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. You can see how much coffee they (and other major companies) purchase and how much is eco-certified in this data table, which is kept updated.
Starbucks also has its own green coffee sourcing standard, known as CAFÉ (Coffee and Farm Equity) Practices. It was developed in partnership with the non-profit environmental group Conservation International and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), an independent evaluation and verification company. The CAFÉ Practices program covers 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 are needed for preferred supplier status, and 80% for strategic supplier status. These suppliers get enhanced pricing and contract terms.
A point is awarded for compliance with individual “indicators.” In the current version, 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. 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). Many of the individual indicators are actually multiple variations on the same criteria; only one of them can be counted for a point. 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.
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 mandatory: 1) native trees are only removed if they are a hazard to people or “significantly” compete with coffee plants, 2) hunting or commercial 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, 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.