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.

Coffee agroforestry course

by on September 26, 2014

earthinstlogoA new course, Agriculture & Wildlife Conservation: Coffee Agroforestry, is being offered at the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability (EICES) at Columbia University in New York City.  I  was really pleased to learn that instructor Dr. Amanda Caudill, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, is utilizing materials from Coffee & Conservation in the course.

Classes are held in the evenings at Columbia University, or are available via Distance Learning. The Coffee Agroforestry course can be taken alone or as part of the Certificate Program in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability. More info here.

Here’s the course description:

Habitat destruction threatens wildlife existence worldwide. While preserving tropical forests is a necessity for biological conservation, this must be coupled with other conservation strategies to provide a sustainable solution for wildlife conservation. Coffee agroforestry, the intentional management of shade trees within coffee farms, has shown promise as a conversation strategy to support wildlife diversity. This course explores the relationship of coffee agroforestry and wildlife conservation. We will examine coffee farms as habitat through case studies, learn about socio-economics and environmental issues associated with coffee, and assess coffee certifications such as shade grown, organic, Rainforest Alliance, and Smithsonian Bird Friendly.

I’ve linked to Dr. Caudill’s work on biodiversity on coffee farms when it was featured in the New York Times in their Scientist at Work series. This sounds like a terrific course!

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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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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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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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