Are big coffee roasters intentionally vague about sustainability?

  • The Coffee Barometer’s Coffee Brew Index is a new method for assessing the impact of corporate sustainability strategies
  • Nestlé, Starbucks, Lavazza, and JDE Peet’s were some of the coffee companies evaluated by the Index
  • It says companies’ sustainability strategies need to be “tangible, measurable and time-bound”

ON 14 September, the 2023 edition of the Coffee Barometer was released, providing an overview of how effectively the coffee industry is responding to key social, environmental, and economic challenges. As a part of this, it evaluates different corporate sustainability strategies.

It achieved this this by examining the sustainability policies and strategies of the top eleven coffee roasters in the industry:

  • Nestlé
  • Starbucks
  • Lavazza
  • JDE Peet’s
  • Tchibo
  • UCC
  • Melitta
  • J.M. Smucker
  • Massimo Zanetti
  • Strauss
  • KraftHeinz

All of these companies are under growing pressure from regulators, governments, consumers and investors to address both socioeconomic and environmental concerns in their supply chains.

Just over two weeks ago, the Coffee Brew Index analysed their sustainability initiatives and guidelines, ultimately evaluating how well they perform. It does this by looking at four critical areas: Sustainability strategy, social conditions & inclusion, environment, and sustainable purchasing & economic conditions.

A new methodology

The assessment examined corporate annual or sustainability reports and related public information, following the principles of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). 

The index awarded higher scores for clear strategies, specific time-bound goals, supply chain integration, ongoing monitoring, and public reporting on sustainability objectives. However, the relationship between these factors and direct impact is not causal – they don’t necessarily reflect better sustainability performance.

For example, the assessment sometimes struggled to determine if sustainability investments into farming communities were linked to a given company’s direct supply chains or sourcing origins.

Furthermore, the data collected currently operates on a “more is better” approach in certain areas, such as giving higher scores for greater certified volume, increased engagement with multi-stakeholder initiatives, and a wider range of investments in sustainability projects. This approach may be reductive, as it doesn’t account for the effectiveness and quality of sustainability efforts.

Having said that, this methodology is new – and it still offers a thorough analysis of corporate sustainable responsibility in the coffee industry.

Coffee roasters are vague about their sustainability strategies

Sustainability strategies lack specificity

According to the Coffee Brew Index, company policies and strategies often lacked quantifiable targets which could be linked to broader impacts; and they often described activities, rather than setting clear goals.

Most of the companies analysed source coffee from regions with potential human rights and environmental concerns. While many of them have spoken about minimising this, their approach often lacks specific, measurable, and time-bound goals to effectively address these issues. This highlights a gap between identifying sustainability risks and achieving tangible results.

It could be argued that this is because voluntary sustainability regulations and reporting practices allow some degree of flexibility.

While some companies (such as Nestlé, JDE Peet’s, and Starbucks) do provide more transparent information about their sustainability efforts, five out of the eleven still rely on ad hoc sustainability projects and investments that may not be part of a larger overarching strategy.

As such, there is a general lack of transparency about how corporate initiatives align with the sustainability risks in the supply chain, and therefore the overall goals of the industry. 

Social conditions & inclusion

Many coffee companies have robust codes of conduct governing labour conditions and human rights, but they often lack mechanisms to identify areas of risk and establish preventative strategies.

Only a few companies provide specific policy targets and methods to address these risks. In contrast, many don’t disclose policies about identified human rights risks, or describe how these risks change over time.

From a broad perspective, this shows how entangled the coffee industry is with human rights issues. Entire businesses and value chains can be built on exploitative models. As such, it’s easier for companies to remain vague about their policies than take genuine steps to address systemic issues.


While many companies have improved their climate-related targets and reporting in this regard, most still lack specific details on managing risks at farm level. Only a handful have comprehensive policies regarding biodiversity, water, and ecosystem conservation in their reports.

Nestlé, JDE Peet’s, and Starbucks lead the way in addressing deforestation within their sustainability strategies. Overall, the quality and depth of deforestation policies vary, with few meeting best practice requirements.

In fact, many address this issue in their supplier code of conduct or sourcing policies. This means the burden of ensuring coffee is deforestation-free falls on their suppliers – producers and exporters.

This raises an obvious question: where does the responsibility actually lie?

Over the past two decades, it’s estimated that 130,000ha of land has been deforested to grow coffee. For many farmers, however, this is a question of need – rather than choice.

In contrast, consuming countries in Europe and North America have benefited the most from the explosive economic growth of the coffee industry. With this in mind, the answer to the question is obvious for many – the responsibility lies more with the downstream actors reaping the overwhelming majority of the benefits.

Sustainable purchasing and economic conditions

Despite many companies’ public claims about ethical sourcing commitments, it is evident that this part of the assessment was a challenge – which can be seen in their low scores.

Only a few companies offer specific details about their efforts to ensure they purchase financially sustainable coffee. In general, there was a lack of specific and relevant details about sourcing policies, certification processes, sustainability premiums, and long-term contracts, among other areas.

Many rely on multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) memberships rather than delivering concrete actions and investments themselves. In the past two decades, MSIs have become more prominent to achieve global sustainability goals – but hands-on engagement is often seen as having a more direct impact.

It could also be argued that companies leverage their participation in MSIs to position themselves as leaders in global coffee sector governance. However, rather than confronting complex challenges head-on, they use their involvement as a symbol of engagement with issues like deforestation and income insecurity.

In conclusion, the Coffee Brew Index highlighted the importance of well-defined sustainability strategies, transparency, and traceability. The overwhelming trend across all categories, however, was simple. While there are certainly improvements being made, many of these coffee companies’ sustainability strategies were vague and ambitious. 

While there is clearly more work to be done, there is clearly a path forwards – but it will require companies to be clearer and more specific with their sustainability strategies. 

Coffee Intelligence

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