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What Does the Word “Sustainability” Mean for Big Companies?

When everything is called sustainable, then what really is?

You know what happens when a trendy word or phrase gets used over and
over: it starts to lose meaning. This abuse of terms, if you will,
almost always creates confusion, and often does serious damage.

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It’s
precisely what I fear about the word “sustainability” right now. When
everything is called sustainable, then what really is? Nearly 25 years
have passed since the U.N.’s Bruntland Commission captured the term’s
true essence and implications as, “development that meets the needs of
the present without compromising the ability of future generations to
meet their own needs.”

Think back to the 1990s, when an organic
label seemed to magically appear on anything raised on a farm and
offered for sale. The inevitable soon happened: news reports appeared
about products falsely labeled as organic, putting responsible
producers at risk, as increasingly skeptical consumers questioned any
product staking such claim. The USDA came to the rescue in 2002 with
its organic certification and seal program, establishing four levels of
permissible organic claim-making for marketing purposes. The EU was a
decade ahead of the U.S., regulating organic produce starting in 1992.

Sustainability
stands at a crossroads right now. In the organic foods sector,
consumers and producers alike have been fortunate that the government
stepped in and provided the equivalent of a regulatory bailout. But in
the case of sustainability, regulators have been slow to act, leaving it
to industry to develop credible, meaningful, independent certification
mechanisms.

Let me be clear about terms. I’m not just
addressing environmental sustainability. (The Federal Trade Commission
is already proposing tougher guidelines for environmental claims by
marketers.) I’m taking about a broader notion of sustainability that
includes social and economic equity right alongside environmental
responsibility, serving a triple bottom line.

The key is acting
early–acting now–before the confidence of consumers, investors and
other stakeholders is irreparably damaged. The best rescue of
sustainability’s meaning and power is one that is never made.

The
coffee industry provides a seminal example. “Sustainable” can mean just
about anything a roaster or a brand wants it to mean. Farming
practices, processing methods, purchase models: the list goes on.
Simply choose the one or ones that apply, and call your coffee
sustainable. There are responsible certifying bodies bringing meaning
and order to some of these areas, imposing discipline and creating a
measure of value. But the problem remains that only certain aspects of
coffee’s sustainability are evaluated, and even within each aspect there
can be competing definitions of the term.

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Consequently, a
genuinely holistic approach to sustainability is required: one that
creates value throughout the entire supply chain. And in order to do
that we must focus on raising quality. Fostering solidarity with a
cause like raising farmers’ incomes is critical, but not sufficient on
its own as a mechanism.
This is why Illy has argued for a standardized, farm-to-cup definition
and certification of coffee sustainability for quite some time. Our
20-year operating principle is that the supply chain and the idea of
sustainability go hand-in-hand, working together to create lasting value
for farmers, consumers and other stakeholders.

By perpetually
seeking higher quality, a cycle goes into motion, creating sustainable
value for every player. The result is long-term viability in lockstep
with ever-increasing quality in the cup. The critical, initial factor
is relationships with farmers, from whom we directly purchase coffee at
significant premiums in exchange for meeting strict quality standards,
and with whom we share knowledge at no cost. From there, all other
supplier relationships and virtually every operating procedure is
scrutinized under specific quality social, environmental and safety
objectives, With a replicable model and definition of sustainability in
place, the next step is independent certification. Here, the coffee
industry has historically erred in placing most of certification’s
burdens on the weakest actors, the farmers, who must invest precious
dollars to earn certification and then keep spending to stay
certified. There are, however, some ideas being explored to address
this inequity.

The leading international, independent certifying
body, Det Norske Veritas (DNV), which has a stated commitment to safely
and responsibly improve business performance, shares our belief that the
entire supply chain needs to be measured for valid sustainability
certification, and that economically stronger players must shoulder the
costs. DNV has introduced a Sustainable Supply Chain Certification for
coffee that is available to the entire industry. The standards are
necessarily tough. My company had to apply like any other, and undergo
rigorous evaluation of numerous key performance indicators. After a
two-year process, we recently received certification.

DNV has
designed its certification scheme to apply to any industry’s supply
chain. Broader adoption and smart marketing of a powerful certification
symbol (perhaps DNV Sustainable Certified) will create widespread
understanding of what sustainable agriculture means, and place the power
to demand genuinely responsible production squarely where it belongs:
in the consumer’s hands.

Andrea Illy is Chairman and CEO of illycaffè S.p.A.
(commonly known as illy), representing the third generation of Illy family members to lead the company.

About the author

Andrea Illy is Chairman and CEO of illycaffè S.p.A. (commonly known as illy), representing the third generation of Illy family members to lead the company.

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