Before you’ve had your morning coffee, it can be difficult to even begin to consider where that coffee actually came from, and how it transformed from a coffee bean into your daily elixir.
But whether you’ve given it thought or not, the reality is that it takes a lot of resources and many hands to turn seed, then shrub, into the piping hot perfection you rely on to face the day. And in some cases, the process is to the detriment of the lives of coffee growers and the health of the planet.
As much as these issues may pull at your heartstrings, you can’t tackle them on your own. That’s why it’s so important to have the sustainability aspect of your a.m. caffeine built into your daily coffee ritual: When that happens, the eco stuff falls into line. This is the philosophy behind WeWork’s partnership with Lavazza: By relying on Lavazza as its premier coffee supplier, WeWork ensures that every cup of the 600,000-plus pounds of coffee consumed annually in its spaces is a sip that makes an impact.
What is sustainable coffee?
“Sustainable coffee” can mean a lot of different things; for Lavazza, sustainability is circular, in that coffee-producing practices benefit the land on which the crop is grown and the people who grow it.
It’s complicated. Coffee is a slow, finicky crop, a trait that meshes uneasily with the aggressive demand for the product. Because of that, coffee is too often closely tied to widespread deforestation, with growers destroying some of the last remaining intact tropical forest to make more space to plant, per Conservation International.
A bit of background here: Forests are a natural champion against climate change; collectively, they store more carbon than the atmosphere. When trees are cut down, however, the carbon once stored is released, which contributes to rising temperatures.
Coffee is harvested in more than 50 countries around the world, and “about two-thirds of coffee is made by small producers,” says Mario Cerutti, Lavazza’s global head of institutional relations and sustainability.
In a sense, it’s understandable why these family-run growers, whose livelihood depends on high crop yields, would clear out forests to make room for coffee. But beyond being unsustainable for the planet, the practice is unsustainable for them. In time (and the clock is ticking), there won’t be enough room left to continue.
One of the Lavazza Foundation’s leading initiatives is the zero-deforestation coffee project it funds and supports in Ethiopia, Africa’s principal coffee producer. The goal of the project is to develop, promote, and scale a “garden coffee” farming model, which will improve the socioeconomic situation of 3,000 coffee farming families, hamper deforestation, and contribute to forest restoration. The project’s model puts power (and profit) into the hands of coffee producers in the Yayu Biosphere Reserve, in the region of Oromia. The producers build these garden coffee farms near their homes, planting both coffee bushes and other fruit trees, which boost their incomes and create the proper environment for sustainable coffee growth.
And here’s the key: As part of this deforestation initiative, more than 2,000 coffee producers will be trained in farming practices that ensure greater resilience to climate change and protect forests. It’s this kind of knowledge sharing that’s at the heart of every project the Lavazza Foundation develops—and it’s what cements change for the long run.
At the center of the sustainability model is this: “The people that need to sell the product have to develop a knowledge [of sustainability practices],” Cerutti says. “Some of this knowledge is hard to develop on a specific basis for the individual,” he says, explaining that this is precisely why it’s so important for small-scale farmers to organize in some capacity.
Lavazza encourages farmers to share knowledge by forming cooperatives or informal associations, and it’s one of the first steps Lavazza takes when working with new growers. “The initial phase is to decide where to operate, but then the second most important decision is to really understand what is good for the people—what they want, what is useful,” Cerutti says.
When local farmers get together, they can share what they’ve learned, like how a pruning technique can produce more growth, or how to prevent exploitation by banding together. It is not Lavazza’s goal to rewrite the coffee-growing practices that are deeply rooted in the culture of local farmers, but instead help farmers to strengthen their own bottom lines, which, in turn, will help secure the health of coffee production and the planet.
Ideas work better when they’re shared
When WeWork chooses to work with vendors, it relies on a similar model of collective partnership to meet and evolve its sustainability goals. “Our goal isn’t necessarily to work only with vendors who are always doing the right thing,” says Sarah Kaye, WeWork’s global procurement director of product and operational services. “A big piece of it is to see where companies we work with are shortfalling and how we can help them.”
Oftentimes, Kaye says, vendors want to “do the right thing,” but may not have the information or resources to do so. WeWork’s Vendor Code of Conduct outlines the expectations WeWork has for its vendors, and their partnership holds vendors accountable as the teams work together toward charge. This September, WeWork announced a partnership with Lavazza in which the coffee company would be WeWork’s premier coffee supplier across hundreds of global locations.
“As a global company, [WeWork] has a responsibility to ensure that what [it serves] is coming from a responsible source,” says Illina Frankiv, WeWork’s head of energy and sustainability. Frankiv says the onus shouldn’t be on the individual coffee consumer, but rather the company, which has access and resources to ensure ethical sourcing, as WeWork does.
Ultimately, it’s not possible to achieve sustainability if we go it alone. It’s in this kind of sharing where long-term sustainability can happen: Whether you’re an independent coffee grower or a global flexible real estate company, collaboration is integral to progress.
Kate Bratskeir is a journalist who covers food, health, and the environment. Her book A Pocket Guide to Sustainable Food Shopping will be published in January 2021 by Tiller Press, an arm of Simon & Schuster.