Assessments of Starbucks CAFE Practices

by JulieCraves on February 3, 2012

Starbucks, through its partner Conservation International, has been assessing the impacts of its CAFE Practices coffee sourcing program. This has included a close look at participating farms and their compliance with the CAFE Practices criteria and their impacts on coffee-growing best practices. The publicly available reports provide an unusually-transparent opportunity to understand a major coffee company’s efforts in ethically and environmentally responsible coffee sourcing.

Recap: What is CAFE Practices?

Starbucks CAFE (Coffee and Farm Equity) Practices is the company’s green coffee sourcing program, started in 2004. The standards were were developed in partnership with Conservation International and an independent third-party company, SCS Global Services (SCS). Points are awarded in four categories — product quality, economic accountability, social responsibility and environmental leadership — to producers that supply Starbucks coffee.  Certain criteria are mandatory for all suppliers. Reaching a certain point level confers preferred supplier status, a higher level is awarded strategic supplier status. These suppliers get enhanced pricing and contract terms.

Although CAFE Practices is a proprietary set of sourcing guidelines and not a certification per se, their criteria are available to the public, much like those of various coffee certifications.

Not only do the environmental criteria stack up favorably to some other actual coffee certifications, but Starbucks is on track to source all of its coffee under CAFE Practices by 2015; the 2010 amount was 84% of its coffee, or 103,000 tons.

Criteria met, now what?

Once certification/verification is awarded to a producer under any program, the data available to the public about the scheme is often along the lines of how many farms/hectares are certified, how much certified coffee is sold, and other general information. More in-depth results — most often on the economic benefits to farmers and communities — are typically restricted to academic studies that are often behind pay-walls and thus not readily available to the public.  We rarely have an idea of which particular criteria are being met by all/most/some farms, or if the certification is changing the way producers grow coffee.  No doubt this is largely due to the sheer logistics of making this information available. Tens of thousands of farms are inspected and evaluated throughout the year by dozens of approved contractors. Analyzing the audit reports, comparing them from year to year, making sense of the results…this task would be monumental and probably require a team of specialists, perhaps adding to the cost of certification. Starbucks is attempting to gather this material, and has been publishing reports on the results.

CAFE Practices assessment reports

Starbucks and Conservation International (CI) have been releasing reports assessing the CAFE Practices program to see how it is impacting best-practices at the producer level and how the program could be improved. The first report, “Assessment of the Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices Program for FY08 (PDF) is 143 pages and was released in March 2011. It covered 2008, the first year farm-level data could be sufficiently collected and analyzed. Two 30+ page reports focused on producers in Guatemala (PDF) and Colombia (PDF).

Research, analysis, and reporting were performed by CI and, in the case of the regional reports, local partners. The reports follow a format similar to what is found in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Methods included analyzing farm verification reports submitted by approved third-party auditors (the “scorecards”), and (for the latter two reports) surveying both participating and non-participating farmers. The reports summarized information on participating farms, how farms (and mills) complied with various key social and environmental criteria, and made recommendations on how CAFE Practices might be improved. Results were broken down in various ways, including farm size and geographic area.

I saw a clear progression in the refinement of methodology and results reporting as these reports were produced. I was very impressed with the level of detail and consideration that went into developing the methods. The introductory material, and identification and description of local Important Bird Areas and priority flora and fauna in the two regional reports was accurate and demonstrated a level of understanding of biodiversity beyond the general concepts often bandied about by certification schemes. The quality of the most recent (Colombia) report was better than a lot of consulting, academic, and scientific reports I’ve read over the years.

What has Starbucks accomplished through CAFE Practices?

The sheer volume and detail of data in these reports is too much to go into here. Each report handled analysis a little differently, so it is hard to make general statements on many of the results. Here, I’d like to pull out some noteworthy facts, with an emphasis on environmental data. Overall data is for FY 2008 (the subject of the first report). Survey data from Guatemala is from 2009, Colombia from 2011. Note that CAFE Practices has slightly different criteria for small (<12 ha) farms than for medium (12-49 ha) and large (>50 ha) farms.

  • There were 140,973 participating farms, of which 99% were under 12 ha in size. Half of all the coffee Starbucks purchased was from small farms.
  • Participating farms had 102,281 ha designated as conservation areas; 99% of farms had not cleared any forest areas for coffee production in the previous three years.
  • 57% of farms reported using pesticides only as a last resort. Countries with low compliance were Burundi, Panama, and Nicaragua. Countries with high compliance rates included Ethiopia and Peru.
  • 51% of farms did not use synthetic fertilizers; most were small farms — only 8% of large farms did not use synthetic fertilizers. Only 128 medium and large farms were certified organic (it was unclear if this data is collected for small farms).
  • 36% of farms used some shade throughout the production area, 56% used it on at least half.
  • 78% of medium and large farms used shade at 40% or greater canopy cover (this is a level of shade that gives good canopy cover for birds without impacting yield too much). Countries with high levels of compliance here included Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. This criteria was not used to assess small farms.
  • 63% of farms used native species for at least three-quarters of their shade cover.
  • In Colombia and Guatemala, more farmers in the CAFE Practices program participated in other certifications compared to farmers not participating.
  • In Colombia, more participants had natural habitat on their farms than non-participants. Size of natural areas was similar between groups.
  • In Colombia, use of agrochemicals was common and similar between participants and non-participants; only 53% used protective gear for application (similar between the two groups).
  • In Guatemala, participants were reducing their use of agrochemicals at higher rates than non-participants.

The assessment concluded that lower compliance in some areas meant that some criteria were not well understood, that farmers did not have the resources to improve their methods, and/or that the CAFE Practices criteria were insufficient to encourage or even evaluate some practices. Some recommendations included:

  • Additional technical assistance to help farmers understand and implement chemical and disease control, and wildlife management. In particular, areas that required high levels of specialized expertise (for instance, in identifying species living on the farm and developing management plans for them) needed support.
  • Additional indicators to assess the level of shade canopy cover on farms.
  • Making forest clearing and highest-toxicity chemical use zero tolerance criteria.
  • Improving the handling of agrochemicals in Colombia through training or changes in criteria.
  • Addressing water quality issues in Guatemala and Colombia, since many participants who reporting having problems were not taking steps to remedy them.

It was also determined that certain questions needed to be added or clarified when surveying farmers to better assess particular conditions and resources. Based on the evolution of the reports, I expect those in the future will be more standardized and clearer, and I hope there will be some sort of easily digestible summary one day.


The compliance numbers for most eco-criteria seemed fairly strong to me, especially given the very high numbers and variety of participating farms. In general, most Starbucks suppliers seem to grow coffee in a fairly responsible manner compared to nearby non-participants in the sampled countries. The reports indicate a trend toward improved farm management among participants, in part because of their participation.

Most coffee certification criteria don’t span quite the diversity or record the level of data that are covered in CAFE Practices, nor have I seen similar analyses performed for other sets of standards. Thus, we don’t have anything to compare to these results.  The fact that CI, a partner in development of the criteria, identified weaknesses and areas that needed improvement struck me as very positive. While this component obviously should be included in this kind of assessment, it’s not something the public sees very often. Of course, it’s an invitation to for us to see how Starbucks acts on the recommendations, and I know I will be keeping my eyes open.

Starbucks’ goal with CAFE Practices is to drive long-term sustainability of their coffee supply through improvements in environmental conditions and socio-economic status of producers. This is a business decision on the part of Starbucks. While good stewardship of the earth may be part of it, the company doesn’t pretend it launched this initiative out of altruism. While other big coffee companies trumpet their empty sustainability claims, Starbucks releases these reports with a minimum of flag-waving and, from what I’ve seen, no attempt at greenwashing.

I think what Starbucks is doing with CAFE Practices is enormously important. They’ve shown that sustainability can be a good business decision and that ethical sourcing need not be achieved at the expense of profits. Rather than taking what may have been an easy road of obtaining coffee certified under less stringent conditions, they have made a serious effort to develop measurable standards to meet their needs, and committed to sourcing all their coffee under these guidelines.  They implemented tools to examine their effectiveness and impact, and have been surprisingly transparent in presenting the results to the public. Whether you like their coffee or not, Starbucks deserves a great deal of credit for their approach to coffee sourcing.

Starbucks cups courtesy of Starbucks Coffee; coffee cherry photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT under a Creative Commons license.

Revised on January 8, 2022

Posted in Certifications,Starbucks

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