A Conversation with David Griswold, Founder & CEO of Sustainable Harvest

Good morning, David. First question: what coffee are you drinking?

I’m drinking an estate coffee  called “Finca El Valle” from Antigua, Guatemala.  Finca El Valle was the first direct trade estate partner I worked with, going back more than 25 years now, and it is a coffee I still buy for the same roaster. It was from a small specialty farm nestled at the foot of three volcanoes, owned by a determined woman, Christina Gonzales.  She was supported by her husband and three sons.  It has been a favorite of mine, in part because through this sourcing relationship I’ve come to create the elements of transparency and trust that are core to the Relationship Coffee model.  It is a delicious coffee, with intense sweetness, with notes of brown sugar, nougat, and molasses.

Why are there so many women coffee growers?

We started our first women’s coffee program in 2003 in Nicaragua. While far from perfect, some of the economic reforms following the Sandinista Revolution provided women with the ability to seek joint ownership rights to the land they worked with their husbands.  Many women have since been able to grow their coffee separately from their spouses. One group of about 140 women growers came together to form a cooperative, and we found that their coffees scored consistently higher in cup quality.

In fact, women-owned collectives score higher across the board than mixed-coffee collectives, and this data point is true in most origins. When you ask the women, they’ll tell you that they take better care of growing, picking and processing their coffee than the men.

In addition to quality, our buyers prefer purchasing coffee grown by women because of their higher impact. The purchase premiums go directly to the women’s groups, and World Bank studies have shown that, on average, 90 percent of their increased income is invested into the household. If you want to impact families and lives, supporting entrepreneurial women coffee growers is a really good way to do it.

You were somewhat of a pioneer in sustainability when you started Sustainable Harvest in 1996.

That’s true. It was an unusual approach to business at the time. When I would share my sustainable business concept three decades ago, I would typically have to first define the concept of sustainability. People were sceptical, as though I were trying to cover up a badly produced coffee with a lovely story.

But then buyers would call me a week after I had left them samples and say, “Wow, that coffee tastes incredible! Please tell me the story behind it!”

How would you define your Relationship Coffee business model?

Relationship Coffee is a business model that is about stakeholders working collaboratively toward a common good that benefits all of the many actors that make up the supply chain. The core values in Relationship Coffee are empathy, communication, transparency, and trust. It considers the needs of all the stakeholders, not just maximizing the profits of one party. It puts people ahead of profits and takes into account both sides of the coffee equation.

Isnt this just stakeholder, rather than shareholder, capitalism?

We are a big proponent of stakeholder capitalism. We were the first coffee company certified as a B Corporation. We are not just concerned with shareholder value, but also the needs of other stakeholders. This includes our suppliers, our employees, the community, and the environment.

The Stanford Graduate School has conducted case studies analysing our Relationship Coffee model. They noted that where a traditional model only focuses on a buyer-seller approach, the collaborative model of Relationship Coffee brings more actors to the table. Because more actors have a vested interest in how the community will be impacted by a business decision this often means that they can bring other resources. We must find new and innovative ways to bring a wider group of diversified stakeholders to the table.

Are coffee farmers better off now than when you started 30 years ago?

I want to say we’ve made progress, but we’re nowhere near declaring mission accomplished. Recent data shows the current generation of coffee farmers makes less than half of what their parents made. For millions of producers, the coffee industry is still broken.

If farmers are worse off, doesnt it mean that only the coffee quality has increased, and that all your efforts have benefited the consumer and not the producer?

You are right; the producers have not received their fair share of the benefits that the specialty coffee market has generated. That has stayed up in the North, and the most recent data tells us that producer nations’ slice of the pie is a mere 10 percent of the total coffee market value. That is not sustainable for a global market. The coffee market is not serving all its members, and we’re putting our supply chain at risk if we don’t take serious action as individual companies to reverse this trend.

So, I’d ask the question a different way. Are your coffee farmers better off than they were 29 years ago – the ones that have relationships with?

I would hope that they are better off because of the investments we’ve made. We are now sourcing from almost 20 countries, we’re training leaders from over 100 cooperatives, and we are impacting over 200,000 smallholder coffee farmers and their families.

Thank you, David, for your time and input!

© Commodity Conversations ® 2020

This is an extract from my upcoming book Crop to Cup – Conversations over Coffee due to be published later this year.

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