Food & Drink

To Systematize Sustainability: An Experience with Italian Corporate Social Responsibility

A two-week immersive experience with a Corporate Social Responsibility team and sustainable coffee development projects at Lavazza, an Italian coffee company, brought this Friedman student back and forth between two continents on a journey of a thousand coffee cups and one company’s manifestation of sustainability.

On the first day of filming, they asked me, “what does sustainability mean to you?” I sputtered, primarily because I was extremely jetlagged and not used to having a camera in my face. But it was mostly because I truly had no idea how to answer. While this is a word that is used consistently in our field and whose intention often has a common understanding among practitioners and conference attendees, I still couldn’t define it. I began to discuss the three pillars, mentioning the importance of all the social, economic and environmental aspects when talking about sustainability, trailing off in my sentences, deep down knowing that I had no set definition I felt satisfied with.

What is sustainability?

What is “sustainable development,” especially in the agricultural field?

The question of sustainable agricultural development is one I tried to answer, as a wee undergrad in California, by writing a thesis. As a sociology major specializing in world development, I figured if I read enough books, found the right articles, and adopted the right framework, I would be able to answer it. Or at least be able to ascertain the opposite—calling out when something was definitely not sustainable. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t comprehensive work or very easy to do. And clearly, I didn’t even come out of it with a definition of “sustainability” that I felt I could use.

Coming to graduate school, my guiding question changed. I became newly obsessed with wondering how to turn the sustainable work and efforts of “cheerleaders” in various fields systemic. How can we take the good work that certain individuals, small groups or organizations—these “cheerleaders”—do and make that the larger societal norm? How do we ensure positive change doesn’t disappear when that driving force goes away or moves on? Is that one version of sustainable development?

Lavazza is one of the “big guys” in the Italian coffee world. In fact, they claim that they are the main guy in the Italian coffee world. A family-owned company since 1895 known predominantly for their espresso, they now provide a wide range of coffee products.

The Lavazza Foundation, officially established in 2002, is the sustainability-focused arm of the company. As part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the Foundation’s team works with local and NGO partners in different coffee-producing countries across the world to establish projects aimed at increasing the quality of coffee grown and stimulate economic development and women and youth empowerment in target communities. For whatever reason, they don’t talk much about these projects. They’ve recently been getting hip to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and realizing how much the work they were doing was already aligned with the outlined targets. The reasoning followed that they knew they were doing something they liked and were proud of, they were confident enough that they knew someone else could experience the process, understand what they were doing and communicate the sustainability on their own; they just needed to figure out how to facilitate that experience for someone. Enter the Coffee Study Program. Lavazza decided to bring four students from different continents to experience their company, their CSR model, and one of the projects. And they wanted to film it.

Like most experiences I’ve found myself in during graduate school, I don’t really know how it happened. It felt like everything moved very quickly and slowly at the same time. Somehow, in some way, just a few weeks into this spring semester I was on a plane to Italy and I had no idea what I was doing.

We spent one week in Turin, Italy, touring the Lavazza training center and the new headquarters in the downtown area. There, we learned about all the work that happens at the end of the coffee-journey, beginning with how they train their baristas and working our way back to how they decide what coffee to source, from where, and how to blend it with the different qualities that emerge from different origins.

At the headquarters we met the relatively-newly-formed sustainability branch and the man who was essentially responsible for the creation of the entire Foundation and the different coffee projects that they do across the world. It all began because back in 2000, Mario Cerutti thought it would be a good idea for Lavazza to work to improve the quality of coffee produced worldwide. They could do this by investigating where issues were happening in coffee growing countries; was it related to the plant genetics? Climate change? The need to engage in external markets in coffee growing communities to ensure economic viability? They embarked on this idea, on these projects, with the knowledge that to meet increasing demand, more coffee needed to be grown worldwide, and it would be better for everyone involved if that coffee was produced in the best way possible. They did not begin these projects to ensure their company’s supply of coffee for the rest of time or to intervene in their existing sourcing strategies. Indeed, the Lavazza Foundation is entirely separate from the rest of the company and all that is involved with sourcing and choice. They work to increase the quality of coffee worldwide, one project at a time, because they believe coffee quality increases can be a good thing for everyone involved. And it all began because eighteen years ago, one man thought it might be a good idea. And the company was receptive enough to make that idea an entire foundation; they made a version of sustainability systemic.

The sustainability team told us that they were operating under an idea that they called SDG 0: spreading the message. Thus, the whole reason we were there: the mini-documentary.

The project we were visiting in the Dominican Republic had been dealing with a serious problem of coffee rust, as well as aging coffee plants, that had decimated the majority of the island’s production; beyond that, many issues facing coffee production, mirrored in many global trends, were also being addressed. This included the effects of climate change, the pull of urban areas, decreasing land base for production, and pests, all of which had seriously affected quality and quantity yielded. It nearly goes without saying that there will always be problems with the notion of “development” and there is no perfect model of development without its issues, but that is not what this article is about. Lavazza’s on the ground partner was Oxfam’s Dominican Republic branch, and upon arrival, they introduced us to the various organizations involved with the project; including Codocafe, the governmental body that supports coffee production, Concafed, a farmers’ association of three farmer federations, representing over 20,000 small and medium sized coffee farmers in the DR and the cooperative Coopracasine, in Neyba. The farmers and the partners worked to integrate certain practices into their cultivation processes (including establishing family nurseries and intercropping), increasing productivity from 210 kh/ha to 800 kg/ha, decreasing the percentage of inputs from 65% of total production costs to 37% and overall costs from $930.20 to $38.76. [1]

Obviously, there were things that were clearly measurable and an indicator of a specific kind of progress. As a person who is planning to specialize in program evaluation, yes, I was focused on the metrics of the project. And simultaneously, a thought that our own Dr. Chris Peters sent our cohort off with on our last day of class together last fall kept running through my mind: can you figure out what makes a good life? If so, do things like establishing SDGs or working on “development” become easier to conceptualize and actually do? Throughout the trip, I kept wondering if what we really need to do is change our established metrics for success on a global scale. Is that part of sustainability? If we changed our global focus to human qualities, like happiness and empowerment, over inanimate output measures to evaluate prosperity or “having gotten there,” would we be working to maintain more of our humanity in our future? Is that part of sustainability?

At my “exit interview” they asked me what I was taking home with me. While, surprisingly, I didn’t actually bring home any coffee with me, I took home a lot more.

I knew nothing about tropical agriculture. Truly, nothing. I come from a land where everything needs to be irrigated. To see things just growing, on trees, in the ground, because the moisture in the air allowed for it, was undeniably beautiful. I also knew nothing about coffee. Myths were busted in my head daily.  Spoiler—the roasting process does NOTHING to the caffeine content. Did anyone ever tell you that dark roasts have less caffeine than light roasts? Yup, me too. A lie!Turns out, unless they are different beans, the only thing that determines it is how long coffee is in contact with the water when making your cup.

Mostly, though, I took back a reinvigorated idea of what a powerful company can do when they believe in changing out metrics of success, focusing on quality of life while focusing on quality of product, and doing something good for the world simply because they can and should.

Lavazza’s CSR specialist, Veronica Rossi, told us during the presentation that “sustainability is a shared responsibility,” and that idea has stuck with me ever since. So, regardless of how we define it: what are we going to do about it?

To learn more about Lavazza’s Coffee Study Program and the four students who participated, including Friedman’s own Rebecca Lucas, follow the updates at this link.


Rebecca Lucas is a second year Agriculture Food & Environment/Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning dual degree student and when not thinking about farm to school programs, she is now newly obsessed with the intersection of research and practice, in addition to all the other things she talked about. As a California native, this “Sprinter” really hurt and she’s extremely ready to stop eating soup.

[1] Metrics from Oxfam and Lavazza 2017 report on “Hispaniola + Cuba Projects.”

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