2018 Annual Letter
We saw some amazing good work emerge this past year, even as 2018 also revealed troubling forces in the background. As we head in to 2019, we reflect on both the challenges and the success stories that stand out.
The challenge: when business ethics end up failing farmers.
We are in a cultural moment where mendacity and a brazen disregard for simple ethics are eclipsing decency and integrity in many spheres of life. Does the sustainable development community have something to learn about the extent of these issues from powerful cultural movements such as #metoo?
With prices in some commodities dipping below the cost of production and clearly not providing a reasonable level of “living income” for many farmers, some brands and retailers in those same supply chains were reporting record profits. We each have an ethical compass; how many consumers and employees are comfortable with companies that perpetuate such glaring inequalities?
On a positive note: You may not know the name of Farmer Brothers, but you have probably drunk the coffee they supply to some of the most visible retailers in North America. Their commitment to their own suppliers includes a real partnership wherein they listen to farmer needs. Farmer Brothers is proving that investing in farmer-direct approaches builds deep ties and sourcing success for the long term.
The challenge: single-issue projects are not sufficient.
Sustainable development often means altering the status quo. That is not easy when there is a strong economic incentive to maintain it. Some large organizations have chosen to focus on single subjects such as deforestation, gender, or GHGs. These are clearly very important topics to address and yet a single-lens focus fails to understand that the drivers of those issues are intrinsically multi-dimensional (poverty, inequality, soil health, etc). We need to be smarter about distinguishing the symptoms from the causes.
On a positive note: Common metrics are beginning to resonate with more and more firms and leading organizations such as the Sustainability Consortium and the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative that together encompass many of the world’s largest agri-food companies and many retailers. They are challenged to understand what is happening in their supply chains. To benchmark best practices, detect risks, and identify investments at the lowest cost, common or shared metrics are essential. The members of the Global Coffee Platform are already on this path as they work toward alignment on 15 core indicators to enable the coffee world to speak the same language. The cotton and cocoa sectors are also moving in this direction, albeit more slowly.
The challenge: bold on the claims, weak on the substance
Many have noted the troubling tendency toward bold or wishful company claims about 2020 or future goals. Without credible measurement or auditing, will these become a reputational issue or even sources of public embarrassment for corporate leaders?
At the 2018 World Cocoa Conference, the Berlin Declaration sounded a wake-up call for that industry. Noting that recent efforts to drive cocoa sustainability have barely made an impact and that “the time to act is now’, the declaration calls for traceability, transparency and accountability in the industry. Here too, clear metrics are the only way to achieve that, yet there has been little advancement on a common and inclusive approach.
On a positive note: Leading firms such as Mars, McDonald’s, S&D Coffee & Tea, and Nespresso are operationalizing functional data systems that help their suppliers improve performance while the company grows to better understand needs and risks as they emerge. Their claims will likely have substance and credibility.
The challenge: big data is not serving small farmers.
Very few of the forays into big data – from poverty visualizations to soil characterizations and deforestation maps – reach the users who would most benefit from them for decision-making: farmers.
On a positive note: Making data both accessible and useful for farmers — i.e., “democratizing” data — is now possible with commonly available technology, and can help drive solutions from the ground level up. The Coalition of Coffee Communities (CCC) and Conservation International landscape assessment pilot showed how sharing data and the resulting lessons with local stakeholders, can catalyze a greater level of collective impact by engaging all of the key actors effectively around science-based data.
We must increasingly move toward data democracy-focused approaches. Data that can be transformed into functional knowledge to serve co-ops and their members directly must be a priority for sustainable development projects and sustainable supply chains.
Bold leadership is in short supply as we head into 2019, and facing economic headwinds in many cases. We see it among some of our clients such as McDonalds (and their suppliers), who do the right thing even when it is difficult. We saw too how the Mexican government undertook programs that began with listening closely to farmers and ended in extraordinary new levels of efficiency and satisfaction among its citizens that made us proud to partner with them. More countries can benefit from their example.
Innovations like these can have a broad effect on millions and better use public resources. We want to hear from you about where you see bold leadership – people or organizations making a difference – that we can recognize.