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Why Sustainability Education Matters

To experience sustainability in our lifetime, we need collective, united efforts from all members of coffee’s complex global supply chain—and coffee education can be one step forward toward advancing this vision.

Written by Erika Koss
Posted in News on May 11, 2023

by Erika Koss

If you search on Google scholar for resources using the term “sustainability,” more than 4.3 million links appear. Limit that search to begin in 2015 – the year that the Sustainable Development Goals began – to today (May 2023) and more than 1.4 articles can be found. Refine that further, searching for “coffee sustainability” and you could read 868 different articles or reports.

What an extraordinary amount of writing about an English word that only began to be used globally in 1986!

It was in that that year, when a global commission, titled the World Commission on Environment and Development, was led by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female Prime Minister. An outcome of this conference of global leaders was a report, “Our Common Future,” which articulated the principle of sustainable development for the first time. 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.” Now known as the “Brundtland Definition,” this definition regularly a launching point for many discussions about sustainability.

Since 1987, the phrase evokes an alarming quantity of definitions, redefinitions, and interpretations in hundreds of global businesses, and campaigns.

In looking at the coffee industry, we witness a plethora of uses and misuses of a verb that seems to have been created by poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

The complexity for “coffee sustainability” deepens when we consider that more than 70 countries produce coffee, and many of the languages spoken by coffee producers globally lack a translatable term for “sustainability.”

Perhaps this is one reason why Sustainability has become a kind of umbrella word–a word that explains an overall concept rather than something specific or precise.

Thinking about such complexities always leads me back to my favorite dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED). Given my background teaching English literature, when I want to understand any word, I first consider its etymology, or its origin.

The OED states that the origin verb, “to sustain,” began to be used in around the year 1300 and 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.”

As one of the creators of the SCA Sustainability curriculum and as an AST who has now taught the course to hundreds of coffee professionals around the world, I observe that there remains greater focus on efforts to increase environmental sustainability, more than social or economic sustainability.

No doubt: Mother Earth needs to be respected, honoured, and cherished—especially if we want a future with coffee. After all, both land and labour are more precious than ever since our changed climate has already threatened coffee through an increase of coffee pests, coffee diseases, and less arable land for coffee.

But environmental threats are dire, not only because of its impact on the possible for coffee seeds to thrive, but also because of its impact on farmers and coffee pickers all around the coffee belt – the countries around the equator where coffee can thrive.

At the same time, we must create more equitable systems for the economic and social sustainability for all of coffee’s people. Where I live in Kenya, profit is a rarity rather than the norm. Financial challenges affect the social realities: the gendered divide in roles throughout the supply chain—even as women perform most of the farm-related labour of coffee, they see little returns going to their own households. Combine this with the realities that many young people fail to imagine any future in their rural areas and so migrate to cities such as Nairobi in pursuit of more reliable cash. Even in the year 2023 as I write this: many farmers have never enjoyed a sip of their own coffee.

This triad of challenges—environmental, economic, and social—makes it difficult to “achieve” sustainability, despite the hundreds of leaders, businesses, non-profits, and researchers working toward making coffee sustainability a reality.

To experience sustainability in our lifetime, we need collective, united efforts from all members of coffee’s complex global supply chain—and coffee education can be one step forward toward advancing this vision.

Let us realize that when any of us holds a cup of coffee, we are holding a gift. The extent to which we act sustainably will affect the possibility for future generations to also hold coffee. My hope is that we’ll collectively make sustainable choices so that others may hold and enjoy this treasure called coffee.

LEARN MORE ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY: SCA SUSTAINABILITY FOUNDATION

Endnotes

Brundtland, G. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. United Nations General Assembly document A/42/427.

"Sustain, v.". OED Online. March 2023. Oxford University Press.

The ICO estimates that “between 20% and 30% of coffee farms are female-operated and up to 70% of labor in coffee production is provided by women, depending on the region” (pp. 17-18).

International Coffee Organization (ICO). (2018.) “Gender Equality in the Coffee Sector: An insight report from the ICO.” ICC-122-11. London. http://www.ico.org/documents/cy2017-18/icc-122-11e-gender-equality.pdf.

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