Green Earth Coffee: A cautionary tale

by JulieCraves on December 31, 2007

[July 2008 update at bottom of post] I recently received an inquiry about Green Earth Coffee Company, which sells several varieties of Costa Rican coffee promoted as eco-friendly. This struck a reader as at odds with my post on how coffee is typically grown in that country. All of Green Earth’s Costa Rican coffees are noted as being organic and eco-friendly or shade grown (a term with no legal definition). The Dota coffee is listed as being certified as Bird-Friendly by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), but according to SMBC, it is not.

There are no Costa Rican producers now certified by SMBC. I double-checked with SMBC regarding the Green Earth coffee, and was told that they “had never heard of this company.” SMBC proceeded to send two or three e-mails asking for proof of certification to Green Earth, but after over two weeks had gotten no response. So, the source for the Green Earth coffee being advertised as certified Bird-Friendly either never had certification, had certification that has lapsed, or has been certified by one of SMBC’s certifying partners who in turn did not notify SMBC. The latter is unlikely as it is a big no-no, risking the reputation of the agency, and not useful to the farm if they aren’t listed as being certified.

Another thing I discovered: Green Earth actively seeks donations and notes that a portion of the profits from some of their coffees go to humanitarian causes. It turns out that all of the non-profit partners and projects I could find connected to this company are evangelical Christian missionary organizations. Green Earth owner Randy Sperger is referred to on the Adventures in Missions web site as “our missionary friend” working on providing basic medical care to some indigenous people in Costa Rica. The post went on to say “Over the longer term the goal is to provide housing and start the process of sharing the gospel.”

I could find no reference on the Green Earth web site is Christianity, religion, or missionary work mentioned. If they want to promote their brand of religion by selling coffee, donating profits, and soliciting donations, fine. But personally I think it’s dishonest or misleading to not explicitly indicate the strong religious component to much of their work, especially when they are working with tribes such as the Maleku, who are struggling to hold on to their original traditions and culture, which surely does not include Christian religious practices.

I will amend this post should I receive an update on the status of the certification. This situation is a reminder that if you are unsure about the certification claims, you should check with the certifier:

  • Smithsonian “Bird-Friendly” — The list of certified producers on the SMBC web site is kept current.  The term “Bird-Friendly” is trademarked by SMBC, and coffee advertised as Bird-Friendly must carry their seal.
  • Rainforest Alliance — This page lists the crops, including coffee, certified by Rainforest Alliance (RA), and you can download all the certified producers of each crop. The lists are updated monthly.

If you have any questions about a particular source and are having problems verifying claims, drop me a line and I will do my best to help.

UPDATE: On 31 July 2008, I received information from Randolph Sperger of Green Earth Coffee. Here are the portions of his email that explained why his Dota coffee was advertised as Smithsonian Bird-Friendly when it was not listed on the Smithsonian web site as such:

We purchased our Dota — Tarrazu from Arturo Segura at the Sol Colibri farm.  Their coffee is certified organic and I was informed by him that it was Smithsonian certified. I told him upon purchase  that if I could not say that in my advertising, I didn’t want to buy the coffee because we wanted Bird-Friendly coffee. He said it was. I believed him.

According to Mr. Segura when I called him about the problem he confessed to me that he had let his certification expire.  He assured me that he would take care of it.  I  believed him. [When I contacted him] he said that indeed the coffee he sold us and his farm, though qualified in 70% as Bird-Friendly, is not certified.  He decided not to go through with the certification process due to expense and burrocratic [sic] compliances. That leaves us with the proverbial egg on the face. As a result I have made the first steps in changing our web page. I am very ashamed of this error and have learned a great lesson about requiring paper work.

I appreciate your concern regarding the possible lack of certification of our coffee. That has forced me,  in the middle of an extremely busy schedule to follow through with Mr. Segura. Thanks for that.

As of 12 August 2008, the Dota coffee is referred to as mostly “Eco-Friendly” with a stray instance of “Bird-Friendly,” but there is no mention of Smithsonian certification any longer.

Revised on November 28, 2020

Posted in Certifications,Retail and specialty roasters

Peter January 4, 2008 at 9:49 am

What does Christianity have to do with conservation, or coffee? You believe in conservation just as he believes in God. He donates his money to what he believes in, and I'm sure you would too. Even if you happened to disagree with Christian beliefs, your opinion about Christianity is irrelevant to the subject.

BirdBarista January 4, 2008 at 10:44 am

It has nothing to do with coffee, directly. It has something to do with being honest about where my money goes if I buy this coffee. And the lack of transparency about that coupled with the doubt about the certification of the "Bird-Friendly" coffee makes me wonder about the credibility of the whole enterprise.

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