| US

Enveritas’ big idea for coffee sustainability

David Browning, CEO of sustainability auditor Enveritas, speaks to 5THWAVE about what it takes to become a responsible coffee business at scale, how EU deforestation rules can work for all stakeholders and why he’s optimistic for the future of the coffee industry

David Browning, CEO of Enveritas | Photo credit: Enveritas

Since 2016 Enveritas has worked to provide sustainability assurance for some of the world’s largest coffee businesses. In fact, if a major global roaster sourcing thousands of tonnes of coffee a year has released a ‘responsible’ sourcing claim, it’s very likely to have worked with Enveritas behind the scenes.

To date, the non-profit has verified sustainable practices at more than 350,000 coffee farms around the world in partnership with prominent roasters including JDE Peet’s, Tchibo, Counter Culture Coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee, Espresso House and Tim Hortons.

An optimist and firm believer in data-driven solutions, David Browning has been at the helm of Enveritas as CEO since its inception. Over a 20-year career in sustainable agriculture Browning has held senior roles at Technoserve, where he worked with multinationals including Coca-Cola, Kelloggs’, The J.M. Smucker Company and Nestlé.

He was also Senior Vice President of the Coffee Initiative, a four-year partnership between Technoserve and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that supported nearly 260,000 East African smallholder coffee farmers to improve profitability by raising quality and providing access to specialty markets.

As Browning explains, Enveritas was founded to re-engineer how sustainability assurance was conducted amid growing demand from the world’s largest roasters, their investors and customers.

“We could see a tremendous amount of good intent, but only around 20% of farmers were engaged in what could be defined as sustainable markets and an even smaller percentage of that 20% were selling meaningful amounts of coffee in the sustainability market,” he says.

With the $3,000-$5,000 cost of a sustainability audit far outstripping the $500 annual earnings of many coffee farmers, “most were not a position to get assurance – but that does not necessarily mean they wouldn’t be in alignment with the practices consumers were looking for,” says Browning.

To address this imbalance, Enveritas’ process transfers 100% of audit costs from coffee farmers to their buyers and can provide accurate data in some of the world’s most remote locations.

“Coffee farms are very difficult environments to operate in – communication and logistics are limited. We had to develop a system that could withstand all those complexities.”

For Enveritas, that meant conducting far more on-the-ground audits. Today, the organisation employs a team of 600 full-time staff who will visit around 80,000 farms in 2024.

“We’ve built a global organisation that operates on smartphones because getting an authentic representative sample means visiting some of the most inaccessible coffee farms in the world – and that means you’re limited to what you can carry in a day pack.”

The big ‘R’

Responsible coffee sourcing is a term coveted by coffee giants around the world – and sometimes met with scepticism. But aside from the obvious marketing benefits, what does ‘responsible’ mean for coffee businesses that meet Enveritas’ sustainability standards?

“We needed to redefine what ‘responsible’ sourcing could mean and global standardisation is extremely helpful,” says Browning.

Based on established UN treaties and international law, Enveritas’ Responsible Sourcing Framework provides actionable insights and assurance for supply chain actors and policy makers across 80 social, 77 economic and 68 environmental indicators such as child labour, banned pesticides and deforestation.

Coffee businesses must also make meaningful investments to improve livelihoods for their coffee farm partners based on the size of their organisation and tailored to the countries they source from. They also commit to allowing Enveritas to assess whether investments are proving effective over time.

“We needed to redefine what ‘responsible’ sourcing could mean”

“This became the new way we define ‘responsible’ sourcing,” says Browning. “Our goal is not to penalise farmers or companies. That dynamic creates a very reflexive environment where there is an incentive to hide issues under the rug.”

The road to EUDR

The European Union’s proposed anti-deforestation legislation (EUDR), which bans imports of crops that have contributed to deforestation, including coffee, palm oil and soy, has proved controversial in the coffee industry. The International Coffee Organization (ICO) has warned that Europe could face a shortage of coffee by 2025 as roasters and traders grapple with uncertainty over EUDR implementation. There are also concerns that the rules could lock out vulnerable smallholder coffee farmers from vital European income.

For Browning, the legislation still being fine-tuned in Brussels presents a fresh set of challenges for coffee businesses and farmers, but also a unique opportunity for collective action on a huge climate issue. He argues that government regulation is long overdue and that EUDR can work for smallholder farmers with the support of big coffee businesses, non-profits and civil society.

“We can’t complain for decades that governments aren’t taking action, but when they do, say ‘this wasn’t well thought through’ and ask them to go back and think about it for another 30 years.”

Browning acknowledges that assessing where land is being deforested among 12 million coffee farms, often with informal land boundaries and supply chains, is complex. However, he believes cooperation and technology-based solutions can deliver a win-win for coffee farmers and the planet.

“We found traditional approaches to measuring deforestation were using satellites that have been around since the late 1990s and had about a 30-metre resolution. Modern satellites offer far higher resolution,” he says. After re-analysing new satellite data with sophisticated deep learning models, Enveritas found tree crops such as rubber and palm oil were often mistakenly classified as coffee-linked deforestation due to their proximity to coffee farms.

“Once we saw that there was less coffee-linked deforestation than previously thought, we saw an opportunity to work in collaboration with governments and the private sector.”

So far, seven countries have signed up to an approach where Enveritas provides satellite data to governments free of charge so that they can enter into constructive conversations with coffee farms where deforestation is occurring.

“Through these conversations, farmers will be able to understand that even a relatively small amount of forested land converted to coffee since 2020 may be holding back the entire country from exporting coffee to Europe.”

As for the private sector, Browning highlights JDE Peet’s, which has offered to provide reforestation financing to coffee farmers for every instance of deforestation identified in its supply chain. Another recent success story is Costa Rica’s Aquiares Estate, which used Enveritas satellite imagery to verify 620 hectares of shade-grown coffee and 200 hectares of protected forests to ship the first EUDR-compliant coffee to Europe.

For Browning, these positive steps are vital for the coffee industry’s continued prosperity. “The world is so worn down by bad news and cynicism, but the coffee industry can become a shining light on sustainability, which would be incredibly beneficial to all the other profound problems the world faces.”

As for the future, Browning remains positive about the trajectory of change in a world where bad news seems to stalk the future of the coffee industry. 

“I’m certainly optimistic. Multinational companies are engaging in the complexity of their supply chains and you’re seeing much more sophistication. Companies are now asking how they can accurately measure their carbon footprint – that’s very admirable given the immense complexity of that simple question alone.”

This article was first published in Issue 19 of 5THWAVE magazine.

Subscribe to 5THWAVE to receive each edition in print and digitally or sign up to our newsletter and be the first to read the latest articles and updates on World Coffee Portal research.

Related News & Insight

Registered in England. Company No. 8736608
© 2024 World Coffee Portal Ltd.