Sustainable coffee is produced on a farm with high biological diversity and low chemical inputs. It conserves resources, protects the environment, produces efficiently, competes commercially, and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
                                                      -- Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, First Sustainable Coffee Congress.

DCN-logoI have written a post at Daily Coffee News providing an overview and fresh update on the coffee sourcing standards of Starbucks, known as the CAFÉ Practices program. Check it out here.

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The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) is revising the standards used for Rainforest Alliance certification; this review process takes place every few years. Over the last decade, revisions have introduced a gradual relaxation of the criteria that deal with shade cover for agroforestry crops, including coffee. The amount, composition, and structure of shade cover is the main proxy for habitat preservation and the conservation of biodiversity, especially birds, in coffee production areas.

The current third and final draft of the standard is very different from previous versions; it is available for download on this page (or click here for a PDF). Once finalized, the new standard will be published in October 2015, and be used in audits beginning in January 2017.

This latest version contains no mandatory criteria for shade cover for shade-tolerant crops such as coffee.

The criterion that deals loosely with shade can be met by things other than shade trees, including gardens, off-site areas, water bodies, and tree cover in pastures. It is not a critical criterion that must be met for initial certification. The overall structure of the criterion means that “shade monoculture” or even “sun coffee” can receive Rainforest Alliance certification.

A history of previous versions of the shade criteria in the SAN standard can be read here. Briefly, the current standard (and therefore Rainforest Alliance certification) requires a canopy density (shade) on the cultivated land of at least 40% and two “layers” of vegetation; 12 of the tree species per hectare have to be native. (Older versions also required a density of at least 70 shade trees per hectare; this was dropped in 2009.)

Here is the current proposed criterion that deals with “shade” or forest cover, with explanations and clarifications given as footnotes.

Trees and natural ecosystems together cover at least 20% of the total land area1 for farms producing shade-tolerant crops or cattle, or at least 10% of the total land area for farms producing non-shade-tolerant crops.

a) Such areas consist of any combination of:

1) Conserved natural ecosystems;
2) Areas being restored to natural ecosystems;
3) Tree cover within agroforestry or silvopastoral production plots2;
4) Gardens, live fences, riparian zones or border plantings; or
5) Off-site compensation areas, including land held in common by farmer groups that is not part of individual member farms3.

b) The overall required percentage is based on the proportion of shade-tolerant or non-shade-tolerant crop or cattle area covered by the SAN certificate scope4;

c) If the required level of tree cover and/or natural ecosystems is not met at the time of the first certification audit based on this standard, a plan to attain the required level within three years of this date is established and progressively implemented5;

d) Restoration and re-vegetation activities use native species and give preference to restoring riparian areas and wildlife movement corridors.

The requirements for “shade” are not as strict or specific as they once were, and there is a great deal of leeway in meeting the reduced requirements. The combination of allowable types of green spaces can result in the required percentage to consist of small and fragmented plots that are not necessarily “natural.” These do not provide the same quality of habitat as a shade agroforestry system which requires canopy cover of adequate density, composition, and distribution.

A supporting document (PDF) states that the specific tree cover parameters of previous versions of the standard were replaced because they had proven “impracticable for many producers.” Rainforest Alliance certified its first coffee farm in 1995, and now certifies over 5% of global coffee production, in addition to dozens of other crops and products. This scaling up of certification efforts is admirable, but is coming at the cost of maintaining rigorous environmental standards. Instead of (perhaps) fewer producers achieving high standards, it appears the bar is being lowered to make it easier for more producers to become certified.

This is not an indictment of Rainforest Alliance certification as a whole or to say it does not confer benefits.  It  serves as a heads-up that what is behind certifications changes over time, and that Rainforest Alliance certification (despite the impression the name implies) does not mean coffee is shade-grown.

The comment period is open until April 30. Please comment on the new draft standards by taking this survey.


1As noted, previous standards had requirements specifically for the coffee growing production area, not the entire farm unit. Now, what qualifies as “shade” does not have to be over or near the coffee itself. See also note 4 below; the total percentage required may actually be less than 20%.

2Silvopasture = trees in livestock production pastures; these can be counted toward the total percentage.

3In response to a specific query, SAN clarified whether or not the same single “off-site compensation area” could be used by more than one producer. They responded “producer groups could have just one forest reserve, for example, that would count for the required percentage of several producers.”

4This provision seems in conflict with the straightforward wording of the criterion itself, that (for coffee) 20% of the total land area must be covered by trees or natural ecosystems. In response to a specific query, SAN replied that this provision “is the concept that will be adapted for the respective criterion wording.” This indicates that depending on how much of the farm is covered by coffee, the requirement may actually be less than 20% of the total land area.

5Requirement does not have to be met for initial 3-year certification period, only a plan is required. It is unclear if the requirement will need to be met in full beginning with the renewal audit.

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In 2013, Joh. A. Benckiser Group (JAB), a private German holding company, purchased Minnesota-based Caribou Coffee.  JAB had already acquired Peet’s Coffee & Tea, and went on to buy European coffee company D.E. Master Blenders 1753. JAB is now in the process of merging D.E Master Blenders with Kraft spinoff Mondelēz International, which would create the first or second largest coffee company in the world.

Just prior to being taken over by JAB, Caribou Coffee had become the first major coffee company to source 100% of its coffee from Rainforest Alliance certified farms. At the time of the changeover, I was concerned that JAB would begin sourcing less certified coffee, in part because they were closing many Caribou locations and/or converting them to Peet’s, which had little in the way of certified coffee of any type.

In 2012, Caribou had approximately 550 stores. Their website says that today they have fewer than 500 (although an exact number seems elusive). While we can go with a 9% reduction in stores, some were considered “under performing” and there’s no good way to determine if Caribou buys more or less coffee than it used to; around the time JAB acquired it, Caribou was buying over 9,000 metric tons of Rainforest Alliance certified coffee a year.

How they’re doing
I’m pleased to see that under JAB, Caribou is still publishing a “sustainability” report, which they refer to as their “Do Good” report. The report discloses that Caribou does not have a department dedicated to sustainability efforts. Instead, they rely heavily on employee volunteerism and community engagement. That seems like a lot of heavy lifting for employees. Since coffee sourcing is rolled into the Do Good strategy, one can’t help but wonder if or how sustainable coffee sourcing is baked into the company policy.

Initial sourcing goals, from their 2013 report (PDF), indicated that they wanted to source more Rainforest Alliance certified coffee from Kenya and Sumatra, and expand into East Africa and Papua New Guinea by encouraging and educating suppliers. I consider this a positive move, as East African coffees are often lacking in organic or Rainforest Alliance certifications (see my post on coffee growing in Kenya). Details in the report were scarce, but it appears they met this goal.

Their 2013 goals were more of the same — diversifying Kenyan and East African suppliers. However, the 2014 report doesn’t state any specific headway, and Caribou gave itself only 2 out of 3 “cups” (points), meaning they only met a portion of their goals.

The lack of detail is frustrating, but expected from a privately held company. Unfortunately, Caribou no longer discloses the amount of coffee they buy, but it is still all Rainforest Alliance certified. I’m glad to see that JAB hasn’t completely retreated from public disclosure and sustainability efforts. Their recycling, energy, and charitable accomplishments are very nice, but I think consumers would like to see much more specifically about their coffee.

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Destroying consumer trust and undermining the value of certifications

In return for financial support that represents a tiny fraction of profits, large corporations are receiving “endorsements” in the form of product badges promoting health benefits or sustainability efforts — despite the fact that many of these corporations have rotten sustainability records. This includes purveyors of corporate coffee, including Nestlé and JM Smuckers (Folgers).

It isn’t apparent from the badges or labels what they truly represent, nor in some cases is it even possible to figure out from viewing the websites of the organizations, corporations, or sponsors.

“Made by Sustainability Leaders” badges on Walmart products, backed by The Sustainability Consortium (TSC)

The Sustainability Consortium was originally established with funds from Walmart, and is “dedicated to improving the sustainability of consumer products” through “implementation of credible, transparent and scalable tools” that are “accessible for all producers, retailers, and users.” However, the only publicly-available documents are the “sustainability insights” for various products and sectors. These brief, very general overviews aren’t particularly insightful (e.g., for coffee, “clearing land for agriculture can lead to deforestation.”). The “toolkits” containing Key Performance Indicators, presumably the guidelines or criteria for sustainability assessment, are only available to members; annual memberships cost between $5000-$100,000. Thus, consumers do not know how corporations are evaluating sustainability. The FAQs, however, indicate that companies are using a self-administered survey and state that “TSC does not verify Key Performance Indicator responses.”

walmart-leaders-badgeNow Walmart is putting a “Made by Sustainability Leaders” badge on many products. While this gives the appearance that these are products are good for the environment, the badge really represents any product made by a company determined to be a sustainability leader based on the (self-administered, unverified) TSC survey. Not only do we not know the TSC criteria, the badge does not pertain to the actual sustainabilty of the individual product, and none of this is apparent to the consumer.

Are these corporations truly “sustainability leaders”? One probably needn’t go much further than noting paper products by Georgia Pacific are badged by Walmart. Georgia Pacific is a TSC member that is owned by the Koch brothers, and its products are boycott targets.  Other Walmart suppliers that are not TSC members (e.g., Nestlé) can also display the badge; Walmart uses the toolkits developed by TSC to rank its suppliers and hand out badges.

Other TSC members include JM Smuckers, Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Dupont, and BASF. Following Walmart’s lead, other retailers or the corporations themselves could label their own products with some similar sort of badge or claim. I can’t get behind a mystery badge that puts money in the pockets of companies that are often so egregiously anti-environment.

For more details, read this excellent article by The Grist about this greenwashing initiative.

“Kids Eat Right” badge on faux cheese, backed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) has allowed Kraft to put it’s “Kids Eat Right” badge on their pasteurized prepared cheese product.  This seems dubious on the face of it, and more so when you learn Kraft is a major sponsor of AND. The New York Times has a report on this initiative, noting that other nutrition scientists are so uncomfortable with the Academy’s funding by big food corporate sponsorships that they have formed their own group, Dietitians for Professional Integrity, that calls for better transparency and ethical sponsorship. There are more resources on their website regarding the conflict of interest generated by corporate sponsorships.

What this has to do with coffee

The proliferation of different types of certifications, labels, endorsements, badges, etc. is confusing to a public that is already suspicious about them. We can debate the legitimacy and ethics of TSC, AND, and similar organizations all day, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the basis for the badges, endorsements, and labels must be honest, transparent, and easily accessible and understood by the public.

Same goes for genuine certifications. People need to be able to understand what (and who) is behind the certification. When they do not, it leaves consumers to be duped into purchasing products that are not sustainably produced, or so distrustful of certifications or other claims that they disregard them all and just buy what is cheap and convenient. Either way, it’s a win for the profits of these companies (which in turn increases their power and influence) and a loss for the environment.

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Revised on March 24, 2015

Posted in Certifications,Corporate coffee

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