Cooperating With “Open Cards”—The Role of Small Intermediary Businesses in Realizing Sustainable International Coffee Supply

Research output: Journal contributionsJournal articlesResearchpeer-review


Despite improvements, international food supply in general and coffee supply in particular continue to cause significant greenhouse gas emissions, economic inequities, and negative impacts on human well-being. There is agreement that dominant economic paradigms need to change to comply with the sustainability principles of environmental integrity, economic resilience, and social equity. However, so far, little empirical evidence has been generated to what extent and under which conditions sustainable international coffee supply could be realized through small intermediary businesses such as roasteries, breweries, and/or retailers. This case study reports on a collaborative project between a small coffee brewery and its customers in the U.S. and a small coffee roastery and its suppliers in Mexico that demonstrates how sustainable coffee supply could look like and explores under which conditions it can be realized. A research team facilitated the cooperation using a transdisciplinary research approach, including field visits and stakeholder workshops. The project (i) assessed the sustainability challenges of the current supply and value chains; (ii) developed a vision of a joint sustainable coffee supply chain; (iii) build a strategy to achieve this vision, and (iv) piloted the implementation of the strategy. We discuss the project results against the conditions for sustainable international coffee supply offered in the literature (why they were fulfilled, or not). Overall, the study suggests that small intermediary coffee businesses might have the potential to infuse sustainability across their supply chain if cooperating with “open cards.” The findings confirm some and add some conditions, including economic resilience through cooperation, problem recognition, transparency, trust, and solidarity across the supply chain. The study concludes with reflections on study limitations and future research needs.

Original languageEnglish
Article number663716
JournalFrontiers in Sustainable Food Systems
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - 15.07.2021

Bibliographical note

We would like to thank Considerate Coffee Company and Catando Ando Coffee Roasters for their commitment to this collaboration. This research was made possible within the graduate school Processes of Sustainability Transformation which is a cooperation between Leuphana University of L?neburg and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Funding. HW and AW acknowledge financial support from the Robert Bosch Stiftung (12.5.F082.0021.0). AW also acknowledges financial support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (TRANSFORM: Accelerating Sustainability Entrepreneurship Experiments at the Local Scale, 50658-10029), as well as from the Belmont Forum and the Joint Programming Initiative Urban Europe [Globally and Locally-Sustainable Food-Water-Energy Innovation in Urban Living Labs (GLOCULL), 730254].

    Research areas

  • fair prices, global food supply, small businesses, transdisciplinarity, transformation, value chains
  • Transdisciplinary studies