Why the coffee industry’s “audit culture” is ruining direct relationships

auditing coffee producers
  • Auditing producers is a common practice in the coffee industry
  • It challenges the direct relationship many businesses have with farms
  • A “biocultural approach” to monitoring puts producers at the centre of discussions

IN 2018, the UK’s Department For Education (DfE) published a seminal report.

Compiled by an advisory group on teacher workloads, it found that an “audit culture” in schools was causing anxiety and burnout among staff without improving students’ results.

In response, the DfE promised to curb visits and requests for data from its inspection department, Ofsted, to relieve pressure on teachers.

However, while it was quick to address the negative backlash, the report also raised a lasting question: Could the money for auditing have been spent better elsewhere?

At the time, few would have drawn comparisons to the coffee industry, where auditing is rife. Yet every year, coffee farmers around the world must deal with constant visits from third-party organisations, typically from consuming countries, such as the US.

When they arrive, the auditors not only ask probing questions, but feed the information back to the ones who have paid for the audit. They can then use it for anything they wish, be it bulking out transparency reports, achieving certifications such as B Corp, or making claims about sustainability in marketing campaigns.

Like in the case of the teachers, this process is often carried out with little regard for the producers themselves. To Dean Kallivrousis, a senior account manager at specialty green coffee importers Ally Coffee, this throws up some fundamental issues.

“We create systems in the global north to further monitor the global south with little to no input to what is meaningful to them, why they grow coffee, if they want to grow it, or how they would like to make decisions and create standards,” he explains.

“I fear it leads to a greater extraction from the global south, from a misguided sense of wanting to do the right thing, but also for creating marketing material for coffee companies because it is becoming harder and harder to differentiate as there are new coffee companies popping up everyday.”

colombia coffee farm direct trade

Challenging the direct relationship model

In the coffee industry, great emphasis is placed on the direct trade model in which coffee buyers purchase green beans from the producers without the use of intermediaries.

This is generally seen as beneficial to both parties. It reduces the amount of hands that receive a cut, while fostering positive bilaterals relationships and giving producers greater bargaining power. It also means they are more likely to receive a sustainable income than if they were to sell their coffee to the local cooperative at a set price.

When a coffee roaster pays for an organisation to verify the practices of farms they work with, however, this challenges the direct relationship model.

Joey Dolin is coffee buyer at Dapper and Wise Roasters in Oregon, US. He explains that auditing in this way can sometimes bring up deep-seated issues.

“In coffee, there has been such a history of power imbalances – roasters having so much more bargaining power than producers,” he says.

“All of a sudden, we bring in this other company from the global north, and now we’re saying, ‘Hey producer, you have to do what this company is saying and provide us with this information. It could perpetuate these power dynamics that need to be changed.”

But it’s not just the relationship with the roasters or coffee shops that can become strained.

The nature of direct trade means that producers can negotiate higher prices than the market average and receive a greater range of benefits, such as contributions for equipment. Sending in auditors tends to make this information public, which could also give rise to tensions between producers from the same region.

“One farmer might not necessarily want to share their prices,” Joey speculates. “It can cause ripples in that community which we’re oblivious to. We’re just trying to put out a message of, ‘Look at us, we’re doing this great stuff, check out these numbers, and our traceability information’. But what we don’t realise is that it could come at the expense of our farming partners.”

coffee farmer with ripe cherries

A new way of monitoring?

While existing systems of monitoring and evaluation have their flaws, that’s not to say standards should be dropped altogether.

Most agree that progress can only be achieved when issues are brought to the fore and practices to address them are regularly assessed to ensure they are effective.

However, Joey believes that any approach to evaluation or attempts to improve supply chain transparency must incorporate the producers themselves.

“We have to make sure the producer has a seat at the table for these conversations,” he says. “I do think transparency and traceability information can help every player in the industry. But maybe we should be finding more ways to keep the money in producing countries and get the money to farmers.”

Dean highlights the importance of a “biocultural approach” as proposed by Columbia University professor Paige West.

In a 2017 paper published in Nature, she, along with several other academics, acknowledge the importance of monitoring and evaluation to ensure approaches to sustainability are effective. However, they also highlight the need to consider each local population’s cultural perspectives and their effect on the surrounding ecosystems to improve sustainability goals.

“Biocultural approaches explicitly start with and build on local cultural perspectives,” the paper states, “Encompassing values, knowledges, and needs, and recognising feedbacks between ecosystems and human well-being.”

Not only does this approach consider the producers, it also helps those in consuming countries refocus their efforts – and money – on areas that matter, rather than simply ticking boxes in the name of transparency.

Joey believes that this would come as a welcome relief to many working in coffee – not least the producers themselves.

“People do generally want to make things better,” he says. “But I sometimes see transparency information and it lacks context. I think we need to make sure that what we’re doing is genuinely having an impact – and that we’re not just patting ourselves on the back.”