Taylor Pfeiffer (MEM’19) presents her Master's Project at MP Symposium.

My interviews made it clear to me how passionate those in the  industry are about the need for sustainability standardization across the sector.

Taylor Pfeiffer, MEM '19

DURHAM, N.C.—Taylor Pfeiffer (MEM’19) is passionate about sustainability. She incorporated that interest into her Master’s Project (MP) on how to standardize sustainability measurement across the coffee industry by targeting small-scale roasting companies that previously have been overlooked.  

An MP combines the academic rigor of a thesis with the practical experience of an internship. Working singly or in groups, students apply skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom to tackle real-world environmental challenges for real clients, through a well-formulated and defensible analysis. It is a culminating experience for all Master of Environmental Management (MEM) and Master of Forestry (MF) students at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Duke Environment recently corresponded with Pfeiffer, who is pursuing her MEM in ecosystems science and conservation, to discuss the goals and key findings of her MP as well as how the findings could help standardize sustainability measurement across the coffee sector.

What is the goal of your MP?

“There’s been a relatively recent push in the coffee industry to standardize the way sustainability is measured throughout the supply chain. Unfortunately, standardization efforts thus far have not adequately involved smaller roasting companies. Given the fact that roasting companies can range in size from a micro-roaster that serves a single cafe to massive corporations like Keurig Green Mountain (now Keurig Dr Pepper), it’s important to think about the roasters on the smaller end of this spectrum and what is realistically feasible for them in terms of sustainability measurement.

“The goal of my MP was to see how these smaller-scale roasting companies are currently measuring sustainability and the major challenges they face in doing so. More specifically, I looked at whether a company’s rationale for measurement, size or partnerships influence the way it measures its sustainability.

“It’s my hope that these results can help give smaller roasters the voice they deserve in the sustainability dialogue and inform industry groups so that they can create an effective and realistic set of standardized sustainability criteria.”

Coffee beans in production.

What challenges did you encounter with your work?

“One of the main challenges I faced was during the development of my research question. I knew I wanted to focus on smaller-scale roasting companies, but there is no industry-wide definition out there of what constitutes a ‘small’ roaster.

“A few industry organizations have attempted to categorize roasters by size according to the pounds of coffee they roast per year, but I felt that these categorizations were skewed and didn’t accurately account for the stakeholder group I was trying to capture. I discussed this with many folks in the industry and got a feel for the range in coffee-roasting volumes.

“I ended up targeting what were relatively small roasters according to this metric for my interviews, and then acquired information about company size in my survey by asking roasters for the pounds of coffee they roast per year and the number of employees their company has. I provide the range in responses to these questions in my MP report.”

What are the key findings of your MP?

“One of my main findings was that even within my sample of smaller-scale roasting companies, the roasters that quantitatively measure their sustainability were substantially larger in size than the roasters that do not measure sustainability, on average.

“This further validates my initial research objective because it indicates that smaller companies may have different experiences and face unique challenges in measuring their sustainability, compared to larger roasters. Issues related to complex data collection and management were discussed as the biggest barrier to tracking sustainability information, and roasters expressed the need for solutions such as a database software or tool to streamline compilation of this data.

“I also found that the coffee industry seems to express an interest in the economic and social sustainability of coffee-producer communities in general, but sustainability measurement tends to focus on the social and environmental sustainability of only the roasting businesses themselves. In fact, only one of the sustainability metrics commonly mentioned by my research participants loosely relates to producers.

“In terms of rationale for measurement, it seems that smaller roasters are measuring sustainability primarily for purposes related to internal accountability, but they also acknowledge marketing as an important benefit.

“Finally, it seems that partnerships with third-party sustainability assessment companies and supply chain entities (importers, exporters, traders) are the most useful for smaller roasters in designing or recording sustainability metrics.”

What are 2-3 key challenges for coffee roasters to identify and adopt a set of standard sustainability indicators for the industry?

“I think that sustainability can be taken in so many different directions, so deciding on which indicators are the most representative and should carry the most weight is a difficult feat for any industry. However, I think the coffee sector has had a particularly hard time coming to a consensus on this because of coffee’s complex supply chain.

“Coffee is grown by mainly smallholder farmers at origin and is sold to consumers through roasting companies or retailers, but in between there are farmer cooperatives, intermediaries, importers, exporters and other traders. There are so many stakeholders at play that it’s hard to say which step in the supply chain or which of the three “pillars” of sustainability (social, economic, environmental) these standardized indicators should address.

“In my interviews, key actors also discussed the idea that roasters record and communicate certain sustainability metrics as a way to set themselves apart from their competition. If this is the case, one can imagine that a roaster wouldn’t necessarily be motivated to standardize sustainability criteria across the industry. Although measurement standardization would make it easier for consumers to compare roaster’s sustainability, it would make it harder for roasters to differentiate themselves if every roaster was communicating the same information.

What did your interviews reveal about the problems, but also the people involved?

“My interviews made it clear to me how passionate those in the industry are about the need for sustainability standardization across the sector. Even if someone I contacted was not able to be interviewed themselves, they were extremely interested in seeing the results of my research and receiving a copy of my final report. This made me realize how applicable and useful my research is in the world outside of academia, which kept me motivated throughout the project.

“The interviewing process also showed me just how generous the people in the coffee industry can be. Everyone I spoke to was willing to connect me with other coffee professionals they thought I should talk to, and multiple individuals followed up after our interviews by emailing me links to other research or useful resources. I’m extremely grateful for all of those who helped me throughout the process.”