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Defining Sustainability

With climate change and environmental disasters such as the Fukushima reactor meltdown and the Gulf oil spill making international headlines, “sustainability” has become a media buzzword. It’s also bandied about in connection with agricultural methods that preserve the land, market conditions that enable producers to support their families and cultures, and technologies that foster a healthy supply of quality products.

It’s also being discussed in probably every boardroom of every major corporation in the U.S. and beyond. There is enormous pressure on industries to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability as a key element of responsible corporate citizenship. As the public becomes ever more aware of cultural, environmental and socioeconomic issues in the developing world, the pressure to deploy sustainable programs and strategies continues to ramp up.

But, what does “sustainability” really mean? You’ve probably heard the word at least 100 times already this month, or read it in online or in print media without giving its fundamental definition a second thought.

Generation Y’s preferred source for quick information – Wikipedia – simply and dismissively defines “sustainability” as: “the capacity to endure.” However, the grammarians and scholars at Merriam-Webster go much further, defining “sustainable” (from which “sustainability” is derived) as: “relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”

Merriam-Webster’s definition is appropriately open-ended since “resource” can include people, the land, the environment, natural resources, cultures and social institutions. It also embraces the many individual elements that comprise the concept. For the coffee industry and its executives, the definition embraces the crucial components of a sustainable coffee supply chain – the well-being of farmers, long-term support for their families and communities, safe and healthy agricultural methods and outcomes, and an ample supply of quality coffees produced in a responsible way.

Barring some dramatic societal and cultural shifts, there will always be a consumer demand for coffee. However, ongoing environmental and natural threats in coffee-producing regions, such as the specter of coffee rust which is currently plaguing Central America, are serious threats to the long-term health of coffee production. Thus, it’s our responsibility to ensure a sustainable supply of quality coffees for years to come. That is the underlying goal of NCA’s sustainability initiatives – to ensure the future of the coffee industry.

NCA has brought sustainability into sharper focus in 2013, developing the following mission statement earlier this year:

Ensure that coffee is grown and traded in a way which ensures that future generations can be sustained economically, environmentally, and socially through its production.

This summer, NCA initiated a Sustainability Task Force of industry professionals to help develop potential goals and action points.

At the meeting, participants from the private sector, non-governmental agencies (NGOs) and non-profit groups met in NCA’s New York offices to start the ball rolling. The goal was to gather input and exchange ideas, and address several basic questions. What does sustainability mean to you? How can NCA help you achieve your sustainable development goals and objectives?

Going forward, the task force will convene periodically, seeking to define NCA’s role more precisely as a facilitator and center of knowledge for coffee sustainability. In the meantime, NCA is working on developing an online toolkit of information, knowledge and resources for those with questions and concerns about sustainable growth.

As a matter of policy, NCA plans to use its role as the U.S. coffee industry’s pre-eminent trade association to collaborate with industry leaders and promote the long-term sustainable growth and development of the coffee industry. NCA is committed to continuing to work to ensure that coffee production is carried out in a way that future generations can be sustained economically, environmentally and socially through its production, in line with NCA’s sustainability mission.

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Learning From the Job?

Everyone learns differently. Some prefer a classroom setting, while others like the hands-on approach. Just give me the facts, some would say, while others need context and analysis to get the whole picture. Hitting the books is one way to go, but learning on the job is another.

But, what about learning from the job? In a way, that describes the novel approach taken by NCA’s Coffee Summit. Rather than sit through long presentations filled with facts, figures – and, oh yes, charts – coffee professionals convene around current topics as well as issues they bring to the table. Rather than getting textbook pablum and theory, they come away with real-time solutions to real-life issues they face in their businesses each day.

How? By participating in an interactive, collaborative setting blended with expert insights into timely industry topics. This year’s Summit covers the hot-button topics of the exploding single-cup segment, the growing challenges of a sustainable supply chain, and techniques for managing risk in a volatile market.

Experts share their knowledge, but then the floor is open for professionally facilitated collaborative discussions. By sharing individual knowledge, experiences and perspectives, participants can turn the facts and figures into solutions and strategies. In other words, the learnings are filtered through the realities of business applications to yield practical, deployable solutions.

The process is deceptively simple, yet richly complex. Summit participants come from all sectors and niches along the supply chain, each bringing their unique body of knowledge, skills and approaches. Together, they can examine an issue from all angles – seeing how the problems trickle up or down or present themselves differently to professionals in different roles. In other words, the issue to a roaster may look quite different from the purview of a supplier or importer/exporter – and the solution to the problem may lie in seeing the problem in a different way.

On top of this collaboration on topical issues, the Summit also incorporates the effective technique of “open-space learning.” Dedicated sessions are set aside to enable participants to bring their own “big questions” to the table to be dissected and debated by the group. In this way, that elusive solution you’ve been seeking for a nettling problem may emerge from collaborating with other coffee professionals who see it from a different angle. And, in the professionally facilitated sessions, groups are put together in various ways – around common questions, at random, or to achieve a cross-section of roles. Others are self-directed by participants themselves.

Past experience has shown that the format really pays off. Among attendee comments was that the format offered a chance to interface with colleagues they wouldn’t ordinarily get to talk to – like a roaster sitting down with his supplier’s logistics pro, or a retailer chatting with his wholesaler’s packager. Participants found this intermingling to be a unique opportunity that was both an eye- and door-opening.

Other feedback noted the extraordinary networking the format allows. With multiple pairings among groups, attendees are brought into constant, rotating contact with others. One participant noted that it was the only meeting at which he got to meet every other attendee.

This year’s NCA Coffee Summit takes place on October 2 – 4 at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. Speakers include Ross Colbert, Global Strategist Beverages Sector at Rabobank International covering developments in the single-serve segment and Tracy Ging, Director of Sustainability at S&D Coffee, presenting on the challenges of a sustainable supply chain.

So, if you have a business challenge that needs fixing, you may want to jump in and learn from the job in this novel new approach to learning.

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