To Systematize Sustainability: An Experience with Italian Corporate Social Responsibility

by Rebecca Lucas

A two-week immersive experience with 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.”

Friedman Hosts the 2018 Global Food+ Symposium

by Sam Jones

The second annual Global Food+ Symposium was hosted at Tufts University’s Friedman School this year. Innovative research being conducted at Tufts, MIT, Boston University, and Harvard University in the realm of the global food system was presented in speed-dating style, with each speaker giving only a seven-minute talk. Only some of the takeaways are reported here; the entire event can be viewed online.

February 16, 2018 marked the second annual Global Food+ Symposium, hosted by Tufts University at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. This year, 23 researchers from Boston University, MIT, Harvard, and Tufts shared the findings of their work in seven-minute presentations on topics ranging from microbiology to nutrition to theology. I attended the conference in its entirety from 12:30 to 4:30 on a Friday afternoon because I wanted to learn about what other researching in our consortium of schools are investigating to gain insight into what the non-Friedman community has to say about the global food system.

Throughout the afternoon, speakers presented fascinating research that touched every corner of the food system. Several presenters from Harvard and MIT discussed how water affects our food system, covering everything from breeding crops to use less water, to developing more adaptable water conserving technologies, and the ramifications of developing a water market in which price reflects scarcity. These speakers together illustrated that whether in the Zambezi River Basin or in Melbourne, Australia, water use and availability affects our food system, but there are steps we can take right now to plan for uncertainty in the face of climate change.

Nutrition was, of course, the subject of several of the presentations. Tufts professor Will Masters discussed his findings on the nutritional quality of baby food. Spoiler alert: the global baby food supply is not actually that nutritious. Alison Brown, a post-doctoral fellow at Tufts presented the research from her dissertation comparing the diet quality and risk of hypertension in foreign-born non-Hispanic blacks to those of U.S.-born blacks. Her findings suggest that the former are better-off than the latter. While useful for developing culturally-appropriate nutrition strategies, it does not delve into the root causes of these differences. A more causal-based study would be useful if the intention were to narrow the gap in diet quality and health between these groups.

Most of the presenters at the symposium used or researched cutting-edge technology to answer some of the most vexing problems in our global food system. Karthish Manthiram from MIT, for example, presented his research on how electricity derived from solar panels can be used to create fertilizer. His research found that by using electric voltage in place of high temperatures, a low-footprint nitrogen fertilizer can be created and used by small-scale farmers in even the remotest parts of Africa.

Angela Rigden, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, presented exciting research derived from new satellite data. These data showed that vapor pressure and root zone soil moisture actually explain significantly more variability in crop yields than does temperature alone. Both Jenny Aker from Tufts and Alicia Harley from Harvard separately explored the effects of having access to technology for poor farmers in Africa and India, respectively. They found that even where a technology exists, the targeted problems may not be solved in exactly the way they were intended. For example, Alicia Harley’s research found that poorer rice farmers were not adopting a system of rice intensification (SRI) that used less water because such a practice required control over one’s water source—a luxury most poor farmers do not have. As Jenny Aker put it, one specific technology is “not going to be a silver bullet.”

Water, technology, health, and sustainability were the overarching themes that wove the presentations together. But one researcher stood alone both in his discipline and in his ability to wow an audience of entirely dissimilar mindsets. Dan McKanan, a senior lecturer in Divinity at Harvard University, revealed that the foundations of organic agriculture, organic certification, WWOOFing, biodynamic agriculture, community supported agriculture, and the environmentalist movement all sprung out of a religion called Anthroposophy. In his words, this was a religion that acted as an antidote to the ideological monoculture system—an antidote to the “monocultures of the mind.”

What the innovative research presented at the Global Food+ Symposium made me realize is that there probably will never be a “silver bullet” that can solve the issues of water scarcity, food insecurity, malnutrition, or climate change. But the research that is being done in these interdisciplinary and diverse fields is worth pursuing, whether it aims to solve a big problem in a small place or a small problem on a global scale.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine nd hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.

UN ECOSOC Recap: Building a Sustainable Future

by Laura Barley

In January, second year AFE student Laura Barley served as a student representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in New York City. Empowered youth from across the globe gathered with governmental officials to share ideas about how to achieve the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Here, she recounts her experience and shares some of the key takeaways from the event.

Image source: Author

Image source: Author

For two days at the end of January, I was given the opportunity to travel alongside four fellow Tufts student representatives to the ECOSOC Youth Forum at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The forum was a whirlwind of speeches, brainstorming sessions, and long-winded discourse from youth representatives and official ministries from all over the world—all putting their heads together to decide how to best empower the future.

ECOSOC, abbreviated from the UN Economic and Social Council, regularly holds these types of events to integrate policy frameworks that support the Sustainable Development Goals from the ground up. For those unfamiliar with the SDGs, they were created by the UN in 2015 as a comprehensive platform of 17 goals that cover the world’s most pressing issues: gender equality, hunger and malnutrition, and climate change mitigation, among many others.

By popular consensus, the SDGs are seen as a much-needed improvement from the UN’s previous set of Millennium Development Goals, which many viewed as too vague and intangible. Instead the SDGs work to define timely, measurable goals that nations can properly mobilize—for instance, reducing current levels of food waste by half, or completely eradicating poverty for people living on less than $1.90 a day.

Fostering the notion that young people have exceptional power to drive social change, the Youth Forum focused specifically on six SDGs that dealt with clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, sustainable consumption and production, life on land, and technological innovation, and how to empower youth to achieving these goals.

The structure of the forum allowed participants to choose only one SDG-focused brainstorming session, and as the pious AFE student that I am, I naturally gravitated towards the session on SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production. Voices from Great Britain, Nepal, and Saudi Arabia all echoed sentiments familiar to the halls of Jaharis—we’re consuming too much and too quickly for our planet to withstand. We ought to know better by now, but we’re not living up to our own standards as we should be. And under the framework of youth empowerment, the subtext of these truisms begged the question: how can we raise our children to be more mindful than we’ve been?

The voices from developed nations, including my own American perspective, maintained that serious gaps in our educational institutions preclude most youth from even realizing that their choices have an impact on the natural environment. Exposure to nature, agriculture, and nutrition have become secondary and tertiary priorities in most public school systems, which ultimately neglects the chance to positively influence the consumers that all children will become.

So, when it came time to distill our ideas into concrete policy recommendations, we converged on a few points central to the evolution of education. We recommended increasing diverse and equitable educational experiences across all types of school systems, emphasizing focus on transforming the mindsets of youth from those of a consumer towards those of a producer. In this sense, sustainable development means an expanded awareness of the relationship between consumption and production, and that even the simplest of our everyday choices has the power to influence how the world’s natural resources are used.

Image source: Author

Image source: Author

Ultimately, the participants’ recommendations will be compiled into a broader report on youth engagement published by the United Nations, reflecting official policy goals of the signatory countries to the SDGs. And though I gleaned constructive insight into the annals of UN procedure—how they gather information, how they form their policy stances—I found that the hallway conservations I had with my peers were far more valuable. These events function to tap into the infinite potential of minds with vision and hope, and the sum of our parts are starting to become an incredibly powerful whole. Earnestly, I hope to see the Tufts community continue to engage with the Sustainable Development Goals at this level and beyond.

Laura Barley is a second-year Agriculture, Food, and Environment master’s student ceaselessly curious about the complexity that global food systems has to offer. She’s always happy to indulge conversation at laurabarley88@gmail.com.

Paradise Lost

by Laura Barley

Climate change is a globally felt human experience that recently hit home for California native Laura Barley. Here, she reflects on the wildfires in her home state and takes a look at some policy tools aimed at climate mitigation.

California is on fire. Needless to say, the past two months have been a terrifying series of events. The Thomas Fire has devoured almost 275,000 acres, granting it the all-too dynamic status of the largest wildfire in California’s recent history. It wraps up the most destructive wildfire season California has on record, capping off at over 500,000 acres burned—more than double the total acreage burned in 2016. To add insult to injury some of those acres, charred of all vegetation by the Thomas Fire, bore the burden of a flash flood that killed 21 people in Montecito.

Even though the Friedman School pulled me to Boston, California is and always will be my home. For the most part, I watched the coverage of the Thomas Fire from afar. Tucked away in the icy confines of my Somerville apartment and Jaharis 118, I checked my phone every few hours to see who of my friends had been evacuated, which of my sun-streaked memory lanes had been destroyed. I couldn’t believe what I saw—apocalyptic images of scrubby hillsides swallowed by flames, plumes of orange clouds encompassing the whole sky. Each picture I saw boomed the same message over and over: that nothing would ever be the same again.

Photo credit: CNN.com

Photo credit: CNN.com

The frequency of large-scale devastation speaks for itself: California’s climate is changing. It appears that the massive strain on the state’s agricultural and urban water resources, fueled by the longstanding lure of its eternal growing season and illustrious vision of paradise, have come to a reckoning. Years of prolonged drought followed by a sporadic year of intense rainfall have created ecosystems irresilient to the rapid shifts—groundwater and river basins have all but dried up, leaving forest and chaparral ecosystems as little more than tinderboxes. The euphoric agricultural and commercial boons of the twentieth century have lurched into a twenty-first century defined by scarcity, uncertainty, and dramatic change.

So, what’s really at stake here? Climates change, they have for eons. Species perish and adapt in the great equilibrium of life. And we—Californians, Americans, humans—will adapt too, hopefully in a timely manner. But much of the world finds itself in the middle of a cycle that feels beyond our control, where the climate interventions we make barely seem to break even. The tons of carbon dioxide emissions from a single large-scale wildfire, like the Thomas or Napa Fires, are estimated to equal the annual emissions of all motor vehicles in the state, and definitively offset much of the progress made by the state’s cap-and-trade program.

For the foreseeable future, California and much of the American West will continue to battle climate change on multiple fronts—greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise, flash flood and wildfire mitigation, to name a few. Encouragingly, Governor Jerry Brown’s administration has made significant headway towards a baseline system of climate accountability across the state. In addition to the emissions cap-and-trade program, since 2009 the Safeguarding California plan has established a template for large-scale climate change adaptation strategies, and continues to convene action plans across multiple state and municipal departments. Additionally, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 has finally enacted groundwater monitoring protocol in a state that will continue to rely almost exclusively on subterranean water stores for agricultural production. These are positive signs of political responsiveness, and hopefully yield noticeable impacts in the years to come.

But at the heart of climate change, there exists a loss more worrisome than any policy analysis or statistics could project. For me, for now, the loss is purely psychological. The sense that all of us feel to some extent, which is felt especially strongly in California and the developed world at large, the sense that nothing bad can ever happen to us—that’s gone now.

Enduring the human experience of losing the places we’ve built from scratch, places with cultural and spiritual significance, places we call home—this is the global price many of us will have to pay in the coming decades. The stories of devastation and loss are the stories we should be paying attention to, the stories that make the numbers real. More importantly, they’re the stories that motivate us to action, out of fear and compassion that nothing so terrible should ever happen to us again. Because every time it happens, it shouldn’t.

Laura Barley is a second-year AFE Master’s student, who grew up in the Bay Area and lived in Southern California while attending UC Santa Barbara. She is a member of the Water Systems, Science, and Society research program aimed at mitigating water constraints to healthier diets. Most importantly, she strives to be a climate optimist.