Wednesday 29 March 2023

“One size (does not) fit all”: the incommensurability of sustainability according to Sca

Kim Elena Ionescu, Chief Sustainability and Knowledge Development Officer, SCA: "In this article, Sarah Grant, an interdisciplinary cultural anthropologist, explores the word sustainability through an anthropological lens and identifies an important factor standing in the way of linear, easy-to-measure progress: namely, that while the term may seem to many readers to be ubiquitous, especially in marketing, it is not equally familiar to everyone in the coffee system. Her interviews with a variety of supply chain actors in Vietnam, including farmers, reveal that the coffee industry has a long way to go to achieve a shared vision for our future—it’s not just that sustainability doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone; to some people, it doesn’t mean anything"

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Professor Sarah Grant explains why, despite its difficulty, understanding “sustainability” as a framework is a worthwhile endeavor, especially in understanding culturally relative perspectives and the power relations inherent in the promotion of sustainable coffee. Kim Elena Ionescu, Chief Sustainability and Knowledge Development Officer, SCA, in her introduction to Sarah Grant’s article, elaborates about the term sustainability and its implications in the world of coffee.

Sustainability and Specialty Coffee: an introduction by Kim Elena Ionescu

Specialty coffee has a love/hate relationship with the word sustainability. On one hand, it’s hard to imagine the industry of 2022 without it, given how often it’s used: by brands of all sizes promoting themselves to their customers, by nonprofit organizations explaining their reason for being, and at the highest levels of intergovernmental collaboration (the International Coffee Organization’s most recent event was titled, “Towards Partnerships for Sustainability/Targets & Actions for Specialty”).

The term is inspiring because it suggests that despite challenges, we have reason to feel optimistic about the future and work toward conditions we may never have experienced ourselves, such as gender equity, clean water, and responsible production and consumption (to name 3 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015). It feels good to have reason for hope.”

On the other hand, sustainability’s myriad applications—in diverse cultures and at different scales—make it difficult to draw lines between sustainable and unsustainable activities.

“That fuzziness negatively impacts the term’s credibility: if we agree that our current ways of living and doing business are not sustainable (because otherwise, the word wouldn’t exist), what does it mean when the powerful actors that benefit most from the status quo use it to describe what they do? Their words may ring hollow, but are they wrong? Because sustainability refers to the future and the future is unknowable, it’s impossible to say with complete confidence which claims will be proven to be true, and which will not.

We may not have empirical data until it’s too late to change course, so we need to employ other strategies to guide our work as individuals and collectives. The process of gathering and making sense of experiences, insights, and available data in order to make decisions about what to do is what sustainability professionals grapple with every day, and like the word itself, the answers they find are complex and ever evolving.”

Sustainability thorugh an anthropological lens

“In this article, Sarah Grant, an interdisciplinary cultural anthropologist, explores the word sustainability through an anthropological lens and identifies an important factor standing in the way of linear, easy-to-measure progress: namely, that while the term may seem to many readers to be ubiquitous, especially in marketing, it is not equally familiar to everyone in the coffee system.

Her interviews with a variety of supply chain actors in Vietnam, including farmers, reveal that the coffee industry has a long way to go to achieve a shared vision for our future—it’s not just that sustainability doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone; to some people, it doesn’t mean anything.

She challenges us to start spending more time listening to how others describe their desires for the future than explaining abstract global sustainability concepts, and to be willing to question whether sustainability is the bestor the onlyword to use to describe the future we seek to create.

Hate it or love it, sustainability is an important word and an even more important concept to the world we live in today. Language evolves with each generation, however, and we are four decades into sustainability—for the word to continue to resonate with, unite, and inspire future generations, they must be the ones to decide that sustainability can meet their needs.”

Sustainability according to Sarah Grant

“How do you translate sustainability? I’m not talking about a direct language translation that anyone can pull off with a pocket dictionary or Google Translate—sostenibilidad, durabilité, or keberlanjutan do translate to sustainability and certainly hold meaning.

Instead, I’m talking about what gets lost in translation, and how the concept of sustainability is perceived in myriad ways (or not at all), even in English, even as a term and framework rooted in Western science that appears constantly across the specialty and commodity coffee industries.[1]

Dictionary and translation service translations are fraught with cultural baggage, power relations, and impositions on people and place.

Sustainability is ostensibly everywhere. A simple search for “sustainability” at Daily Coffee News brings up over 700 unique results, featuring articles such as “A Review of the Sustainability Efforts of 500+ Coffee Companies”[2] —that’s a lot of coffee companies engaging in perceived sustainability efforts—to “A Blizzard of ‘Sustainability’ Labels,”[3] and numerous announcements about “sustainability awards” granted to companies of varying sizes. Roasters, buyers, cafés, farms, state-sponsored programs, international organizations, and nonprofit organizations alike all seem to engage in the sustainability business, even publishing their sustainability reports in the name of transparency for consumers to see.

Like the certification schemes of the past, it’s almost as if sustainability has lost its meaning or become so commonplace that it’s taken for granted.”[4]

Perceptions and the Translation Predicament

“Whether or not you watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s worth watching the “Darmok” episode (Season 5, Episode 2) for a refresher on the complexities of translation and the limitations of universal translation, or the “universal translator” as we see on the starship Enterprise.[5] In this episode, the starship Enterprise runs into a Tamarian ship and Captain Picard is abducted to the Tamarian planet’s surface as the Enterprise crew frantically attempts to translate the Tamarian language with the assistance of a universal translator.

Of course, nothing makes sense, despite the effectiveness of the seemingly “universal” translator. The crew eventually realizes that Tamarians speak in metaphor and allegory (or logic, as Bogost argues in The Atlantic), based on their own cultural experiences, history, and mythologies.”


“Without knowing these intimate cultural details, Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew realize that communication is more than it seems and even with the ability to generally understand the Tamarian metaphors, there is still something missing; Picard will never be able to fully understand what it means to be Tamarian because he’s not Tamarian, no matter how much of the language he learns.

How the Tamarians perceive Picard and the Starfleet is equally complicated by the limitations of language, translation, and the complexities of cultural understanding. Nonetheless, relationship building and crisis intervention are still possible.

Likewise, recognizing that sustainability is hard to translate, understand, and perceive can make all the difference in relationship building and long-term prospects for a more environmentally, culturally, socially, and economically attuned coffee industry. So, when I ask someone how they translate sustainability and I receive a direct linguistic translation as a response, I almost always ask them to elaborate, to explain how sustainability is translated from end to end.

What does your listener hear? Effectively translating sustainability also requires the listener or reader to understand what is meant by the Western concept of sustainability. As Maldonado et. al. point out, “sustainability is an English word. This statement is so obvious that the problem it poses is often ignored….”[6] This is a problem the coffee industry needs to unpack.”

Sustainability seminars and activities

“What’s missing from most public scholarship (and some peer-reviewed scholarship) about sustainability, whether in coffee, cacao, palm oil, or otherwise, is a discussion of the term itself, its relative meanings, and the ways in which power relationships shape the very idea of sustainability, let alone literal translations.

In the largely European- and US-led coffee sustainability training seminars that I have attended as a participant-observer, for example, the tendency is to train farmers and those who interact with farmers to enact practices of sustainability from the top down, and to implement sustainability initiatives “on the ground.”

These programs are often designed to “train trainers” to then become local sustainability ambassadors and champions of a greater cause—a cause often defined and dictated by people living outside of the community in question or the local place that “needs” sustainability. For local communities that may be hearing the English word sustainability for the first time, or grappling with the poor translation of sustainability into a local language, sustainability is bewildering from the start.”

The definition

“Sustainability is often defined by the “three e’s” (economy, ecology, equity) or the “triple bottom line” (people, profit, planet).[7] The question we should be following up with is whose economy, ecology, and equity? Given the ubiquity of sustainability, it’s likely you’ve had your own experiences with some kind of sustainability training—did it ever begin with the question, “What matters most to you in your daily life?”

This is an important and integral question—any external sustainability framework must incorporate local values, concepts, and practices if we want it to be—well—sustainable.

What if environmental preservation is not a priority for a farmer? What if a farmer’s vision for equity does not match a funder’s? What if a farmer views leaving the coffee industry altogether as the most sustainable thing for themselves, their community, and the land they live and work on?

Understanding how sustainability initiatives are perceived is also an important and reflexive step in building environmental-, economic-, and equity-oriented relationships between farmers and everyone else.

The next generation of sustainability trainers could dedicate the same amount of time (or more!) to hearing about sustainability from participants as teaching sustainability concepts and practices—imposing and teaching about sustainability means that we might not be open to hearing about the ways in which what we call sustainability might already be operable in local contexts.

Rather than assuming we can all come to a common understanding about what we mean when we utter the word sustainability or how we translate it into French, Indonesian, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Spanish, or any other of the dozens of languages spoken across the coffee-farming community, what if we begin with a new standard? That is, there’s no singular “sustainable coffee,” at least not in the way we want to believe sustainable coffee is achievable.

Understanding sustainability as rhetoric, framework, and a driving mission for many actors in the global coffee industry is still a worthwhile endeavor, however, because it can help industry, scholars, and other coffee professionals alike comprehend the importance of culturally informed perspectives and the power relations inherent in the promotion of sustainable coffee.

One way to rephrase this is that sustainability doesn’t operate the way we think it does, at least not on the ground in coffee-producing parts of the world. For all the translations of sustainability and workshops designed to teach it, much of it sounds like techno-speak.”

Analyzing Sustainability

“In the social sciences and humanities, there is an ongoing discussion about what constitutes sustainability, who it is for, and how one practices it if it exists. Often, after long-term empirical research, researchers find out that sustainability is a framework and a discourse, not a reality.

Regardless, sustainability is a good term to “think with” even if it’s not translatable or commensurable (having a common standard against which something can be measured). In the coffee industry, if there ever was a keyword, it must be sustainability.

In order to fully, holistically, understand sustainability, the industry would have to understand sustainability on its own terms and examine how it has been used historically and remains appropriated today.

If we think of sustainability as an analytical framework that developed in Western contexts, we then also recognize it as something that developed in places that did not produce coffee but was imposed on people in places that did. But if the industry is interested in sustainability in practice—and a culturally sensitive and historically situated approach—without imposition, the first step in “coffee sustainability” is recognizing that Western frameworks do not neatly, if at all, map onto non-Western contexts.

Coffee researchers in the social sciences and humanities have an increasingly clear understanding of why sustainability persists in the industry, e.g., sourcing practices such as direct trade as one solution to the sustainability problem.

There is certainly no shortage of literature on sustainability in practice. In fact, it seems that sustainability is (still) everywhere in coffee research. For example, sociologist Daniel Jaffee wrote extensively about sustainability practices in Oaxaca in the shadow of certification schemes, focusing specifically on the Oaxacan farmer experience and the many layers of livelihood, institutions, and uncertainty that exist on the ground in coffee-producing places.

But even in Jaffee’s nuanced work, I find myself asking what sustainability means locally, and how it is experienced, enacted, and sometimes resisted. What is missing is a nuanced analysis of what sustainability means in culturally relativistic terms, and what gets lost in translation when one imposes a Western framework onto a farm in Guatemala, Kenya, Vietnam, or Brazil.”

Sustainability, commensurability

“When I ask Vietnamese coffee farmers, collectors, roasters, agronomists, environmental scientists, and environmental youth activists to share what they know about sustainability (bền vững) they often default to the phrase “sustainable development” (phát triển bền vững). For example, in one exchange with an environmental scientist, whom I’ll refer to as Nga,[11] I asked what bền vững means, and if it is commonly understood to reference the long-term upholding of economic, social, and environmental practices that the etymology “sustainability” and its contemporary Western usage implies.

Nga replied, “it doesn’t have the same meaning as environmental protection or preservation because most people think about it in terms of business, like how can I make my business last a long time, be successful, and grow.” Further conversation revealed that sustainability, especially “phát triển bền vững” sometimes comes at the expense of the environment.

Furthermore, comprehension of the term, whether Vietnamese or English, is less important than being able to match up to a buyer-understood measure of “sustainability.” In the coffee industry specifically, when I spoke to a quality control specialist and certification scheme director, Từng, about sustainable coffee (cà phê bền vững), he laughed and said that sustainable coffee is whatever farmers are told it is. He elaborated:

Farmers generally understand the English word sustainability because they hear it everywhere. They hear it from Nestlé 4C, they read it in brochures from UTZ and World Bank and farmer seminars. But they’re told they’re doing something wrong [when they have sustainability training]. The farmers are told they’re not growing sustainable coffee or following this or that [practice].

So, they think sustainability is a company policy or something they must do to get paid. But that’s not what sustainability is supposed to be.

The idea that there is “supposed to be” a particular kind of sustainability is telling. In a recent conversation with an Indigenous coffee farmer in Vietnam, I asked about his view on the term. After all, his experience in coffee is very different from most ethnically Vietnamese farmers who farm coffee for sale to collectors or are part of a larger multinational farming operation.

After explaining that, in his view, imposed sustainability frameworks don’t “fix” an environment already rendered bare by decades of intensive coffee production, he suggested that local “farmers in [his] community use traditional knowledge to fix the environment.”

And they always have. Even though coffee itself isn’t something “traditionally” farmed by his community, he believes that sustainable coffee is possible by looking at other modes of farming production and addressing the economies of scale at work within the industry. A Western translation of sustainability implies progress and developing new ways to farm, transport, roast, and consume coffee.

What would it look like to scale down and back, or to look toward alternative models and frameworks of sustainability that may already exist elsewhere in the coffee farming world?

Finally, what if all the environmental, economic, and equity-based farming practices that we envision already exist, practiced locally or even traditionally, but we’ve failed to see them through the veil of the sustainability industry and the myth of a singular understanding of sustainability? It’s worth taking a step back, even away, from “easy” translations of sustainability in exchange for a more holistic, collectively formed, and fluid definition of the sustainability we imagine for the coffee industry.

Instead of a single word—sustainability—with its mythical single measurement that fails to capture the many different meanings that arise from diverse contexts, we might end up with many different words. While it may sound confusing, it may be less problematic than the existing confusion farmers already face with a single, untranslatable word; if we truly care about the future of coffee, it behooves us to develop a working and fluid sustainability lexicon rooted in many different perspectives and experiences.”

About Sarah Grant

Sarah Grant, PhD is an interdisciplinary cultural anthropologist at California State University, Fullerton. She has conducted extensive research on the coffee industry in Vietnam, with ongoing research interests in critical food and agriculture studies, climate change, social and environmental justice, and the possibilities that exist in bridging industry with the social sciences.


[1] María García Maldonado, Rosario García Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr, “Sustainability,” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights (September 30, 2016),



[4] Mark Moberg and Sarah Lyon, eds., Fair Trade and Social Justice: Global Ethnographies (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2010).

[5] Ian Bogost, “Shaka, When the Walls Fell,” The Atlantic (June 18, 2014),  Bogost suggests that “[b]ecause we don’t know very much about Tamarian history and culture, it’s hard to say much about how their conceptual machinery works. But we do have an earthly metaphor by which we might understand it: computation.” This is an important point, as few people attempting to translate coffee language, let alone sustainability language, from English to something else, have a deep understanding of each other’s history and culture.

[6] Writing about a World Health Organization event in Guatemala, Maldonado et. al. outline the complexity of translating sustainability into Spanish because “sustainable translates into Spanish as both sostenible and sustentable, the former connoting a capacity to be maintained over time, the latter a sense of being reasonable.”

Rather than finding the best fit or a way to effectively translate the Western word, the authors “co-labor” with the community to understand how sustainability as an English word works and imposes, even when translated. In observing and hearing about the experience of sustainability we might build a better, more flexible lexicon to do the work we imagine sustainability does.

[7] Hazel Boydell, “Sustainability in Coffee: What are the Main Issues?,” Perfect Daily Grind (November 15, 2018),

[8] Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1985 [1976]) examines the historical origins and etymological shifts and meaning of 109 words, looking at both the “particular and relational” (1985: 23) in order to understand the significance of these shifts and the contexts in which they occurred.

[9] Andrew Gerard, Maria Claudia Lopez, and Aaron M. McCright, “Coffee Roasters’ Sustainable Sourcing Decisions and the Use of the Direct Trade Label,” Sustainability 11, no. 19 (2019): 1–19,

[10] Daniel Jaffee, Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2014).

[11] All names used are pseudonyms. Formal interviews and informal conversations were conducted in both Vietnamese and English between 2018 and the time of writing in June 2022.

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