This post has been updated several times to reflect changes to the name and standards of this certification. It has been completely updated here.
Fair Trade, organic, Rainforest Alliance, and Smithsonian Bird Friendly are the most frequently seen coffee certifications, especially in the U.S. Another seal is becoming more familiar. Founded by the Dutch coffee retail giant Ahold (but now run by a foundation), UTZ Certified Good Inside certifies “socially and environmentally responsible” coffee (and other crops), requiring adherence to their Code of Conduct.
UTZ emphasizes traceability and transparency in the supply chain. UTZ has strong chain of custody requirements, and tracking tools for both wholesale and consumer buyers.
The certification standards also include various criteria related to efficient farm management such as soil erosion prevention, minimizing water use and pollution, responsible use of chemicals, and habitat protection. Unfortunately, the standards in the Code that deal with the environment (the “Natural Resources and Biodiversity” chapter in the coffee standards PDF document) are quite general and lack specificity.
Certification requires compliance with mandatory control points; the number required increases over a four-year period. There are a total of 19 points in this chapter, 15 of which are mandatory after 4 years. Here are some examples:
- The producer “protects and conserves” water streams and sources.
- The producer “allows a strip of native vegetation to grow” along water streams. (In contrast, Smithsonian Bird-Friendly criteria specify a 5 m buffer for small streams and a 10 m buffer for rivers, determined by ecologists to be the minimum effective widths to protect waterways.)
- If the farm is within 2 km of a protected area, the certificate holder must “be in touch” with park authorities.
- Coffee production “does not take place in protected areas” and (separate point) the producer does not plant new coffee on “land that is not classified as agricultural land and/or approved for agricultural use.”
The language of these standards leaves a lot to interpretation. What does “be in touch” mean? Warn park authorities about the agrochemicals headed their way? Invite them to the community pig roast? And while I agree that the land use restrictions should be mandatory, should 13% of the required points be devoted to compliance with existing law?
There is no requirement for using shade trees. One mandatory point deals with this topic: “The producer uses shade trees whenever this is compatible with the local coffee production practices and takes into consideration the productivity.” I think it’s possible to interpret this as “all my neighbors grow sun coffee, so it’s compatible with local practices.” But although it’s unclear, I’ll give the Code the benefit of the doubt and take it that “local coffee production practices” means areas where the habitat does not include forest, such as the Brazilian cerrado. Still, the second part of the point clearly gives producers an out. Sun coffee is almost always higher yielding than shade coffee. That economic consideration can trump the requirement for planting shade trees. And of course, there is nothing about how many shade trees, what species to use, and other specific criteria that are meaningful for the preservation of biodiversity.
On the plus side, there has been an improvement and strengthening of the standards. In the 2006 version, this section had 21 points, but only one of them was specified as required, along with 11 of 12 “minor” points; the remaining were just recommended.
The bottom line is that UTZ Certified has the least stringent environmental criteria of any of the major certification programs.
The following graphs, from Standards Map, show the number of UTZ criteria or requirements related to the environment and biodiversity; this only indicates the number, not the strength, specificity, or mandatory/voluntary nature of the requirements. These do not coincide with numbers in the actual standards, but those developed by Standards Map to facilitate comparisons. See recent data, including comparisions and detailed information on all criteria, at Standards Map.
While environmental protection is not a strength of UTZ certification, they have found an important niche in focusing on capacity building for coffee producers, or creating “professional farmers.” This means assisting with methods that help develop the business and technical aspects of coffee farming, which in turn leads to an increase in quality and higher prices — a path to the road to sustainability. In my talks with UTZ representatives, I have been encouraged by their enthusiasm and plans for improving the standards and pushing producers to improving all aspects of their operations. Not all coffee growers have the ability to be marvels of eco-friendly production. I think UTZ certification gives them the framework to start from the ground up, and as their efficiencies and skills grow, hopefully move on from these basic standards to higher levels of certification.
UTZ Certified coffee is not extremely common in the U.S., but it is one of the fastest-growing certification programs in the world. A number of transnational companies like Sara Lee use UTZ certification. Some would say corporate coffee companies are using UTZ as a way to exploit the ethical coffee market, and therefore UTZ is enabling greenwashing. I think that’s a valid concern. But very importantly, the chain of custody and traceability requirements of UTZ certification can help eliminate the kinds of sourcing debacles such as coffee purchased by Nestlé and Kraft being grown illegally in a Sumatran national park. In that case, Nestlé admitted it didn’t always know the precise origin of their coffee. Under UTZ certification, that can’t happen.
“Utz” means “good” in the Mayan language. True enough, their environmental standards are not “great,” but a baseline and a good first step up the ladder of sustainability.