As I was perusing a magazine, I came across an ad for Yuban coffee with the headline “The coffee you make can make a difference.” It showed their coffee cans, emblazoned with the Rainforest Alliance seal and a banner saying “Conserving the environment & supporting coffee farmers. Minimum 30% Rainforest Alliance Certified Coffee.”
Let’s disassemble. Who are we dealing with? Yuban is a Maxwell House brand, which in turn is owned by Kraft Foods. (More on which corporations own which brands here.)
How big a deal is it that Kraft is buying RA beans? While Kraft will purchase 12,000 tons of RA coffee in 2006, this represents a tiny fraction (I’ve calculated about 1.5%) of Kraft’s coffee bean purchases.
What’s with the 30%? Rainforest Alliance (RA) allows use of their seal on products with a minimum of 30% certified beans (a fact for which they are sometimes criticized). In order for Kraft to keep their prices so low (suggested retail for a 12-ounce can of RA-bean-containing Yuban is $3.89; a 13-ounce can of Maxwell House is $2.56), the other two-thirds of the beans in the can must be lower quality, likely technified/sun coffee. I don’t see any other way they can do it. The cost differential between certified beans and non-certified beans also means that I doubt Yuban will ever contain more RA certified beans than the 30% minimum required for use of the RA seal. (Update: As of January 2013, the Yuban can still indicates 30% certified beans. However, RA is requiring companies to scale up their percentages over time…read more here.)
Does this move really help farmers? While RA certification includes fair labor practices, and RA certified coffee usually commands some premium, the criteria does not set a minimum price paid to farmers. RA certification is cheaper for corporations that Fair Trade certification. Oxfam is still pressuring Kraft to agree to buy Fair Trade coffee.
RA cannot be faulted for their efforts in promoting and making sustainable coffee available to mainstream consumers. Nor can they really be criticized for partnering with Kraft, since RA certifies a product, not a company.
Still, it difficult for me to endorse supporting a corporation like Kraft which has a dubious ethical record (Responsible Shopper profile here). And while Kraft deserves some credit, as none of the other Big Coffee companies is making this type of effort, real environmental preservation and fair prices for farmers is far, far better served by purchasing sustainable coffees from small companies and roasters with relationships with their suppliers, especially those that provide information on the specific farms where their beans are sourced. Plus I guarantee it will taste better!
UPDATE! The January 2007 issue of Coffee Review goes over supermarket coffees, including this coffee, which is “dominated by a cloyingly sweet nut character, the calling card of inexpensive coffees of the robusta species.” Robusta tastes bad, and is sun coffee. Very bad! As for the Yuban Organic brand, that review notes it is recommended for “Those on a budget with a commitment to organic growing principles that transcends the desire to drink decent coffee.” Please also read the accompanying article or my post about it.