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.

In 2009, Nespresso, the premium capsule coffee unit of the giant Swiss multinational food corporation Nestlé, announced a sustainability initiative they called Ecolaboration. I covered the goals in this post.

One major focus has been Nespresso’s AAA Sustainable Quality Program (“AAA program” for short). The goal in 2009 was to source 80% of Nespresso’s coffee from this program by 2013. It is important to note that parent company Nestlé buys around 860,000 tons of green coffee annually, of which only about 0.2% is eco-certified (via Fair trade/organic).  Nespresso, which has a separate supply chain, sourced 55,000 tons of coffee through the AAA program in 2013, which represented 84% of their purchases. Thus, Nespresso buys about 65,500 tons of coffee, a small fraction of the total purchased by the company.

The AAA program’s three “A’s” are Quality, Productivity, and Sustainability. Once a farm meets the quality requirements (about 50 criteria) and is accepted into the AAA program, they enter a process to evaluate their social and environmental sustainability efforts. This aspect of the program was developed in partnership with Rainforest Alliance. For many years, the criteria or guidelines were not available to the public, but the Generic Tool for the Assessment of Sustainable Quality (TASQ) is now available online. What follows is an overview of the requirements for producers to be included in the AAA program under this TASQ, with an emphasis on the environment. Many of the statistics providing context for the guidelines come from Nespresso’s Ecolaboration Full-term Report, 2009-2013, published September 2014 (PDF), or the Coffee Barometer 2014 (PDF).

Criteria and scoring

The TASQ is based on the 2010 Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standards used for Rainforest Alliance farm certification.  Nespresso has divvied up and tweaked the 10 principals and 99 criteria in the 2010 SAN standard into 42 principals and 296 criteria. Of those, 36 are classified as “critical” (12% of total). They include prohibitions on such things as hunting endangered species, paying below the minimum wage, or not documenting coffee transactions, and are considered “internationally accepted minimum standards for sustainability.”

If a farm does not meet all the critical criteria, they are designated as Under-performing but allowed time to resolve the shortcomings. Once a farm meets all the critical criteria, they are then considered compliant and at the Basic performance level. Thus, there is a low bar (especially regarding environmental standards) for inclusion in the program.

There are three more performance levels in the AAA program, reached by complying with increasing percentages of criteria on top of the critical ones: Emerging (at least 33% of non-critical), High Performing (66%) and Certified (80% or greater and at least 50% per principal).

“Certified” here does not mean that a farm automatically receives Rainforest Alliance (or any other) certification. If a farm chooses to apply for RA certification, Nespresso pays for the first year of certification audits. This is encouraged because at the farm level, only 30% of each harvest from participating farmers meets Nespresso’s quality requirements. Nespresso maintains that due to overall quality improvements and/or certification, farmers are able to sell the rejected portion of their crop at a higher price to other buyers.

There are currently 63,000 farmers in the AAA program, but Nespresso does not disclose the percentages of farms at each performance level. The progress report stated that as of 2013, overall compliance of participating farms with the AAA standards reached 79.8%.  I took this to mean that 79.8% of farms in the program were in compliance (i.e., at least at the Basic level). It could mean that on average farms were compliant with 79.8% of criteria, but I’m not sure why it would not have been worded that way. Also unclear was whether “overall compliance” included quality criteria, or just TASQ criteria.

On a positive note, the report also noted that 30% of Nespresso coffee was Rainforest Alliance certified*.

The level of documentation required for various criteria varies depending on the size of the farm — 10 ha or less or greater than 10 ha. Nespresso doesn’t indicate how many of their producers are smallholders.

Inspections are done by Nespresso agronomists, and verified by SAN partner auditors. These include Rainforest Alliance’s own auditing division in many of the countries where Nespresso sources coffee.

Ecological criteria

Nespresso states that 30% of their criteria fall under the umbrella of the environment. These include topics such as waste disposal and soil preservation.

More narrowly, there are 5 principals covering ecosystem management and wildlife conservation: Protection of Natural Areas, Reforestation, Shade Management, Conservation of Biodiversity, and Susceptible Species Protection. There are 37 criteria in these principals (12.5% of total).

The four shade criteria are fairly general, e.g., one is “There is a shade planting program with records.” One is very similar to the shade guideline from the 2010 SAN standard — this is the one that has been proposed to be watered down in the upcoming revision of the SAN standards. Overall, the ecological criteria tend to be quite generic and many are not quantifiable. Further examples include “Farms provide support to the conservation of nearby protected areas and conform to the management plans of those areas” and “Wild animals bred in the farms are supervised by a competent professional.”

Of the 37 ecological criteria, 7 are critical (none of the shade criteria nor any of the reforestation criteria), which represents 19% of the 36 overall critical criteria, and 2% of all criteria. Some of the critical criteria also seem open to interpretation, such as “The ecosystems conservation program takes into account natural ecosystems restoration and the reforestation of on-farm areas that are not appropriate for agriculture.” However, there are supporting documents to the TASQ that are not available publicly that may clarify some of these criteria.

Bottom line

  • Nespresso is sourcing a small fraction of the total coffee purchased by parent company Nestlé under guidelines that are similar to those used by Rainforest Alliance or UTZ.
  • The bar for inclusion in this program is much lower than other true certifications, with producers being allowed in the program (at least temporarily) even if they do not meet all critical criteria representing baseline sustainability standards.
  • A small percentage of the criteria are related to the ecology of farms, many are generic and without quantifiable goals.
  • Nespresso does not disclose a breakdown of the percentage of farms at each performance level.

Future plans

The next iteration of Ecolaboration is dubbed The Positive Cup by Nespresso. Their new coffee sourcing goal is to source 100% of its permanent Grand Cru range through the AAA program by 2020. There are now there are 45 Grand Cru coffees of which 19 are in the permanent range. These numbers seem to change as limited editions come and go; we don’t know if the new goal will translate to an amount that is more or less than the 80% of Nespresso’s total tonnage it is currently sourcing under the program.

You can read more about the various aspects of sustainability efforts at Nespresso, including those beyond coffee sourcing, at their web site.

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*It is not known how many of these producers obtained Rainforest Alliance certification as a result of going through the AAA program, or if they already had it. Many producers carry multiple certifications or affiliations. For example, according to their Mid-term Report Coffee Target 2011, about 25% of Nespresso’s coffee came from Colombia. The same year, Starbucks published a report on over 200 of their farmers in Colombia (PDF). Forty-two percent of them were also Nespresso suppliers, but nearly all were already in Starbucks CAFÉ Practices program (with its more stringent environmental requirements) first.

These overlaps make it difficult to assess any single program without accounting for producers that participate in multiple schemes because the credit for improvements might be due to the pre-existing affiliation.

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DCN-logoI have written a post at Daily Coffee News providing an overview and fresh update on the coffee sourcing standards of Starbucks, known as the CAFÉ Practices program. Check it out here.

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The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) is revising the standards used for Rainforest Alliance certification; this review process takes place every few years. Over the last decade, revisions have introduced a gradual relaxation of the criteria that deal with shade cover for agroforestry crops, including coffee. The amount, composition, and structure of shade cover is the main proxy for habitat preservation and the conservation of biodiversity, especially birds, in coffee production areas.

The current third and final draft of the standard is very different from previous versions; it is available for download on this page (or click here for a PDF). Once finalized, the new standard will be published in October 2015, and be used in audits beginning in January 2017.

This latest version contains no mandatory criteria for shade cover for shade-tolerant crops such as coffee.

The criterion that deals loosely with shade can be met by things other than shade trees, including gardens, off-site areas, water bodies, and tree cover in pastures. It is not a critical criterion that must be met for initial certification. The overall structure of the criterion means that “shade monoculture” or even “sun coffee” can receive Rainforest Alliance certification.

A history of previous versions of the shade criteria in the SAN standard can be read here. Briefly, the current standard (and therefore Rainforest Alliance certification) requires a canopy density (shade) on the cultivated land of at least 40% and two “layers” of vegetation; 12 of the tree species per hectare have to be native. (Older versions also required a density of at least 70 shade trees per hectare; this was dropped in 2009.)

Here is the current proposed criterion that deals with “shade” or forest cover, with explanations and clarifications given as footnotes.

Trees and natural ecosystems together cover at least 20% of the total land area1 for farms producing shade-tolerant crops or cattle, or at least 10% of the total land area for farms producing non-shade-tolerant crops.

a) Such areas consist of any combination of:

1) Conserved natural ecosystems;
2) Areas being restored to natural ecosystems;
3) Tree cover within agroforestry or silvopastoral production plots2;
4) Gardens, live fences, riparian zones or border plantings; or
5) Off-site compensation areas, including land held in common by farmer groups that is not part of individual member farms3.

b) The overall required percentage is based on the proportion of shade-tolerant or non-shade-tolerant crop or cattle area covered by the SAN certificate scope4;

c) If the required level of tree cover and/or natural ecosystems is not met at the time of the first certification audit based on this standard, a plan to attain the required level within three years of this date is established and progressively implemented5;

d) Restoration and re-vegetation activities use native species and give preference to restoring riparian areas and wildlife movement corridors.

The requirements for “shade” are not as strict or specific as they once were, and there is a great deal of leeway in meeting the reduced requirements. The combination of allowable types of green spaces can result in the required percentage to consist of small and fragmented plots that are not necessarily “natural.” These do not provide the same quality of habitat as a shade agroforestry system which requires canopy cover of adequate density, composition, and distribution.

A supporting document (PDF) states that the specific tree cover parameters of previous versions of the standard were replaced because they had proven “impracticable for many producers.” Rainforest Alliance certified its first coffee farm in 1995, and now certifies over 5% of global coffee production, in addition to dozens of other crops and products. This scaling up of certification efforts is admirable, but is coming at the cost of maintaining rigorous environmental standards. Instead of (perhaps) fewer producers achieving high standards, it appears the bar is being lowered to make it easier for more producers to become certified.

This is not an indictment of Rainforest Alliance certification as a whole or to say it does not confer benefits.  It  serves as a heads-up that what is behind certifications changes over time, and that Rainforest Alliance certification (despite the impression the name implies) does not mean coffee is shade-grown.

The comment period is open until April 30. Please comment on the new draft standards by taking this survey.

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1As noted, previous standards had requirements specifically for the coffee growing production area, not the entire farm unit. Now, what qualifies as “shade” does not have to be over or near the coffee itself. See also note 4 below; the total percentage required may actually be less than 20%.

2Silvopasture = trees in livestock production pastures; these can be counted toward the total percentage.

3In response to a specific query, SAN clarified whether or not the same single “off-site compensation area” could be used by more than one producer. They responded “producer groups could have just one forest reserve, for example, that would count for the required percentage of several producers.”

4This provision seems in conflict with the straightforward wording of the criterion itself, that (for coffee) 20% of the total land area must be covered by trees or natural ecosystems. In response to a specific query, SAN replied that this provision “is the concept that will be adapted for the respective criterion wording.” This indicates that depending on how much of the farm is covered by coffee, the requirement may actually be less than 20% of the total land area.

5Requirement does not have to be met for initial 3-year certification period, only a plan is required. It is unclear if the requirement will need to be met in full beginning with the renewal audit.

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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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