Global drinks sector player embraces social sustainability

As the judging for the inaugural Footprint Drinks Sustainability Awards gets underway, Footprint caught up with Malin Stålnacke, Global Sustainability Manager at Pernod Ricard's Kahlúa to talk about their pledge to source 100% of coffee from sustainable communities by 2022.

Footprint: To be public about your objective of sourcing 100% of your coffee from sustainable communities by 2022 is noble indeed. What made you take this step? 

Malin Stålnacke: First and foremost, our goal is and has always been to impact the way of living and the development of the indigenous communities in Veracruz, Mexico. However, by communicating and being transparent about our ambition and goal to source 100% of our coffee from sustainable communities by 2022, we hope that this will influence and/or inspire others on their sustainability journey - whatever this might entail.

F: Tell us about some of the challenges you have faced?

MS: Our main challenge so far has been the overall transition, from a conventional farming model to a more holistic agroecological approach – meaning we had to make some quite challenging and radical decisions from a short-term perspective in order to secure our vision and a more long-term sustainable approach.

This type of farming focuses on producing high quality yields by using natures resources in a more circular way, respecting and protecting the biodiversity rather than singularly promoting a fast-paced farming mentality with focus on large yields.

F: What has been the biggest barrier? 

MS: In Mexico, the migration of rural indigenous communities is high because families are unable to see any future working on the land they own, so this is challenging when trying to change this paradigm. Another barrier was how to approach sustainable coffee from the very beginning for us as a company. First, we were very tempted to go for Fairtrade certification. However, when we were introduced to a model where you work directly with the farmers and the NGO on the ground, we got very inspired and decided to follow this approach. Now we work very closely with a local NGO, Fondo Para La Paz and are involved in all the decision making, every step of the way towards ensuring our ambition of sourcing 100% of our coffee from sustainable communities.

F: Having grown the initiative from 99 families in 2016 to 473 now, what number of families will be engaged by 2022?

MS: We have an intense and exciting journey ahead of us together with the 473 families we engage with today to fulfill our goals. Our focus is 100% with them now and we can’t at this point say anything about how many families we will be engaging with by 2022.

F: How big is the Kahlúa task force on the ground? 

MS: Fondo Para La Paz have 10 community leaders and field volunteers who visit the coffee communities on a weekly basis. Some of the Fondo Para La Paz staff were born in the communities and they have a strong relationship with the farmers and a mutual trust, something that is crucial when trying to drive instrumental change. The team from Kahlúa visits the communities at least once per year to meet with the farmers and monitor progress.

F: The major focus appears to be working with the growers on eco-systems. How are you investing in the social sustainability of the Veracruz region?

MS: We have a holistic approach to sustainability and look at all three dimensions – social, environmental and economic sustainability, as we strongly believe one can’t go without the other. Our social focus is community empowerment through gender equality, social cohesion within the communities and participatory planning. It also encompasses access to clean water and sanitation next to their houses.

F: Once the farmers are trained what is the plan to consistently further their knowledge and to educate future generations? Especially as the sustainability agenda is evolving with such rapidity and so many new issues keep coming to the fore? 

MS: We renew each of the fields with coffee plants that are more suited to the effects of climate change and the increased temperatures and we secure that the farmers have at least one more crop than coffee to rely on to spread the risks. We are also educating in the value of sustainable farming and entrepreneurship and we hold workshops and courses for children and teenagers who are part of the coffee communities. Everything to increase future possibilities and to make the farmers resilient to future challenges.

F: How environmentally conscious are the consumers of your product?

MS: Our consumers are becoming more and more environmentally conscious – we have seen a real trend in the need for spirit brands to address sustainability and communicate the ways in which they are trying to protect the environment. Consumers today are empathetic and expect brands to have the same sustainability values, that’s why we want to take our consumers along with us on our own journey to meet our goal of 100% coffee from sustainable communities by 2022.

F: How have consumers reacted to the initiative on platforms such as social media? 

MS: We are currently focusing our communication around this program to the industry, but the consumer reactions towards our new sustainability initiative, that we have seen, have been incredibly positive. People are recognizing the work we are doing as an example of a brand pushing to do better.

F: What has the reaction been from your immediate customers, the purchasing community etc? 

MS: Our immediate customers and internal network have also been incredibly positive – they appreciate and understand the work we are doing as an example of a brand pushing to do better in this area.

F: What are you expecting the economic return to be? Is it purely reputational and the security of your supply chains? Or is it also about savings by means of supply chain efficiencies and increased sales?

MS: This programme was purely initiated to deal with the common complexities within the coffee supply chain that have traditionally meant many coffee farmers in developing countries only receive a paltry 10% of the eventual retail price. Not only does this have a negative effect on living conditions for the farmers but also on the environment as traditional methods have been altered to make room for more rapid processes.

We genuinely believe that coffee can make a difference – and we’re in this for the long-run to show it. For us it’s neither about fame and glory or increased sales, it’s genuinely about nurturing our terroir and making sure we put more sustainable practices into action.

F: Are issues such as water and packaging on the radar too?

MS: Coffee sits at the very core of our brand and product, so it’s been a natural first step for us to evaluate how we can improve the sourcing and implementation of more sustainable practices around this area. A natural second step for us would be to take these learnings and try to implement them on a wider scale, i.e. to look into other areas of improvement throughout our supply chain.

F: Is the drinks industry engaging in enough meaningful sustainability endeavor? 

MS: Whilst it’s great that we, as an industry, are understanding and working to reduce our collective environmental footprint, we all have a long way to go before we can say that there is enough meaningful activity in this space – and within sustainability more broadly. That’s why at Pernod Ricard we have launched our 2030 Sustainability & Responsibility roadmap as part of the Group’s strategic plan Transform & Accelerate.
With this plan in place on a group level, we’ll be able to make sure that even more activities and resources are dedicated to making a real impact now and in the coming years.

F: What is your sustainability vision for the drinks industry as a whole? 

MS: As a whole, the drinks industry needs to work together collectively to create tangible change. Some companies are increasingly going to new lengths to develop innovative sustainability practices, like the Trash Tiki movement which encourages bartenders to use food scraps and other potential waste in cocktails. Our belief and our hope is that we as an industry will find ways to explore and make use of our collective power to an even greater extent.

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