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.

Background
In 2013, Joh. A. Benckiser Group (JAB), a private German holding company, purchased Minnesota-based Caribou Coffee.  JAB had already acquired Peet’s Coffee & Tea, and went on to buy European coffee company D.E. Master Blenders 1753. JAB is now in the process of merging D.E Master Blenders with Kraft spinoff Mondelēz International, which would create the first or second largest coffee company in the world.

Just prior to being taken over by JAB, Caribou Coffee had become the first major coffee company to source 100% of its coffee from Rainforest Alliance certified farms. At the time of the changeover, I was concerned that JAB would begin sourcing less certified coffee, in part because they were closing many Caribou locations and/or converting them to Peet’s, which had little in the way of certified coffee of any type.

In 2012, Caribou had approximately 550 stores. Their website says that today they have fewer than 500 (although an exact number seems elusive). While we can go with a 9% reduction in stores, some were considered “under performing” and there’s no good way to determine if Caribou buys more or less coffee than it used to; around the time JAB acquired it, Caribou was buying over 9,000 metric tons of Rainforest Alliance certified coffee a year.

How they’re doing
I’m pleased to see that under JAB, Caribou is still publishing a “sustainability” report, which they refer to as their “Do Good” report. The report discloses that Caribou does not have a department dedicated to sustainability efforts. Instead, they rely heavily on employee volunteerism and community engagement. That seems like a lot of heavy lifting for employees. Since coffee sourcing is rolled into the Do Good strategy, one can’t help but wonder if or how sustainable coffee sourcing is baked into the company policy.

Initial sourcing goals, from their 2013 report (PDF), indicated that they wanted to source more Rainforest Alliance certified coffee from Kenya and Sumatra, and expand into East Africa and Papua New Guinea by encouraging and educating suppliers. I consider this a positive move, as East African coffees are often lacking in organic or Rainforest Alliance certifications (see my post on coffee growing in Kenya). Details in the report were scarce, but it appears they met this goal.

Their 2013 goals were more of the same — diversifying Kenyan and East African suppliers. However, the 2014 report doesn’t state any specific headway, and Caribou gave itself only 2 out of 3 “cups” (points), meaning they only met a portion of their goals.

The lack of detail is frustrating, but expected from a privately held company. Unfortunately, Caribou no longer discloses the amount of coffee they buy, but it is still all Rainforest Alliance certified. I’m glad to see that JAB hasn’t completely retreated from public disclosure and sustainability efforts. Their recycling, energy, and charitable accomplishments are very nice, but I think consumers would like to see much more specifically about their coffee.

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Destroying consumer trust and undermining the value of certifications

In return for financial support that represents a tiny fraction of profits, large corporations are receiving “endorsements” in the form of product badges promoting health benefits or sustainability efforts — despite the fact that many of these corporations have rotten sustainability records. This includes purveyors of corporate coffee, including Nestlé and JM Smuckers (Folgers).

It isn’t apparent from the badges or labels what they truly represent, nor in some cases is it even possible to figure out from viewing the websites of the organizations, corporations, or sponsors.

“Made by Sustainability Leaders” badges on Walmart products, backed by The Sustainability Consortium (TSC)

The Sustainability Consortium was originally established with funds from Walmart, and is “dedicated to improving the sustainability of consumer products” through “implementation of credible, transparent and scalable tools” that are “accessible for all producers, retailers, and users.” However, the only publicly-available documents are the “sustainability insights” for various products and sectors. These brief, very general overviews aren’t particularly insightful (e.g., for coffee, “clearing land for agriculture can lead to deforestation.”). The “toolkits” containing Key Performance Indicators, presumably the guidelines or criteria for sustainability assessment, are only available to members; annual memberships cost between $5000-$100,000. Thus, consumers do not know how corporations are evaluating sustainability. The FAQs, however, indicate that companies are using a self-administered survey and state that “TSC does not verify Key Performance Indicator responses.”

walmart-leaders-badgeNow Walmart is putting a “Made by Sustainability Leaders” badge on many products. While this gives the appearance that these are products are good for the environment, the badge really represents any product made by a company determined to be a sustainability leader based on the (self-administered, unverified) TSC survey. Not only do we not know the TSC criteria, the badge does not pertain to the actual sustainabilty of the individual product, and none of this is apparent to the consumer.

Are these corporations truly “sustainability leaders”? One probably needn’t go much further than noting paper products by Georgia Pacific are badged by Walmart. Georgia Pacific is a TSC member that is owned by the Koch brothers, and its products are boycott targets.  Other Walmart suppliers that are not TSC members (e.g., Nestlé) can also display the badge; Walmart uses the toolkits developed by TSC to rank its suppliers and hand out badges.

Other TSC members include JM Smuckers, Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Dupont, and BASF. Following Walmart’s lead, other retailers or the corporations themselves could label their own products with some similar sort of badge or claim. I can’t get behind a mystery badge that puts money in the pockets of companies that are often so egregiously anti-environment.

For more details, read this excellent article by The Grist about this greenwashing initiative.

“Kids Eat Right” badge on faux cheese, backed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) has allowed Kraft to put it’s “Kids Eat Right” badge on their pasteurized prepared cheese product.  This seems dubious on the face of it, and more so when you learn Kraft is a major sponsor of AND. The New York Times has a report on this initiative, noting that other nutrition scientists are so uncomfortable with the Academy’s funding by big food corporate sponsorships that they have formed their own group, Dietitians for Professional Integrity, that calls for better transparency and ethical sponsorship. There are more resources on their website regarding the conflict of interest generated by corporate sponsorships.

What this has to do with coffee

The proliferation of different types of certifications, labels, endorsements, badges, etc. is confusing to a public that is already suspicious about them. We can debate the legitimacy and ethics of TSC, AND, and similar organizations all day, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the basis for the badges, endorsements, and labels must be honest, transparent, and easily accessible and understood by the public.

Same goes for genuine certifications. People need to be able to understand what (and who) is behind the certification. When they do not, it leaves consumers to be duped into purchasing products that are not sustainably produced, or so distrustful of certifications or other claims that they disregard them all and just buy what is cheap and convenient. Either way, it’s a win for the profits of these companies (which in turn increases their power and influence) and a loss for the environment.

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Revised on March 24, 2015

Posted in Certifications,Corporate coffee

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I have been updating the data table that explains how much eco-certified coffee the large coffee companies buy.  The latest company to get updated is Keurig Green Mountain (formerly Green Mountain Coffee Roasters) as they have recently released their 2014 sustainability report.

You can view all the data yourself in the table, but I have created a graphic that shows Keurig is purchasing less eco-certified coffee over the last few years.

KGM2014The graph shows the percentage of the different types of coffee they buy (the amount in metric tons is given at the top of each bar, and shows an increase in tonnage of over 350%). The green colors are the eco-certified purchases — Rainforest Alliance, organic, and Fair Trade that is also certified organic*. Red is Fair Trade that is not organic (and remember that Fair Trade is not an eco-certification).

Gray and black is coffee that carries no certification at all. Black is “conventionally” sourced coffee — usually coffee brought through brokers that is not traceable to specific origin. Gray is coffee that is what Keurig calls “Farm Identified,” and they are placing a lot of emphasis on it. It’s not certified, but they know where it came from. Their philosophy is “When we know who produces our coffee, we are closer to knowing how they produce it.” Of course, certified coffees are traceable, and the production methods by definition are already known. Buying less certified coffee and more “Farm Identified” coffee seems like a leap backwards in understanding how their coffee is grown.

You can see eco-certified coffee (green bars) remains steady from 2009-2011; the average amount for those three years was 22.6%. But KGMs purchases of eco-certified coffees has been steadily decreasing since 2012, from 19.1% to 17.3% and now to 12.6%. The average for the past three years is 16.2%,  a 28% decrease from 2009-2011. Tweet  This decline more or less aligns with the popularity of K-Cups, which has been accelerating over this period (as seen in this depressing graph from the recent Washington Post article on America’s love of bad coffee).

The KGM sustainability report states a 2020 goal of sourcing 100% of their coffee (and other products) to their Responsible Sourcing Guidelines. These are a sort of glorified set of minimum standards that remind me a lot of the “let’s not break any laws” guidelines of 4C compliance. You can read the 12-page document yourself, but the environmental section is brief, and says that KGM “…expect[s] all suppliers to demonstrate environmental responsibility” and that they should “protect and restore biodiversity.” Further, they “encourage” their agricultural suppliers to “Protect and restore soil and water resources” and “Appropriately manage and/or eliminate their use of hazardous agrochemicals.” That’s it — no quantifiable requirements, thresholds, or metrics. As far as coffee goes, almost any third-party certification would be an improvement.

Overall, a continued disappointing trend for a company that used to be a sustainability leader.

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*The company stopped breaking out how much of their Fair Trade coffee was also organic in 2012. Figures after that period are calculated at 47% of their Fair Trade coffee, which is the percent Fair Trade USA provided as of 2009.

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Keurig Green Mountain (KGM) has released its 2014 sustainability report. As far as their progress on reducing waste from K-Cups, the story is much the same as last year…and many previous years.

  • K-Cups are still not recyclable*.
  • The goal is still to make all K-Cups recyclable by the year 2020.
  • The report notes that K-Cups were first introduced in 1998. Thus (if successful), it will have taken KGM 22 years to achieve their goal.

THIS IS CRAZY. First and most obvious, how many K-Cups will have been produced by KGM and sent to a landfill by that point? In  2013 alone, it was estimated at 8.3 billion. What about third-party manufactured packs that are produced now that the original K-Cups are off-patent?   How many of these are and will be produced? Are or will any of them be recyclable?

Second, will there even be any of the brewers around still using the original K-Cups by 2020? It sort of seems as if this exercise will be a moot point by then: the product will have run its course, with billions still sitting in landfills.

Meanwhile, KGMs newer Keurig 2.0 brewer compatible portion packs — the Vue Pack, K-Carafe, and Bolt Pack — are recyclable, sort of. They are made of #5 plastic (polypropylene) and can be recycled, according to KGM, in 60% of U.S. communities — although often not curbside. To their credit, KGM provides a tool on their website where you can locate who accepts #5 plastic. Note that consumers still have to separate the foil lid from the filter, and extra effort tends to reduce the number of units actually recycled, especially among uber-convenience oriented Keurig users. The overall recycling rate in the U.S. is only 34%, a low rate of compliance which reduces the significance of single-serve coffee portion packs being made of recyclable material.

Isn’t it so much better for the environment to create a cup of coffee that only produces compostable organic coffee grounds? This can be achieved, for less money and with superior results, with any number of methods, such as a Hario pour over cone  or Chemex and a reusable filter, or a French Press.

And, by the way, the Keurig brewers are manufactured in China and Malaysia.

You can read more about the high cost of K-Cups and other single-serve capsule coffees here, and a summary of reusable alternatives to K-Cups for Keurig brewers here.

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*I’m still surprised at how many people say they recycle K-Cups. As I — and KGM — have explained many times they are made out of a plastic that cannot be recycled. It doesn’t matter if you peel off the lids, remove the filter, grounds and all the adhesive, and carry them to your recycling center delivered on a velvet pillow.  The facility will sort them out and send them to the landfill or incinerator. If they don’t and they get mixed in with other plastic, they can potentially contaminate a whole batch as surely as a turd in a punchbowl.

P.S. After I completed this post but prior to publishing it, The Atlantic came out with a great article on the wastefulness of K-Cups. Take a look.

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Revised on March 4, 2015

Posted in K-Cups/Keurig brewers: alternatives,Keurig Green Mountain

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