Sustainable coffee is produced on a farm with high biological diversity and low chemical inputs. It conserves resources, protects the environment, produces efficiently, competes commercially, and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
                                                      -- Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, First Sustainable Coffee Congress.


Groundhog Day would be an appropriate release time for Smucker’s sustainability reports.

JM Smucker’s, owner of Folgers, Millstone, Café Bustelo, Café Pilon, and Dunkin Donuts retail coffee, has released its 2014 Corporate Responsibility Report, its fourth after being dragged unwillingly into developing a coffee sustainabilty plan by shareholders.

Once again, there isn’t much to say about the report’s coffee sustainability section. The coffee sections from the last two years have been nearly identical, much of it word-for-word — take a look at my posts on the 2013 and 2012 reports. This year, they have at least done some rephrasing, but follow the same theme as previous reports — restating their goal for certified coffee purchases to reach 10% of its total retail purchases by 2016, and highlighting organizations that they support: TechnoServe, the Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung Foundation, and World Coffee Research.

The most notable difference this year is that they have finally stated their progress towards the 10% certified goal: in 2014 they indicate that 6% of the coffee they purchased was certified. Caveats: First, we don’t know the total amount of coffee the company purchases; the last figures available from 2008 and 2010 put it at an average of 265,000 tons. Second, the company is careful to specify the goal is 10% of retail purchases. Not sure how this is defined, or what proportion of total purchases this represents.

So in a strict sense, this report does indicate some progress in the company sourcing third-party certified coffee. However, we can’t really quantify it, and the certification they are using is primarily UTZ Certified, which doesn’t have strong ecological criteria.

One also has to wonder what happens when the 10% certified purchases goal is reached. The company states it believes this will represent the “highest level of certified purchasing by any mainstream coffee roaster in North America.”  This may or may not be true, depending on their definitions, but I can certainly argue that buying a higher volume of UTZ Certified coffee (at best less than 30,000 tons using a generous estimate) does not have the ecological impact of, for example, Starbucks sourcing 180,000 tons of coffee under its CAFÉ Practices standards, which have stronger environmental criteria than UTZ.

I don’t give a huge amount of weight to their “partnerships” with organizations that help coffee growers. It’s not that these organizations don’t do substantial important work (they do), it’s mostly because the company’s level of support and involvement is difficult to evaluate. Their support to TechnoServe is apparently financial. In the past it has been a very small fraction of Smucker’s profits; no details have appeared in recent TechnoServe annual reports. There is an entire page in the Smucker’s 2014 report about the company’s “on the ground” partnership with the Neumann Foundation in Sumatra — yet curiously nothing about this project (or Smucker’s) appears on the Foundation’s web site.  The relationship with World Coffee Research also appears to be monetary, but again, no details on the level of support. For a company that in 2014 made $642 million in profit on over $2 billion in net sales in their U.S. retail coffee division alone, I’m not sure we can give Smucker’s much credit for meaningful sustainability efforts from these apparently modest contributions.

Overall, this report is a slight improvement over the past 2 years, but this powerhouse coffee buyer has a long way to go to improve transparency and prove their commitment to purchasing sustainable coffee.

Illustration adapted from photos by Cornelia Kopp/AlicePopkorn and Ken Fager/kenfagerdotcom at Flickr under Creative Commons Licenses.

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Posted in Corporate coffee


nestle-sinkSome corporate sustainability reports are underwhelming. The JM Smucker Co. (owner of Folgers, among other brands) is a great example. Not much to it, and whole swaths are repeated word-for-word from year to year.

Food mega-giant Nestlé, on the other hand, produces phone-book sized sustainability reports. Granted, Nestlé is a larger company with more products. Still, their 2013 Creating Shared Value report (PDF) is a whopping 404 pages, overwhelming in its scope. Any reader would get lost in its facts, figures, and examples. Let’s call it the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach.

I know I’m cynical, but as I grudgingly sat down to read over Nestlé’s latest report, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an intentional effort to swamp people with data or just impress them with size, all to obscure a so-so sustainability record.  I will restrict my critique here to just what pertains to coffee.

There are two things to note about Nestlé’s coffee business. First, there are at least two coffee supply chains in the company. Nespresso is responsible for its own supply chain, separate from the rest of Nestlé’s green coffee purchasing1. The rest goes to Nestlé’s other brands, primarily instant under the Nescafé label.

Second, on page 150, Nestlé states it buys 10% of the world’s coffee production; thus, in 2013 Nestlé bought 870,000 tons of green coffee2. It’s unclear if this includes Nespresso, but since the figure right in line with previous estimates of Nestlé purchases, we will assume that it does.

How Nestlé’s defines sustainable coffee

In their Responsible Sourcing Guideline (PDF), Nestlé defines responsibly sourced green coffee as that which is verified against the 4C Code of Conduct or standards such as their own Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program.

What does this mean? 4C compliant coffee is not certified, but indicates meeting a basic, entry-level standard. There are no meaningful, quantifiable eco-criteria, and the 4C Code addresses only the most egregious, illegal, unsustainable practices in the industry. The Nespresso AAA program uses criteria that are based on the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standards used for Rainforest Alliance certification, but which criteria and how they are scored or evaluated is not publicly disclosed.

So how much of Nestlé’s coffee is “responsibly sourced”?

The majority of Nestlé’s coffee goes to their non-Nespresso brands. Of this, the company states (page 152) that 71,493 tons, or 8.2% of their annual purchases, was 4C compliant, reaching just the most basic level of “sustainability” standards.

Meanwhile, 84% of their Nespresso purchases were made under their AAA program. Nestlé considers volume data proprietary, but in 2010 Nespresso stated3 it purchased 49,020 tons of coffee (5.6% of Nestlé’s total purchases). Nespresso has experienced considerable growth. If we guess that it purchased 60,000 tons, then 84% of that would be 50,400 tons under their AAA program, or 5.7% of Nestlé’s annual purchases. It’s probably safe to say that around 6-7% of Nestlé’s total purchases were sourced under the Nespresso AAA program.

So, less than 135,000 tons is sourced under some sort of standard, leaving nearly three-quarters of a million tons of coffee not meeting any sort of basic sustainability requirements at all!

Even less than meets the eye?

On page 125, Nestlé states a goal to source 90,000 tons of coffee that complies with the Sustainable Agriculture Standard by 2020.  That sounds like a volume that would be around 10% of Nestlé’s annual purchases. However, a footnote explains that this is an “aggregate figure from 2010 to 2020″. In other words, 90,000 tons over 10 years, or 1% of Nestlé’s total green coffee purchases.

A similar footnote is not given for their goal of sourcing 180,000 tons of 4C-compliant coffee by 2015, but later in the report when these figures are provided, the language seems to indicate that this is also a cumulative amount. For instance, on page 152, the report says (my emphasis added) “By 2015, we aim to source 180,000 tonnes…” and “By the end of 2013, we had sourced 148,198 tonnes…” On page 157, it says “…we will have bought 180,000 tonnes…by 2015…” If this were an annual amount, wouldn’t the wording be, for example, “In 2013, we sourced…”?

Other tidbits:

  • They tout that an independent study found that Colombian farms in their Nespresso AAA program had “52% better environmental conditions” than non-AAA farms. Examining the actual report (link here) shows that this figure included farms with Rainforest Alliance certification. It did not say how many of the farms had the certification, or how the conditions on these certified farms drove up the environmental index.
  • The percentage of their suppliers that comply with the company’s supplier code has declined from 96% in 2011, to 74% in 2013.

In a similar vein, the company’s strategy for biodiversity impacts of coffee states: “Biodiversity issues are managed primarily through the use of the 4C Coffee Code, the Nespresso AAA Sustainability Quality Program and the Nescafé Plan, which, in partnership with Rainforest Action Network, has developed better farming practices.”

In a nutshell

Remember, Nestlé has no interest in investing in or marketing third-party certified coffee, so it’s worth repeating we get from Nestlé:

  • around 50,000 tons of coffee sourced under their mystery Nespresso AAA guidelines
  • plus 71,493 tons sourced under the dubiously-meaningful 4C code of conduct,
  • leaving more than 740,000 tons of coffee sourced from farms following no sustainability standards, or at least none known or being disclosed to the public.


1Alvarez, G., C. Pilbeam, and R. Wilding. 2010.Nestlé Nespresso AAA sustainable quality program: an investigation into the governance dynamics in a multi-stakeholder supply chain network. Supply Chain Management 15(2):165 – 182. DOI: 10.1108/13598541011028769

2Data converted from world production statistics, International Coffee Organization. 

3Nestlé Nespresso Ecolaboration Progress Report, June 2011.

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Posted in Corporate coffee



To donate, click image!

The American Bird Conservancy is an excellent international bird conservation organization. One of their projects involves a multi-pronged approach to protecting the Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera). This species breeds in North America and winters in Latin America, and is experiencing rapid population declines. However,  it presently has no endangered or threatened listing status, so organizations have formed a working group to work on conservation measures.

One of the main components of ABC’s project is a tree-planting and distribution initiative in Nicaragua, spearheaded by my dear friends Georges Duriaux and Liliana Chavarría at Finca El Jaguar. I have written many times about this great coffee farm and the heroic bird conservation efforts of Georges and Lili (some links below).  This year, ABC is partnering with the Biggest Week in American Birding to raise funds for this project.  The Biggest Week takes place this year on May 6-15 in northwest Ohio; it’s a huge birding event that coincides with the arrival of dozens of species of migratory songbirds through the region on their way to nesting areas.

I encourage you to donate directly to this conservation initiative.

Proceeds go directly to the reforestation program in Nicaragua — supplying native tree saplings to coffee farmers to build a conservation corridor that will benefit not just Golden-winged Warblers, but also Wood Thrushes and many other migratory and resident species as well as other flora and fauna. Over the last several years, this program has already planted over 8000 trees on over a dozen farms, conducted six reforestation workshops and numerous educational programs, and supported the bird monitoring programs established at El Jaguar.

Buying a pound of shade-grown coffee returns a small percentage of the retail price to the producer, increases demand and lets farmers know you value sustainable coffee growing. This is invaluable to moving sustainable coffee production forward. But your donation of even $20 to this program packs a big wallop and goes straight to a targeted project.

A young Golden-winged Warbler banded at the Rouge River Bird Observatory.

A young Golden-winged Warbler banded at the Rouge River Bird Observatory.

Golden-winged Warblers are special to me; they were the subject of my first major bird research presentation as an undergraduate. I can also vouch for the work of Georges and Lili, as well as the American Bird Conservancy — I’ve been talking with them about their plans to increase their efforts to support shade coffee farming near a number of their Latin American reserves. I can’t think of a better way to make a difference right now for the coffee and birds connection than a donation to this program.  Wondering what to get your mother for Mother’s Day? How about a donation in her name? Donate online here.

More posts on El Jaguar:


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keurig-logoKeurig Green Mountain (KGM) has released its 2013 sustainability report. This is the company formerly known as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. The CEO notes that the name change “better reflects who we are as a Company…” In other words — they are now focused on single-cup brewers and coffee. It’s hard to imagine how a company whose primary products dominate one of the most spectacularly wasteful trends in consumer products in decades can make many sustainability claims. Unfortunately, the way KGM did it, in part, was by making statements that qualify as greenwashing.

First, let’s get one fact straight: K-Cups are not recyclable. KGM baldly states this right on “Reducing Product Waste” page of their sustainability report. People still argue with me about this but hey, just because you throw the thing (or some of its parts) in the recycle bin, does not mean it gets recycled.

Keurig Green Mountain noted they recovered 4.7 million K-Cups in 2013…without disclosing that is only 0.05% of the total number of K-Cups that they produced that year.

KGM states that they have a target date of 2020 to make 100% of K-Cups recyclable. They have been talking about this since shortly after they took over Keurig in 2006. I asked them about it in 2007 and they replied they were working on finding renewable materials for the K-Cups.

If not recycling, then…

The report explains, “While we continue to work toward a 100% recyclable K-Cup pack, we also offer programs for responsible disposal of the K-Cup packs that are currently on the market.” KGM went on to describe their Grounds to Grow On program where workplace customers can return K-Cups for composting and energy-to-waste processing; I wrote about in detail here.

KGM goes on to tout that in 2013, the program recovered an estimated 4.7 million used K-Cup packs. That number may seem impressive, but in 2013 KGM produced 8.3 billion K-Cups.  Providing a large figure of the number of K-Cups diverted from landfills in a sustainability report without noting that it only represents 0.05% of the K-Cups produced in a year is not only misleading, but actually represents a huge failure of sustainability.

Comparing apples and oranges

The Assessing Product Impact page explains KGM’s Life Cycle Assessments on their K-Cup packs, and incorpates obfuscation as a means of greenwashing.

My emphasis added to this statement: “On average, when compared with competitive batch brewers, customers waste less brewed coffee when they use a single serve Keurig brewer than when they brew a full pot of coffee”.

  • For home use, they compared one of their at-home single serve brewers (no model specified) to a cheap ($21), 12-cup Mr. Coffee with no small-batch setting; they didn’t specify their own or the other competitor’s commercial models.
  • Obviously, it is wasteful for me to buy an extra large, 12 slice pizza if I only want a slice or two. KGM knows that waste is not an issue if a consumer simply makes one or two cups of coffee using a pour-over or other dead-easy method.  How much was wasted? They didn’t say. It is a FACT that using K-Cups is a WASTE of money. I gave an example that I would have to dump 11 gallons of coffee in a year before it became more cost effective to use K-Cups.

KGM contends the disposal of K-Cups is a small portion of the total environmental impact because “significant impacts occur in the cultivation of coffee beans, use of brewing systems, and the material used in the products’ packaging.”

  • Since the specific thing they are assessing is a brewing method and the packaging, it is misrepresentative to consider steps prior to that (cultivation, processing, transport to roasting facilities…things that are similar among most brewed coffee products) when evaluating the environmental impact of the K-Cup.
  • They listed four areas of environmental impact they did evaluate (admitting in a footnote that one is “not a true environmental impact category,” although they showed a graph for it).  None of them showed impacts of waste disposal, product-to-packaging ratio, or for that matter toxicity of their proprietary #7 plastic blend used in the K-Cups.

What about certified coffee sourcing?

KGM has increased the amount of certified coffee that it has been purchasing up to around 28% of its total purchases (longer history here). However, the amount of Rainforest Alliance coffee has been decreasing, from 9% in 2011 to 5% in 2013. In the past, KGM has indicated how much of their Fair Trade certified coffee was organic, but the last two years have been lumping it all together.  Fair Trade standards themselves have very few specific and measurable environmental criteria, and none related specifically to coffee, so knowing the amount of organic coffee purchased is important. I calculated a five-year average of 72% of the Fair Trade total, but it has ranged from 59% to 87%. I don’t see the figures presented by KGM as misleading or greenwashing, but I do wonder why they are now lumping all Fair Trade coffee and not showing how much is organic.

Another page shows that 70% of KGM’s coffee sales in 2013 were non-certified coffee, and you can read more about their certification goals here.

KGM is going the way of using their own supplier guidelines as an alternative or supplement to third-party certifications, with a goal of 100% of their primary agricultural products sourced under these guidelines by 2020. These guidelines are no substitute for strong (or even so-so) certification criteria. Take a look at the brief, generic environmental section (PDF) – no specific requirements, goals, or metrics (“All suppliers should protect and restore biodiversity” and “We encourage agricultural partners to protect and restore soil and water resources”). These are weak non-standards that offer little in the way of providing a framework for clear, meaningful, measurable criteria for environmental sustainability.

Pablo Escobar Conundrum

Writing about KGM’s use of greenwashing pains me. This is a company that has a long history of supporting and promoting social and environmental justice and sustainability in so many ways. They still do amazing work in coffee communities, including access to clean water, food security for coffee farmers, and the fight against coffee leaf rust. These are powerful and important initiatives, for which KGM deserves praise. And one can certainly argue that when KGM makes a pile of money on K-Cups and single-cup brewers, they have more money to invest at origin.

Do the positive things that KGM does offset the hundreds of thousands of pounds of non-biodegradable plastic K-Cups being dumped in landfills each year? I call this the Pablo Escobar Conundrum, after the notorious drug lord who built hospitals, schools, churches, and soccer fields, and frequently contributed to charity. I’m not equating KGM with Pablo Escobar, only the dilemma of entities that do both tremendous good as well as substantial harm. We all know two wrongs don’t make a right. I don’t know how to figure out how many “rights” it takes to cancel out a “wrong.”

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Revised on March 26, 2014

Posted in K-Cups/Keurig brewers: alternatives