How Can Roasters Market Sustainable Coffee?

James Harper,
Perfect Daily Grind

Sourcing sustainable coffee helps you stay true to your vision and support a better supply chain – but how do you convince customers to buy into it? Sustainability is complex; it’s hard to create a neat, simple story out of it. As a result, it often fails to entice buyers the same way that exotic profiles or low prices can. Yet that doesn’t mean that you should give up on your commitment to good buying practices.

I spoke with Craig Russell, Managing Director of ​Novus Coffee Imports​ (a specialty green coffee supplier) and a range of roasters to find out different ways you can market sustainably sourced coffee to your customers.

How Can Roasters Market Sustainable Coffee from Mercon Specialty

Dapper Wise 2 Colombia November 2018 trip Group photo with the local farmers after a big lunch in the mountains. Credit: Grahm Doughty

What does sustainability mean for you?

Before you begin marketing your coffee, you need to understand what sustainability means for you.

“In its simplest terms, it’s enabling coffee producers [to] improve their livelihood and [continue to thrive] in the coffee business,” Craig tells me. Yet there are many approaches to this.

Some roasters believe that buying high-quality microlots at high prices is the solution, yet that ​doesn’t necessarily result in better profits for producers​. ​Scott McMartin, Founder of ​Fundamental Coffee​, believes that “a consistent presence” when sourcing coffee is more important, especially if “you’re asking for improvements in social responsibility on a farm or an area.”

Certified coffees are often considered sustainable, but it’s important to examine what that certification means. Often, these programmes are focused on specific facets of sustainability that may or may not match your aims.

Maria de los Angeles Ubeda, (LIFT Producer) with Alan Peralta, Mercon Field Technician at Finca Buena Vista in Jinotega, Nicaragua

Maria de los Angeles Ubeda, (LIFT Producer) with Alan Peralta, Mercon Field Technician at Finca Buena Vista in Jinotega, Nicaragua. Credit: Novus Coffee Imports

Critical components of sustainable sourcing

For Novus Coffee Imports, Mercon, and their parent company, sustainability centres around productivity and quality. Craig believes that while social and environmental sustainability are critical components, sustainable sourcing must be “more comprehensive than that.” He explains that “for us, sustainability means sourcing and delivering the right quality of coffee while adding value throughout the supply chain. This includes a sustainable growth for all our partners, having a positive environmental impact, and making sure that our coffee communities are taken care of.”

Knowing how the team at Novus Coffee defines sustainability allows them to better direct sustainability initiatives and communicate them to customers.​ Novus Coffee works with the​ ​LIFT programme​, which aims to increase coffee producer productivity through environmentally and socially conscious practices. Craig tells me that over three years, it has increased production by 40%, thereby increasing producer incomes.

Roasters have an important role to play in sustainability. Craig explains that a roaster can directly support the farmers connected to its supply chain by paying a premium price per pound of green coffee. They can extend these benefits into community education too, with an additional contribution to fund ​Seeds for Progress​, a non-profit organization that invests in school infrastructure, teacher training, and technological equipment in Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Whatever sustainability means for your business, it’s important that you define and understand it. Otherwise, you can’t be confident that you’re working in a truly sustainable way and you can’t effectively market your efforts to your customers.

Women of Rwanda Hingakawa Co-op

Women of Rwanda Hingakawa Co op 06 Green Origins. Credit: Ben Ray, Green Origins Coffee

Grab attention to market sustainability

I asked Craig how a roaster could communicate that they’re purchasing coffee that’s environmentally, socially, and fiscally sustainable when their window of interaction with a coffee drinker is narrow. “Provoke a conversation,” he tells me.

There are many spaces in which you can do so. In every one of them, your goal is to communicate your buying philosophy as succinctly as possible while also leaving your customer wanting to learn more.

On a website landing page, where you have just seconds to interact with a customer, Craig advises keeping it short and simple with words to the effect of ​“we buy sustainably and ethically produced coffee”.

On the coffee bag itself (where space is even more limited than a website landing page), Michael Ryan, Director of Coffee for ​Dapper & Wise Coffee Roasters​, uses the phrase “Relationship Coffee”. The company does this “for coffees that come from people we’ve had the privilege to meet in person by visiting the place the coffee was grown,” he tells me. The phrase lets “people know that we’re laying that firm foundation with the people behind that coffee.”

Danish roasters ​Coffee Collective​ use ​simple graphical posters inside their café​ to communicate how much they pay for their coffees compared to both Fairtrade and ​the commodity price. They also experiment by placing stickers on their takeaway cups that tell customers the quality bonus they pay.

Mercon Specialty farm folks in front of coffee tree

From left to right: Julio Reyes, Michelle Dunaway, Green Coffee Sales for Novus Coffee; Neil Oney, Green Coffee Quality Specialist for Novus Coffee; Ricardo Reyes, farm owner (He is part of our LIFT program). Finca Bella Vista, El Merendon, Honduras. Credit: Novus Coffee Imports

Both these approaches could be modified to highlight the on-the-ground improvements your sustainable sourcing efforts are helping create.

Don’t forget about the power of images, too. ​Valerie King, Founder and Roaster of ​Lamppost Coffee Roasters​, uses photographs to get customers’ attention. “​These photos will be placed around the shop on walls as art for our customers to see and inquire after,” she tells me. ​“​The photos are chosen as they show the person-centred focus of sustainability. Each photo tells a part of the story of the producers, their families, and communities.”

Social media is another powerful place to grab attention. For example, Dapper & Wise Coffee Roasters used Instagram after a coffee-sourcing trip during Earth Week. “We highlighted one practice we do each day to move towards greater sustainability in our purchasing and operations,” Michael explains.


Dapper & Wise Roasters meeting members of the Rumukia Farmers Cooperative Society
Dapper & Wise Roasters meeting members of the Rumukia Farmers Cooperative Society, at the Tambaya Washing Station in Nyeri Kenya in December 2018. Credit: Grahm Doughty

Explain sustainability in a minute or less

After you’ve made your customer curious, they might want to know what ‘sustainable’ or ‘relationship coffee’ means. This is when you need to offer them a quick, digestible explanation. Don’t tell them so much that they’re overwhelmed with information: keep it simple and memorable. Aim to explain it in 60 seconds or less.

Craig tells me that an explanation should mention that “it’s making sure that the coffee is produced in a way [that’s] good for the environment [and] follows good social practices…where the producer has access to technical support, financing and a good market for their coffee.”

It’s possible that the customer won’t come directly to you for more information. Make it easy for them to learn more without having to ask. If ‘Relationship Coffee’ is written on the front of a retail bag, the explanation could be on the back so that customers can flip it round to learn more. If you’ve grabbed attention with photos on the walls of your café, think about placing a card with extra information close by.

Online, you can also consider embedding videos on your website or sharing them on social media. On the Dapper & Wise website, clicking ‘Relationship Coffee’ starts video​ explaining the company’s sourcing philosophy. This is interspersed with video footage of the producers they purchase from.

The women of the Rwanda Hingakawa Coop

The women of the Rwanda Hingakawa Coop, an example of the photo Lamppost Roasters will use on the walls of their cafe to spark questions from their customers.
Credit: Ben Ray, Green Origins Coffee

Create space for a deeper conversation

Once a coffee drinker’s curiosity is piqued to the point of wanting more in-depth information, you’re ready for a conversation with them – whether this takes place in the café, the roastery, or via email.

Valerie King helps drinkers connect with faraway origins by talking “about the family and community on the other end of the cup or bag of coffee. People don’t often take time to consider the impact of their purchase and how it can advantage another person, family or community.”

She tells me that Lamppost Coffee Roasters purchases from the Rwanda Hingakawa Cooperative, and during conversations with customers, she’ll “talk briefly about the genocide in the 1990s and [it’s] long-term impact on [the] nation. We share about the beauty of the women of Rwanda making poverty their common enemy rather than each other based on ethnic origin.” She sometimes shares a ​video produced by Starbucks Productions ​about the cooperative, as well.

You could also invite your customers to an event. Dapper & Wise Coffee Roasters held a panel discussion at La Marzocco Café in December 2018, where industry professionals spoke about the price crisis and shared tips on how to participate in a long-lasting supply chain.

Dapper & Wise talk with a Colombian farmer

Dapper & Wise talk with a Colombian farmer during their November 2018 sourcing visit. Credit: Grahm Doughty

If you visit coffee farms regularly, this can also provide material for an event. “​[Dapper & Wise] host[s] ‘Origin Trip Recaps’ at our Coffee Lab, where we invite customers and staff to hear about each trip…” Michael tells me. “We always try to distil the visit into one concrete ‘take-away’ so that people feel they have an actionable understanding of the industry”.

Alternatively, if you have a new sustainable coffee, or simply a range of them, you could hold a cupping. Combine it with a presentation about the community so your customers understand what sustainability means to you and to them. You could also share video and photo footage as part of the event.

Michael says, “Phrases like ‘we partnered with so-and-so’ or ‘we worked together with’ are a bit over the top. We do business with these producers because they have an excellent product, and we appreciate them as people.”

He continues, “We work very hard to ensure that the language we use is clear and doesn’t mislead people to assume something that isn’t accurate. For example, we don’t say “our farmer did such and such” with the coffee. We refer to people working on the origin side as Producers because we feel that is a more accurate representation of the role they play. Further, we don’t call them ‘our Producers’ because they’re not employed by us.”

How Can Roasters Market Sustainable Coffee from Mercon Specialty

LIFT Producer Luis Javier Herrera with Miurel Fargas, Mercon Field Technician at Finca La Fortuna in Jinotega, Nicaragua. Credit: Novus Coffee Imports

While every company needs to define what sustainability means to them, treating the coffee producers you buy from as professionals with their own businesses is respectful.

Communicating the complexity of your sustainable sourcing practices can be challenging. It’s not always easy to be accurate yet uplifting, or accessible and concise without over-simplifying the realities of the situation. Understanding what sustainability means for you and the coffee communities you buy from is crucial for effectively marketing it.

Once you know that, find ways to grab the buyer’s attention. Give them the 60-second explanation. And provide ways for curious customers to learn more.

Effectively communicating your sustainability efforts should translate to more passionate customers and stronger sales, which ultimately benefits the producers you purchase coffee from and their communities.

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Novus Coffee Imports and was originally published in Perfect Daily Grind.