No proof of shade coffee at Dunkin Donuts

by on September 8, 2009

Recently, Dunkin Donuts Tweeted that the majority of their coffee is shade grown. I’ve been unable to verify this. Dunkin Donuts does not claim to serve or sell shade or sustainably-grown coffee anywhere on their web site. Nor is there any mention of organic coffee.

The only sort of ethical sourcing claimed by Dunkin Donuts is that all espresso-based drinks at Dunkin Donuts stores are made from Fair Trade certified beans. These beverages make up less than 10% (around 5% in 2006) of total global sales. While there is a notion that Fair Trade coffee is often also shade grown, Fair Trade standards have no shade criteria, and their environmental criteria are generic and unquantifiable (see my entire post on this topic). Although much of Fair Trade coffee is also certified organic, that which is purchased by Dunkin Donuts is not (when I searched for the word “organic” on the Dunkin Donuts web site, I got no results at all).

It’s not certified shade or eco-friendly

A spokesperson at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which certifies Bird-Friendly coffee, told me that Dunkin Donuts approached them a number of years ago but opted not to offer Bird-Friendly certified coffee. Smithsonian reiterated that Dunkin Donuts does not have a contract with them. Rainforest Alliance, excellent at promoting their corporate partners, has no mention of Dunkin Donuts on their web site. The Dunkin packaging does not display the Rainforest Alliance seal that would indicate it contains RA-certified coffee.

Because there is no legal definition of the term “shade grown” coffee, many importers, roasters, and retailers market uncertified coffee as shade-grown to appeal to the eco-conscious consumer, although the consumer has no way of knowing if the claim is true.

Who supplies/roasts Dunkin Donuts coffee?

Brewed coffee in stores and foodservice outlets: Sara Lee. Since 1975, Dunkin Donuts has worked with Sara Lee to supply their franchisees with coffee. According to Sara Lee’s 2005 annual report, they still roasted “much of” Dunkin Donuts coffee. In 2007, Sara Lee partnered with Dunkin’ Donuts, in a multi-year deal, to be the exclusive provider of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to foodservice outlets across the country.

Retail coffee: Procter & Gamble/Smucker. In 2007, Dunkin Donuts entered into an agreement with Procter & Gamble to roast and distribute Dunkin Donuts coffee in retail outlets. The following year, P&G split off its coffee business, which was taken over by the J. M. Smucker Company. This included the Dunkin Donuts deal, as well as the Folgers and Millstone coffee brands. To the best of my knowledge, Smucker continues to use P&G’s supply chain.

In a comparison of the coffee industry’s largest companies, these roasters received failing grades from Responsible Shopper; you can view their corporate profiles for yourself (Sara Lee, P&G). In 2003, Oxfam America evaluated coffee’s “big four” regarding their efforts to assist struggling coffee farmers; Sara Lee “performed abysmally” while P&G scored 49 out of 100 points. Sara Lee also scored lowest among all food product companies, 13 out of 100, on ClimateCounts.org’s Climate Scorecard.

Where Dunkin Donuts coffee comes from

Dunkin Donuts does not publicly divulge where they source their coffee. The general consensus in the industry, plus information I’ve gleaned, is that their (non-espresso, at least) coffee is mainly sourced from Brazil, Guatemala, and probably Colombia.

Brazil is the world’s largest producers of low-grade arabica coffee, much destined for supermarket blends. Because of its climate, topography, and soil, most of Brazil’s coffee is grown in sun monocultures, mechanically harvested, with high inputs of chemicals, making it difficult to certify as organic or Bird-Friendly (there are no Bird-Friendly certified farms in the country). Although there is a movement towards some producers supplying specialty coffee, the main push in Brazil’s coffee agribusiness is towards increasing technification, due to the lack of land in which to expand to increase production [1].

[Update: Thanks to reader Lesa Gardner for pointing out a 2012 item on Dunkin's own blog about an employee visit to a Brazilian coffee farm they source from: a vast, full sun plantation, with photo.]

In Colombia, technification of coffee was encouraged beginning in the 1970s by the national coffee growers federation. As of the mid-1990s, about 68% of Colombia’s coffee growing areas were technified (sun) coffee, representing 86% of total production.

Sourcing from Guatemala is perhaps the “best” justification for claiming shade-grown status, as most of Guatemala’s coffee is shade grown. However, a 2001 news article indicated that Dunkin Donuts sourced from the El Pajal/Santa Rosa area. That’s in Alta Verapaz department and considered part of the Cobán region, which has the lowest altitude, highest rainfall, and highest humidity of any of Guatemala’s eight coffee areas. Coffee grown in wet, cloudy areas like this are rarely grown in the shade. Indeed, a number of biodiversity studies comparing sun coffee and shade coffee used this region because of the presence of large sun coffee plantations and heavily managed shade monocultures [2].

Dunkin Donuts environmental standards

The environment page of the corporate responsibility section of their web site is brief. It notes that in 2008 Dunkin Brands “began to assess the impact of our business on the environment.” They have created an energy efficiency pamphlet for franchisees. There are 8,800 Dunkin Donuts stores in the world; last year they opened one LEED-certified store. It serves coffee in paper cups, whereas most of the company’s 2.7 million cups of coffee served per day are made of polystyrene (“Styrofoam”), which sit in landfills for over 500 years. These cups represent 4% of the total number of polystyrene cups discarded in the U.S. each year.

I’ve tweeted Dunkin Donuts regarding that original statement on Twitter, and I’ve also directly e-mailed the company. So far, I’ve not received a reply. I’ll continue to try to clarify the claim that they use shade coffee. But all the evidence I’ve uncovered so far indicates that they do not use organic or shade-grown coffee, and that Dunkin Donuts has so far not been the kind of environmentally-friendly company I would ever choose to support.

When it comes to supporting the environment, Americans should run from Dunkin.

A final unsavory note: In 2006, Dunkin Donuts was purchased by a consortium of private equity companies: Bain Capital, The Carlyle Group (heavily politically connected and formerly all mixed up in the defense industry), and Thomas H. Lee Partners. Since that time, the company has been suing their franchisees at a brisk pace. An attorney who represents franchise owners said, “Dunkin has decided that there’s a smarter, more efficient way to increase revenues and that is to find and target franchisees that are vulnerable.” A big chunk of the debt used to finance the purchase of Dunkin Donuts comes due in 2011, and the company is thought to be behind on financial targets needed to extend the debt repayment. If they are feeling a pinch, paying more for sustainably-grown or certified coffee is probably not on their agenda.

[1] Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp. (EMBRAPA) report, 2006 (PDF); Manoel Correa do Lago, Brazilian exporter and economist, pers. comm.

[2] Greenberg, R. and J. Salgado-Ortiz. 1994. Interspecific aggression by Yellow Warblers in a sun coffee plantation. Condor 98:640-642 and Greenberg, R., P. Bichier, A. Cruz-Angon, and R. Reitsma. 1996. Bird populations in shade and sun coffee plantations in central Guatemala. Conservation Biology 11: 448-459.

Dunkin cup photo by the Consumerist, under a Creative Commons License.

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Revised on July 8, 2014

Posted in Corporate coffee

Alec Nayler September 10, 2009 at 6:11 am

I enjoyed your blog. Thankyou

Debra September 10, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Do you know anything about the Cold Stone ice cream signs that have cropped up on Dunkin Donuts? Am wondering if DD bought Cold Stone, if the reverse is true, or is Cold Stone part of the DD family? Thanks!

Julie September 10, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Cold Stone has a partnership with Tim Hortons, not Dunkin' Donuts. Dunkin' Brands owns Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins and has some paired stores. If you have Tims and Dunkin' confused, I wouldn't blame you.

dude September 19, 2009 at 4:53 am

Thanks for sharing the information. I think we just have to wait for their response.

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