Sara Lee’s "sustainable" coffee

by JulieCraves on April 6, 2008

Another one of the Big Four multinational roasters is jumping on the green bandwagon. Sara Lee’s foodservice division is introducing its “Good Origin” line in the U.S. This line of six coffees will UTZ Certified (formerly Utz Kapeh). Sara Lee stated:

“Sustainability is the goal of protecting, preserving and improving the social, economic and environmental states of coffee producing communities. … We’re partnering with UTZ CERTIFIED coffee, the most credible and comprehensive certification program that supports these sustainable goals.”

With this move, Sara Lee says it is showing its commitment to “sustainable quality” by doubling its purchase of sustainable certified coffee to 20,000 tons in 2008.

This represents just a tiny fraction of Sara Lee’s coffee purchases
According to the International Coffee Organization, world production for the years 2002-2006 averaged right around 7 million metric tons per year. Not all is exported from producing countries; the export figure is about 5.3 million metric tons. Although exact market share is considered a “trade secret” and hard to come by, Oxfam indicated that Sara Lee buys about 10% of the coffee on the world market. Even using the lower 5.3 million ton figure, the 20,000 tons of certified coffee Sara Lee plans on purchasing will be less than 4% of their total annual procurement.

The statement that UTZ is the most credible and comprehensive certification program is just false.
The most comprehensive and credible program for “protecting, preserving and improving” the environment is the Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certification, which requires organic certification and has other stringent criteria. I wrote an entire post describing how the UTZ environmental criteria are the weakest of all the major certifications.

The most credible and comprehensive certification program aimed at improving social and economic conditions is Fair Trade. The UTZ certification program has no price minimums or guarantees for producers; it has been criticized as “Fair Trade lite” precisely because big buyers are using it as a cheaper way to tap into the ethical consumer market.

On the bright side
This is not to say UTZ certification isn’t worthwhile. The program emphasizes recordkeeping and traceability. Although the Good Origin blends have indeterminate names like Terrenos Gemelos and Tres Joyas, consumers will be able to input a source code from the front of a coffee bag and go to the Good Origin web site to identify the origin of the coffee. Sort of. You’ll get sent to the one of the UTZ producers pages, which provide general information but not many specifics (especially on growing conditions) for the cooperative or farm.

Nonetheless, that consumers can get even this much information about coffee origins from one of the Big Four is notable. As we learned some time ago, these corporations don’t actually know themselves where all their coffee comes from! Because of the huge volumes of coffee they purchase, they have networks of buyers and middlemen; traceability is a nightmare.

Do I prefer that the Big Four buy at least some coffee from some sort of “sustainable” source? Yes. But I do not believe in supporting corporations that do far more harm than good. It’s like giving a free pass to a drug dealer because he built a health clinic in his hometown, while pushing dope in front of the local school. And why should I reward a company for making a marginal effort at doing what it should be doing, being an ethical, responsible corporate citizen?

As long as consumers demand and continue to buy cheap, mass produced coffee, the Big Four will continue to obtain it from whomever they can. They’ll do the least expensive thing they can — such as buying a tiny fraction of their coffee under a certification scheme that costs them the least amount of money and effort — in order not to lose the consumers that have tried to wake up and smell the evils of unsustainable coffee. Don’t be fooled.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Coffee and the environment,Corporate coffee

marye April 13, 2008 at 9:24 am

This was exactly my thought with wal-mart entering in to *ethical coffee*
:)

marye April 13, 2008 at 9:25 am

This was exactly my thought with wal-mart entering in to *ethical coffee*
:)

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