May 22, 2024

The Impact of Ethical Sourcing

The island of Puerto Rico is known for many things, such as its incredible food, vibrant communities and cultures, and breathtaking landscapes. It is also known for its coffee. With Hawaii as a close second, Puerto Rico is the leading exporter of coffee in the US, producing almost 10 million pounds in 2014. While these numbers are impressive, it pales in comparison to exports from previous years. Rough times have fallen on the territory. Hurricanes and war have slowed down production, and to match growing demand and maximize yields, the island’s many small-scale farmers have been forced to switch to monoculture growing. 

While monoculture growing may increase yields in the short term, the end results can be devastating. Monoculture plantations lead to higher rates of deforestation, lower local biodiversity, lower soil fertility, and less diverse employment opportunities for farmers. Realizing the ecological, economic, and social damages of monoculture farming, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) looked to an alternative method of coffee farming that preserves environmental quality, increases and sustains coffee yields, and restores traditional farming roles for Puerto Rico’s residents. This agricultural practice is known as Shade-grown Coffee farming, or the planting of coffee beans under a canopy of native trees, and it serves as an excellent example of the community impact of Ethical Sourcing.

Ethical sourcing is an approach to sustainable supply chain management that focuses on obtaining products in an equitable and responsible manner. Oftentimes, companies engaged in ethical sourcing focus on the environmental and social effects of their products, sourcing materials in ways that minimize the environmental impact or improve the lives of their employees. Ethical sourcing can be done in many ways. Companies can implement organic agricultural practices to limit chemical inputs and pollution and promote local biodiversity. Companies involved in cosmetics or medicine can promote better animal welfare by limiting or ceasing testing on animals. Employment equity programs can be implemented to ensure safe working conditions and liveable wages. 

Besides the clear environmental and social effects, ethical sourcing can also have positive economic impacts on companies. In 2015, the World Economic Forum reported that ethical sourcing practices can boost revenue by 20% for many products while decreasing supply chain costs by up to 20%. In addition to this, ethical sourcing has major implications for a company's brand. Companies engaged in the practice are seen as more inclusive and sustainable, expanding a product’s customer base and increasing overall performance.

In 2005, the NRCS launched the Shade-Grown Coffee Initiative to help coffee farmers convert their monoculture farms into shade-grown farms. The program heavily focused on shading coffee farms, resulting in over 83,000 native trees being planted to establish a native canopy to the region. The results from the planting were a success,

bringing a plethora of benefits to the area beyond more sustainable yields. As a result of the native canopy, shade-grown coffee farms experienced higher soil fertility, higher rates of pollination and natural pest control, and lesser rates of soil erosion. The canopy also created a vital habitat corridor for many important migratory bird species, such as the Puerto Rican Parrot and the  Elfin Woods Warbler. The farms themselves also store more carbon than monoculture farms, ultimately combating climate change. 

The positive impacts of shade-grown farms to the farming communities were also noticeable. Shade-grown farms are often managed by local, small-scale communities and farmers, and profits gained from exports directly go to them to support their livelihoods. Because of the increased diversity on the land, farmers could harvest and sell more products such as fruits or wood to consumers, increasing profit. The increase in natural pest control and the increase in soil fertility allowed farmers to spend less on fertilizer and pesticides while simultaneously lowering their chemical footprint. The improved biodiversity and newer land requirements increased employment opportunities for farmers, allowing for many traditional and important jobs to return to farming communities across the island. 

The Shade Grown Coffee Initiative is an excellent example of the power of ethical sourcing and its capacity to make meaningful environmental, social, and economic changes. Ethical sourcing is a modern approach to supply chain management that focuses on gathering resources in a way that promotes social equity, maximizes profit and protects the environment. Besides being an incredible business tactic, the benefits obtained from ethical sourcing give businesses an opportunity to create meaningful change for the world, contributing to a more sustainable and brighter future.