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Green Mountain Coffee Roasters: Brewing Change for Smallholder Farmers

By Olivia Allen

On Wednesday, March 26, the Social Enterprise Institute hosted Rick Peyser, Director of Social Advocacy and Supply Chain Community Outreach for its monthly lecture series event to give a lecture titled “Behind the Bean: Brewing Change at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.”

Peyser, who has worked for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) since 1987 became steward of small coffee farmers  after a field visit in which he witnessed the irony of malnourished farmers firsthand in Chiapas, Mexico. These field experiences, representing the first time “someone had put a human face on coffee,” said Peyser, drove him to pioneer sustainable sourcing practices within GMCR and start his own organization, Food4Farmers which addresses food insecurity in farming communities in Latin America.

After years of tactfully executed field research that primarily valued farmer-bred solutions, Peyser highlighted increasing food security, the implementation of drip irrigation technology, access to healthcare, and income diversification as the core focuses of GMCR’s programs surrounding improving the livelihoods of smallholder coffee producers in Latin America. The company has directed $10.6 million in funding to these initiatives in the 2013 fiscal year alone.

In addition to investing in producers within their supply chain, GMCR has shown their commitment to smallholder farmers through using their purchasing power to be the largest buyer of Fair Trade certified coffee. As an early adopter of Fair Trade Certified coffee purchases with 600,000 purchased in 2001, the company, who purchased 50 million pounds of Fair Trade Coffee in 2013 has clearly prioritized the inclusion and livelihoods of smallholder farmers as a critical piece in their supply chain.

Despite leading the industry in bringing sustainably sourced coffee to the mainstream coffee consumer, Peyser also spoke to the growing collaboration in the industry, best represented by the formation of the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition. The coalition, composed of  six large coffee companies – Counter Culture, Farmer Brothers, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, S&D Coffee, Starbucks, and Sustainable Harvest – along with the Speciality Coffee Association of America, have joined forces to address seasonal hunger, or “los meses flacos” (the thin months) in coffee producing regions.

 GMCR is a testament to the fact a publicly-traded corporations can hold social values at its core, while still exhibiting high growth, profitability, and metrics valued by traditional, rather than impact investors. In fact, GMCR’s net sales for the 2013 fiscal year totaled $4.4 billion, in turn capturing the attention of Coca-Cola, who recently bought a 10% stake in the company for $1.25 billion. Clearly, even in a period of tremendous growth, GMCR’s commitment to the interests of smallholder farmers across the world has remained at the forefront of their operations.

 With an estimated 25 million coffee farmers in the world, GMCR realizes that investing in smallholder farmers, the most important element of their supply chain simply makes sense, a sentiment echoed by Peyser who remarked “there is a direct link between the quality of life [of the farmers] and the quality of coffee produced.”