By Daniele Giovannucci

“They can be beneficial.”

If that is the most that can be said according to a recent review of more than 80 studies on sustainable coffee certifications, then all of us working for sustainability should figure to out how to do better. But is that the right conclusion to Ms. Elliot’s paper (What are we getting from Voluntary Sustainability Standards for Coffee?, featured recently on National Public Radio (NPR)?

From our experience evaluating the effects and impact of sustainability initiatives on the lives of hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers around the world (not just in coffee), we offer three necessary components to fast-forward a higher level of success for organizations and companies investing to make coffee sustainable:

  1. Common metrics are happening. Nothing is transparent or clear without them and every program or researcher can claim what they want. We can compare financial statements from almost any business because they share common reporting and terminology. If sustainability is important then don’t accept anything less than a common science-based framework and globally relevant indicators for measuring sustainability impacts. It is not that hard.  
  2. Farming communities must not be left out. There is something ethically amiss when valuable farmer data is taken and analyzed, but not returned to the farmer in the form of useful knowledge. Policies for democratizing the data or sharing the learning as part of a two-way exchange should become the norm in every project or initiative….hint: this is actually rare
  3. Monitor your sustainability performance. Rigorous impact assessments are essential for a deep understanding of how any initiative is making a difference. But they take long and cost a lot. Meanwhile, technology now allows fast and simpler monitoring to generate learning from the beginning of a program…not just at the end.

A number of businesses are opting away from the public certifications or standards in favor of their own sustainability initiatives and Ms. Elliot’s report rightly states that for these, traceability will drive greater accountability in the sector. But it is worth noting that traceability’s usefulness has limits. There is more to sustainability than traceability, or even simple compliance checklists, in order to build really credible efforts that make a tangible difference.