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A Business School Class Explores the Roots of Sustainability

In January, Rainforest Alliance staffer Meriwether Hardie traveled to Costa Rica with Professor Robert Strand and his class from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. The group was in Costa Rica for two-week-long sustainability and social responsibility course, exploring Caribou Coffee’s value chain and the many stakeholders involved. (Caribou Coffee sources 100 percent of its coffee from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms.) The class itinerary included a day at the Rainforest Alliance office in San Jose, a discussion with Root Capital (a nonprofit social investment fund that lends capital and delivers financial training to small producers), a day with a Rainforest Alliance Verified™ community tourism group, several visits to Rainforest Alliance Certified farms with Chad Trewick of Caribou Coffee, and a two-day field trip with Chiquita to the company’s Mundimar fruit processing plant, Nogal Nature Reserve and a number of fruit farms. We asked students to reflect on the experience by taking us through the supply chain–beginning on the certified farm and ending with a finished product.

The class outside of the Rainforest Alliance's offices in San Jose, Costa Rica,

The class (with Meriwether Hardie, kneeling in a white blouse) outside of the Rainforest Alliance’s offices in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Step 1: The Farm Visit

Our journey begins with Bridget Bawek, who writes about the experience of entering a Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee farm.

As we drove through the coffee fields at the Doka Estate in Alejuela, Costa Rica, my classmates and I got our first taste of what coffee was all about. After taking in the beauty of the rolling fields, I began to notice the distinct signs of a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm, from water drainage systems to ground cover to shade trees. Soon we arrived at a meeting place where the pickers were gathering with their berries. Watching the workers wait patiently in line to receive tokens for their work, I realized that to these workers coffee is more than a beverage; it’s a way of life.

Later, we were taught about the importance of pruning coffee plants. The plants are trimmed periodically–minimizing yield in the short term but making the plants healthier and more productive in the long term. This is a great example of the trade off between short- and long-term gains.

A clean stream on a passion fruit farm.

A clean stream on a passion fruit farm.

Courtney Sutherland writes about the link between coffee and culture in Costa Rica.

‘Coffee is not a job to us, it is a cultural activity,’ explained Jose, an employee at the coffee co-op Coopronaranjo. For as long as Jose could remember, he has been surrounded by coffee. He remembers growing up picking small baskets of coffee with his family and playing in the coffee plant bushes with his friends. As he grew older, he spent his school vacations on a coffee farm, not because he felt he needed to earn money but because it was so ingrained in his culture; in his own words, ‘It is part of our roots.’ Our group chuckled when he  said, ‘The manager loves the farm more than his wife.’ Jose also asked me to send a message on his behalf: ‘Tell everyone how important coffee is to us.’

On a Rainforest Alliance Certified Chiquita banana farm, Alex Feeken saw firsthand how certification can benefit biodiversity.

My favorite part of the Chiquita banana farm visit was seeing the nature reserve.  We learned that every farm that is Rainforest Alliance Certified is required to reserve part of their forestland for wildlife and plants.  Our guide, Fabian, pointed out a little white- faced monkey walking along the limb of a tree.  Once he got to the edge of the limb, he paused and made a gigantic leap to the next tree over. After, we saw two more monkeys complete the same jump!

Step 2: The Processing Plant

The work doesn’t end after coffee is harvested. Andrea Kramer describes the work involved in coffee processing:

As a consumer, I had never thought about coffee bean processing, but it involves washing, drying, sorting, packaging. There’s a lot of work between each step.  To think about how much coffee passes through just one of these processing plants in a year is staggering.

The amount of water used to wash the coffee cherries is monitored and cleaned after use, and then redistributed into the environment. Costa Rica has pretty strict laws concerning water cleanliness and use, but the Rainforest Alliance plays a major part in mandating water practices as well.

Stickers are applied to freshly washed bananas.

Stickers are applied to freshly washed bananas.

Step 3: The Company Commitment

The students saw firsthand the impact of CSR on communities, wildlife and the global environment. Stephen Moyer explains:

Meeting with Caribou employees, I now understand that there are companies in the business world that actually care about sustainability and believe that it is their responsibility to change the world we live in. Sustainability and corporate social responsibility are intertwined at Caribou Coffee.

Caribou Coffee's Chad Trewick kneels during a demonstration with students.

Caribou Coffee’s Chad Trewick talks to students about coffee and sustainability.

Step 4: The Consumer Choice

The students left with a deeper understanding of the link between their choices and the health of our planet. MaKayla Minion explains:

With everything we do – we make an impact on the world around us. It is our duty to choose this impact to be for the better. Leaders on this trip kept saying, ‘You vote with your dollars.’ After my trip to Costa Rica, I know I’m doing more with my dollar than just buying a cup of coffee; I am voting for a healthier farming community.”

Visit our website to learn more about the link between farmers, businesses, consumers and our global environment.


2 thoughts on “A Business School Class Explores the Roots of Sustainability

  1. I wish that we in Jamaica had gone this route. We have delicious Blue Mountain coffee, mostly run by well-off politicians and the market was taken over by the Japanese. The bottom has dropped out, production is declining and sustainable farming is hardly practiced. Such a shame. I love to see this in Costa Rica though!

  2. I’m sure this was a great experience for the students and I hope the same to every youth out there to have an opportunity like this. Nonprofit/organizations for youth should held activities like this. It’ll help the youth’s development engaging in such a meaningful activities.

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