Starbucks CAFÉ Practices

by on September 22, 2010

I have provided information on the five major certifications applied to coffee: organic, Fair Trade, Smithsonian Bird-Friendly, Rainforest Alliance, and Utz Certified.

Starbucks does sell certified organic and Fair Trade coffees. In 2009, Starbucks purchased a total of 367 million pounds of green coffee. Nearly 11% was Fair Trade certified (making Starbucks the largest single purchaser of Fair Trade coffee in the world) and 4% was certified organic.

Starbucks also has its own green coffee sourcing standards, known as the CAFÉ (Coffee and Farm Equity) Practices program. The standards were developed in partnership with Conservation International and an independent third-party company, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS). The standards encompass four categories. Two, product quality and economic accountability, are criteria that are required by all Starbucks suppliers. The other two categories are social responsibility and environmental leadership. I’ll focus on the environmental criteria.

How it works

Like some other certifications, CAFÉ Practices operates on a point system. The social responsibility and environmental leadership categories are divided into sections. A least 60% of possible points in each section are needed for preferred supplier status, and 80% for strategic supplier status. These suppliers get enhanced pricing and contract terms, and strategic suppliers also get a $0.05/lb premium on the first year’s crop.

A point is awarded for compliance with individual “indicators.” There are 210 total indicators for large suppliers (greater than 12 ha) and 124 for smallholders, including those who are part of a cooperative.

For example, in the section “Coffee Growing — Environmental Leadership” 40 points are possible, so preferred suppliers must have 24 points, and strategic suppliers must have 32 points. There are 108 indicators in this section for larger suppliers (9 are required leaving 99 indicators from which to garner the remaining points), and 45 for smallholders (6 are required, leaving 39 to work from).

Two things stand out. One is that it shouldn’t be too taxing for large suppliers to get 15 points out of a possible 99 to qualify for preferred status. That’s partially true, but many of the individual indicators are actually two or three variations on the same criteria, so that only one of the three is possible. For instance, the indicators dealing with organic mulch award a point for either 25% of the production area being covered by organic matter, 50%, or 100% — three indicators but only one point possible. These types of indicators reduce the total number of indicators around 20%.

The second thing is that smallholders have fewer indicators from which to garner the same number of points. This is apparently true, but smallholders have fewer required indicators, and the ones they have to work from are the ones that seem easier to obtain.

What kinds of environmental criteria are included?

The “Coffee Growing — Environmental Leadership” section covers water body protection, including criteria for width and type of vegetated buffer zones along permanent and seasonal water bodies, and use of chemicals or waste storage near water bodies; protection of soil resources, including measures to control and prevent erosion and use of organic mulches and cover crops; conserving biodiversity, including maintaining a shade canopy, protecting wildlife, and establishment of conservation areas; and environmental management, including pest and disease control.

There is an additional section that deals with environmental issues having to do with coffee processing, specific to either wet processing or dry processing, which includes indicators on water conservation, waste management, and energy use.

A closer look at Conserving Biodiversity

This particular subsection has 8 possible points which may be garnered from 31 indicators for large suppliers or 11 for smallholders. Three indicators are required for either: 1) native trees are only removed if they are a hazard to people or “significantly” compete with coffee plants, 2) hunting or commericial collecting of flora or fauna is prohibited, and 3) no conversion of natural forest to agricultural production.

Indicators specific to maintaining shade cover include percent cover of the entire farm (not just production areas), canopy tree diversity and native species benchmarks, and preservation of epiphytes and vines.

How does this stack up?

The Starbucks CAFÉ Practices environmental criteria address many more relevant ecological issues than either Fair Trade certification standards or UTZ Certified Good Inside standards. Although there is some lack of specificity (e.g., what constitutes native trees being in “significant” competition with coffee plants?), they are far less generic and more comprehensive than Fair Trade or UTZ standards. While the large number of indicators from which to garner points seems to make it easy for suppliers to attain favored status, I think that their division into sections and subsections covering a wide range of ecological issues is more valuable and should result in more eco-friendly farms than fewer, weaker, or more vague “requirements.”

To compare Starbucks CAFÉ Practices environmental criteria with those of Rainforest Alliance would probably take sitting down and mock-scoring some imaginary farms. I suspect that a farm meeting Rainforest Alliance’s minimum environmental standards would turn out to be using more sustainable growing methods than the typical Starbucks preferred supplier — although a lack of standardization among the standards might make that assessment difficult (Rainforest Alliance uses 99 criteria in 10 principals, with percentage thresholds for certification). It also wouldn’t surprise me that a Starbucks strategic supplier that scored highly in the Environmental Leadership sections could beat out a Rainforest Alliance-certified farm.

Because the Smithsonian Bird-Friendly biodiversity criteria are so well-developed and targeted, and since their certification also requires organic certification, their environmental standards are the strongest.

Overall, I’m generally impressed with the scope and level of detail of Starbucks CAFÉ Practices environmental standards, and find them superior to those of some highly-regarded certifications.

Criticisms and more resources

There have been accusations that the reality on the ground with some Starbucks suppliers is inconsistent with CAFÉ Practices standards. In some cases at least, that is true, but it is also true with other certifications; Starbucks tends to receive a lot of scrutiny. Third party verification systems are subject to the same corruption and deceit whether they are certifying organic products or Starbucks coffee. There are plenty of places where compliance can break down, and that’s the topic of a separate investigation.

To examine all of the Starbucks CAFÉ Practices criteria yourself, download the standards documents which are available online at the SCS web site.

You can also download a PDF of Starbucks 2009 report on their Shared Planet goals and progress, which includes information on ethical sourcing, community involvement, and environmental stewardship.

Starbucks coffee cup by Rudolf Schuba under a Creative Commons license.

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Revised on February 8, 2013

Posted in Certifications,Retail and specialty roasters,Starbucks

Julie September 23, 2010 at 11:16 am

KEB — you know that means a lot to me coming from you. Thanks!

Kim Elena Bullock September 23, 2010 at 9:07 am

Julie, I have immense admiration for the zeal with which you undertake work that most coffee buyers, even from the most-respected companies, have never done! Likewise, your perspective on biological and environmental sustainability is invaluable to people like me who see a lot of coffee farms but have no background in assessing healthy ecosystems.
I tend to agree with you that because Starbucks "tends to receive a lot of scrutiny", C.A.F.E. Practices gets less credit from consumers than it probably deserves (it's also kind of confusing, with the 60% an 80% thresholds). I'm not saying it's perfect (it's a certification, after all!) but we purchase coffee from a number of co-operatives and independent growers which have obtained C.A.F.E. Practices certification and I always consider it to be a positive indicator. Usually, certified farms are more organized and keep better records than comparable, non-certified farms.
Thanks for your thoughtful analysis and comparison!

San December 19, 2010 at 12:56 am

This blog post has been immensely helpful in clarifying the reality of CAFE standards for me. I’m a bird lover, coffee drinker, and huge food politics nerd working on a project examining the economics of CAFE and FT coffee, with applications for eco-certified coffees and other similarly certified products. Just wanted to say thanks for doing the hard work – translating certifications into plain language – for me! :-)

JACraves December 19, 2010 at 7:15 pm

San, you made my day. I’m glad I could help; let me know if I can point you to any other resources.

Adriana February 23, 2011 at 10:41 am

There is something that is not really clear for me: which organization is verifying C.A.F.E. Standard?

JACraves February 23, 2011 at 11:46 am

The CAFE Practices standards are verified by the same types of certifying bodies as organic certification (often, the same organizations). A list of approved certifying agencies can be found on the Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) web site.

Adriana February 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Is Scientific Certification System a credible verification although it is payed by the company that certifies? How does people perceived SCS?

JACraves February 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm

SCS isn’t a “verification,” it is the company that helped Starbucks — as well as many other companies in many industries — develop their standards. It is a well-known and respected company. They also provide the certifying organizations with the guidelines to be able to understand the CAFE Practices standards so that they can be approved to verify them. SCS does not do the verifications themselves. They are done by approved certifying organizations located all over the world; local organizations are used to reduce costs to the producers. It’s the same way that organic certification works.

Daya Achaya October 6, 2012 at 8:43 am

Dear Sir ,
I am Senior Manager Sustainable Management Services for Ecom Gill Coffee Trading Pvt Ltd in India. We have certified farms for Rain Forest Alliance , 4C , UTZ & right now we are in the process of certifying for Nespresso ‘AAA’ programe. Can you let me know how to go about certifying our farms for Cafe Practices as we are getting a lot of enquiry for Cafe practice coffee.
Regards ,
Daya Achaya

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