Working to create a more sustainable future of coffee for all

By Michael Ko/Photos by Joshua Trujillo

As Starbucks turns 50, Michelle Burns, who leads coffee at Starbucks, and her team are working to ensure the best outcomes for coffee farmers and the land it’s grown on.

Michelle Burns remembers vividly the trip she took to Colombia in 2018. As the sun broke through the clouds, she trekked into a rugged mountain region in Caldas, one of the country’s main coffee-producing regions – a two-and-a-half-hour ascent up through steep terrain, then down into a valley. There, she and her group were greeted by about 15 local farmers, mostly young people who’d returned home and recently started coffee farming after decades of armed conflicts in the area had subsided.

“They shared their stories with us,” recalls Burns, now Starbucks executive vice president of Global Coffee, Tea and Cocoa, “stories about conflict and all the challenges that happened in Colombia, stories of moving away after losing family members who were in coffee farming.

“They’d come back to reclaim that land. And we asked them, ‘What can we do to help?’”

The moment – and her subsequent takeaway: “the incredible possibility to positively impact the lives and support the next generation of farmers” – led to the Starbucks Colombia Initiative, called “Granos de Esperanza” (grains of hope), a kind of real-time agricultural and economic innovation lab.

Today, 100 local farmers in Nariño, Colombia are learning the latest climate education, soil and fertilizer analysis techniques and coffee cultivation and business practices. They’re applying innovations gained at Hacienda Alsacia, the Starbucks research farm in Costa Rica. And they’re incorporating new technologies like eco-pulpers that use less water in the coffee-production process.

The moment also widened Burns’ perspective on the bean-to-cup journey and drove home the importance and urgency of making sure that Starbucks is committed to doing the work and making the investments to ensure a sustainable future of coffee for all, especially for those who grow it and the land they work on.  

To that end, Starbucks has opened 10 coffee farmer support centers around the globe, the latest in Brazil; committed to provide 100 million healthy coffee trees to coffee farmers by 2025; provided access to low-interest loans to coffee farmers in regions where traditional banks are not an option; and piloted programs in Guatemala to help coffee-farming families diversify their income streams.

A commitment to take less and give more to the planet

Starbucks has also set goals to achieve carbon-neutral green coffee and conserve water usage in green coffee processing by 50 percent, both by 2030.

“That is bold,” Burns says. “The effort that needs to happen on methodology and technology and bringing all the pieces together, it’s somewhat uncharted territory. We’re very ambitiously out there, not yet having all the answers, but trying to find the solutions.”

Specifically, Starbucks is focusing on reducing its carbon and water footprints at “the first ten feet” – starting on the farms – and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by equipping farmers with precision agronomy tools, promoting and distributing climate-resistant tree varietals and protecting and restoring at-risk forests in key coffee landscapes.

As part of its water conservation strategy, Starbucks is investing in ecological wet mills that can save up to 80 percent of water in coffee processing. To date, Starbucks has helped install 12,000 such new mills around the world.

“You think about the magnitude of water scarcity around the globe. Are there potential ways to innovate and identify and use equipment that is better for the environment? There are over 200,000 wet mills currently in our supply chain. We’ve only scratched the surface on scaling this technology.

“I am seeing the possibilities, and I get excited about the overall positive impact we can have. I feel the best knowing we’ll never hold this as our own. We’re working with others in the industry, so this work is in service to the entire coffee sector – and hopefully beyond, into the broader agricultural industry – because we’re committed to build on open sources of sharing.”

Coffee, from farm to your cup

Burns still has the large handmade red ceramic mug that a fellow partner (employee) gifted her 26 years ago, her first at Starbucks. When it’s cradled in her hands, she feels familiarity and friendship, comfort and warmth. Like so many others who have a coffee ritual, this mug is part of hers.

These days, when she drinks coffee out of this mug, she’s reminded of the need to slow down and savor the moment.

For 50 years, coffee has been the core of Starbucks, and Burns always comes back to that, especially as a highly visible leader during intensely complex times – a climate crisis, crop diseases like coffee rust, a highly charged political landscape, an aging farmer population, supply chain disruptions due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, labor and staffing shortages.

“It is important to stay true to the heart and the mission of our company, and the love for coffee, and your experience with it.

“I believe that by honoring our heritage, staying true to where and why we started as a company – strongly rooted in our mission and values, with an aspiration to make sure that in the end, we’re giving more than we’re taking – then we can really go after the biggest, boldest aspirations.”

That thinking led Starbucks to develop one of the coffee industry’s first ethical sourcing standards, Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices, a verification program that allows Starbucks to ensure it gets high-quality, ethically sourced coffee while also gaining insights into the challenges faced by farmers and supply chain operations in the more than 30 different coffee-producing countries around the world – and then to share that knowledge back.

C.A.F.E. Practices measures more than 200 criteria – as scored by an independent third-party auditor – in the categories of economic transparency, environmental leadership, social responsibility and quality. Starbucks pays premiums above commercial market price to help ensure coffee farmer profitability, and also financially rewards supply chains that reach the highest performance levels.

That commitment to stay rooted in Starbucks mission and values continues to drive Burns in her work – especially as a woman leading in the coffee industry – whether it’s planet-first initiatives, farmer support or increasing awareness among customers of the entire coffee-making process.

“You just think about the magnitude,” Burns says. “How many hands actually touch the coffee along the way, how many miles are there from a field to one of our stores? It’s incredible… That has to be integrated into all the ways we work, think and act. We work in support of 400,000 farmers, just like we work in support of 400,000 partners.”

Given that Starbucks buys about 800 million pounds of coffee every year, or about 5 percent of the world’s coffee, Burns says, “the potential to positively impact the lives and livelihoods of farmers and their communities is tremendous.

“People have watched us working hard to do the right things, find solutions and take great care of farmers and their communities, for decades. They grant us an amount of trust and opportunity to help lead the discussion around ensuring a sustainable future of coffee for all. That is a privilege as well as a responsibility, but it’s so important that we follow through. “When I think about that challenge, and I look at what is required, and the journey ahead, my sense is, we must. We must be brave, and we must lead, and set out aspirations that are bold to take the path that can create a better future for those that grow coffee and their families, and to ensure that the beauty and art and ritual that’s coffee remains in all of our cultures, for decades and decades to come.”

Michelle Burns, Starbucks executive Vice President of Global Coffee, Tea and Cocoa is photographed at her neighborhood Starbucks store in Mercer Island, Washington.

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