grand cru
everyone who drinks coffee on a regular basis has certainly tasted the flavour of columbian soil at least once before. for decades now, columbia is considered one of the world’s largest suppliers of coffee. the coffee of nespresso also partly originates from columbian plantations. in the following interview, nicolas rueda, director of the european office of the national federation of coffee growers of columbia, explains the great challenges of a sustainable corporate culture.

nestlé nespresso is considered the worldwide market leader in the field of portioned, exquisite coffee. with its “trilogy” of high-quality grand cru coffee, elegant machines and intensive customer service (nespresso club), the company could establish “coffee-drinking as an experience” in the past few years and lead it to international success. what else? since the year 2000, they recorded an average growth rate of over 30 percent. approximately 160 single-brand boutique stores in the world’s most important cities convey the lifestyle of the “ultimate coffee experience” to consumers. at some point, this brings up the question of the extent to which an increase in production and growth is possible without doing long-term damage to the environment. as part of its company-internal sustainability platform “ecolaboration”, nespresso now has committed to make significant improvements to social and ecological criteria in their value creation chain by the year 2013. in the following interview, nicolas rueda, director of the european office of the national federation of coffee growers of columbia as well as green coffee project manager south america for nestlé, explains that this process is still in its beginnings. the “federacion nacional de cafeteros de colombia”, on whose behalf rueda acts, is the world’s largest ngo coffee organization, uniting more than 500,000 coffee growers in columbia.

dear nicolas rueda, there is often confusion when it comes to the certification of coffee products which are devoted to fair social and ecological criteria. why do you think it is so difficult to reach a globally consistent context for this?

that is correct. there currently is great confusion among consumers. we see so many labels of diverse organizations and hear of so many concepts, and in the end, nobody knows anymore what is good and right, or what they should choose. in this context, an initiative was formed in the past months, which has developed a common code with the goal of improving the environmental social and economical conditions and the labour standards in coffee growing. this so-called “common code for the coffee community”, among others initiated by various world-wide active ngo’s and unions, is currently in the process of developing stricter and more consistent criteria to improve the production circumstances and the quality of coffee. a good thing, but it has not (yet) caught on with consumers.

generally, to achieve a consistent certification is not so easy because there are many variables subject to local interpretation, and the costs needed for certification are important. at the end it is also about criteria like brand image and credibility which consumers associate with a certification program. the trust of consumers in a brand plays a particularly important role hereby. for me, two aspects move to the foreground: on the one hand, a certain certification that gives a brand some credibility; on the other hand, the basic concept of sustainability.

from my viewpoint with the “national federation of coffee growers of columbia”, i can say that we generally welcome every initiative towards improving the social and ecological conditions and do not want to exclude anyone. there are ngo organizations that are perceived and known differently from continent to continent. the environmental organization “rainforest alliance” for example, which we have a close relationship with, is very well known in the usa and england; the “utz” (industry-led coffee certification program) is very popular in the benelux countries; “fair trade” is better known in central europe. what i want to say with this is that there are different basic approaches for ecological and social standards. but of course the goal for all those involved has to be to first find a consistent orientation, so everyone, from the producer to the consumer, can have a clear image.

what does the current situation of the coffee growers in columbia look like?

we are working very hard to establish and keep a consistent quality standard in columbia. we hope that with our organization, we can convince more and more coffee producers of our social and ecological standards. after all, columbia is considered the world’s third-largest coffee supplier, with hundreds of thousands of coffee growers.

the true challenge for us is convincing people to integrate new findings in sustainability and technology into a culture that has grown and been passed on throughout centuries. and that is very difficult. you just have to imagine: almost every day, someone else comes through your door and tells you how you can do this and that even better, how you are supposed to do your work. you would probably also react rather negatively. to be honest, the coffee farmers are very humble people, we should not only give good advice to these people, but also listen to them closely, without becoming impatient. furthermore, there are many restrictions and mainly financial obstacles in columbia, and it takes time to overcome them. many coffee growers cannot read or write, and if they now have to come to these people and read their demands to them from paper, the process takes time. but i’ll say it like this – we are on a good path and are trying to advance things step by step.

the most effective argument would probably be to make the coffee growers understand that without healthy, organic growing methods, the soil and the land cannot yield good crops in the future …?

yes, that is also the most essential argument. and the columbian coffee growers feel and know that this is the only way for the future. furthermore, the use of chemical fertilizers is also a very costly thing. and everything that the farmers can save in additional costs will in the end remain as earnings in their wallets. to understand this, you don’t even have to know how to read and write …

there is a growing group of conscious people, who want to enjoy the good things in life but also want to learn considerably more about the production process of products, including their social and ecological background …

of course we also see this development in columbia. the increasing transparency of production processes and the seemingly ever smaller distances on our globe were made possible by new communication possibilities, such as the internet. the perceived distance between the columbian coffee plantation and the consumer in germany or japan is smaller today than ever before.

this closer growing-together of cultures gives great opportunities and possibilities to all of us. with an open mind, we can learn a lot from each other, exchange knowledge and develop further. to work on the improvement of all the platforms mentioned - that for me is the great challenge of the 21st century.

helmut wolf