In 2011, I profiled JM Smucker’s (lack of) approach to coffee sustainability issues. Since the company acquired Folger’s and some other brands, coffee has become the company’s biggest profit-maker. For two years, major investors pressed the company to develop and report on a coffee sustainability plan.
Last year, Smucker’s began to outline small steps toward a green coffee sustainability vision. In their 2012 Corporate Sustainability Report, they offered,
- A goal for certified coffee purchases to reach 10% of its total retail purchases by 2016. This would be primarily UTZ Certified coffees, which don’t have strong ecological criteria (it’s the most popular certification for the big commodity coffee buyers), but will greatly improve transparency.
- Partnerships with organizations that offer smallholder support: TechnoServe, the Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung Foundation, and World Coffee Research.
There are no further data on what progress they are making on reaching their 10% goal, e.g., how much certified coffee they are currently buying.
Regarding their partnerships, there is also no new information. The report does go into some detail discussing the goals and achievements of the organizations they support. While the company makes no claims about their specific role in these good deeds, I find this overall approach misleading.
Let’s put it this way: I do some volunteer work and make an annual donation to a local environmental non-profit. While my contribution may be valuable to the whole, I would be called a fraud if I tried to pad my résumé with this organization’s accomplishments.
Two new items are largely symbolic, in my opinion. First is their $50,000 a year membership in The Sustainability Consortium, originally established with funds from WalMart. Many very large corporations are now touting their association with TSC, who states that their mission is “to design and implement credible, transparent and scalable science-based measurement and reporting systems accessible for all producers, retailers, and users of consumer products.” Indeed, transparency is mentioned a lot on their website. For instance, they state that consumers desire “…product transparency” and are confused about “…what constitutes a sustainable product” — and that these were major motivations behind the formation of the organization. Alas, when I try to access the Key Performance Indicators and Category Sustainability Profile for coffee, I find it requires member login. I confirmed with TSC that these data are not available to the public. TSC could very well be doing fantastic work but although their website is extensive, I could not find or access any specific material to help me as a consumer determine whether member coffee companies are taking meaningful steps to improve their supply chain sustainability.
(For more background on TSC, see a couple of Joel Makower’s great pieces at GreenBiz, Inside Walmart’s Sustainability Consortium, and Driving the Sustainability Consortium’s ambitious agenda.)
Finally, Smucker’s is producing “Life is Good” branded coffee, which is is UTZ Certified. You may know Life is Good for their t-shirts and stickers, etc., whose raison d’être is to spread the power of optimism, with 10% of its net profits going to their own foundation for children. At $6.99 to $7.99 per 11-ounce bag, the coffee won’t fill the foundation’s coffers (or those of the farmers it was sourced from). While promoted as a premium coffee, it’s safe to be suspicious of the quality of a brand that sells banana bread-flavored and s’more flavored varieties.
I also believe in the power of optimism, but I am not optimistic that JM Smucker will ever be a significant purchaser/purveyor of truly ecologically-sustainable coffee.
Coffee can photo by Travis S. under a Creative Commons license.