What difference does policy make?  Do you consider policy–either in the marketplace or at origin–in your work?  If so, how?

SHAUNA: When done right, policy sets the right incentives for business to act in the interest of the public and planet – labor, health and safety, and environmental laws come to mind.  Global climate change and carbon emissions policy would be super helpful right about now.

TRACY: The coffee industry has been tremendously active in sustainability issues and there is no question in my mind that we are leaders, but we do have the opportunity to shift from largely fragmented activities to a more coordinated response that enhances our ability to attract financial resources and influence policy, thereby increasing our overall impact.

KIM ELENA: Until recently, I didn’t think much about policy. I could attribute my ignorance to the size of the company I represent—small comparative to others in this group and unlikely to be purchasing enough coffee from any region to attract attention from policy makers—but I think it also reflects the entrepreneurial, competitive, DIY culture that pervades the coffee industry. We wanted to do things ourselves.  Since beginning to collaborate formally with larger companies through World Coffee Research and the Coalition for Coffee Communities, however, and as a member of the SCAA Sustainability Council, I’m now more likely to see the limitations of any idea, project or initiative that matters to me if it doesn’t get to the level of influencing policy.

SARAH:  We need to go well beyond the traditional financial metrics that we use to measure our success. Our businesses should be about shared value, but the standard way of looking at value is mostly financial. We are really good at measuring financial value but not nearly as good as measuring the value of things that are not financial. How do we put a value on humans? How do we put a value on natural resources like water, forests or landscapes? This work could take years, unfortunately, but I think we need to get alignment on what the standards are for measuring non-financial value. These standards would need to be accepted by the SEC and analysts valuating companies on the basis of both their financial and sustainability metrics, so it probably has to be a policy issue.

KELLY: Bottom line, sustainability is a three-legged stool.  If it only has two legs it has to be propped up.  By linking policy to practices (preferably best practices) you build a framework that is strong and can be built further up and scaled!



If the sustainability function in your company had successfully made the business case for the kinds of sustainability practices you are advocating for, wouldn’t “sustainability departments” cease to exist?  Wouldn’t they just be called “business?”  Is the existence of separate sustainability departments and sustainability directors evidence that full integration hasn’t happened?  Or is sustainability just “the new normal”—what companies need to do in order to anticipate, prepare for and ultimately manage changing conditions at origin and in the marketplace?

SHAUNA: It’s the new normal, and while I anticipate evolution of the profession in coming years, ultimately, sustainability has to become like profitability—totally embedded into business thinking and operations—and like profitability, sustainability must be measured. So it makes sense for there to be a person or department that sets targets around sustainability and drives their accomplishment continuously.

SARAH: My goal has always been to manufacture my own obsolescence. If I am successful in weaving sustainability into the fiber of our business, someday I won’t be necessary. The ideal is that we don’t need somebody directing traffic on sustainability because it would be part of all our operations—it will be everyone’s responsibility.

KELLY:  I think we all recognize that the goal is to work ourselves out of a job. But until there is work to be done to improve the lives of any of the 25 million coffee farmers we need to continue to fight the good fight.

TRACY: What you are describing, Michael, is the top of the mountain, where sustainability just is business. For now, I think success looks like finding more ways up the mountain—whether that is accelerating your current path, maybe working with others to blaze a new trail, or simply just starting the climb. I’m amazed at how many people and companies are still wrestling with an approach. In the short-term, success looks like every single company working in coffee headed up the mountain. There is no room for inaction.

And THAT’s a good note to end on.



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