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.

nuthatch-mugAnnual recap of how much we spend on coffee in a year

Here we are on year five of standardized tracking of how much the two-person Coffee & Conservation household spends on coffee. We keep track of each bag we buy, including shipping, since we purchase the majority of our coffee online.

Of course, we never buy cheap, fast-food, commodity, or mystery coffee. If we don’t know where it comes from, we don’t drink it. Usually, most have eco-certifications, but since we have a lot of knowledge on how to research the source of each coffee and gauge sustainability, we have traditionally purchased other coffees that we know are sustainably-grown, but did not carry certification.

Most consumers won’t go through this process, so for 2013, we decided to buy only certified coffees: organic, Rainforest Alliance, Smithsonian Bird-Friendly, or some combination. I confess, a few bags were from farms we knew or discovered did have certification, but were not sold as such.

Of our 79 bags, around 15 were duplicates, sometimes the same farm from different roasters. Sixty-two bags of coffee were certified organic, and 28 were certified Rainforest Alliance; 11 had both certifications. Five were also Bird-Friendly certified (of which organic certification is required).

Despite buying exclusively eco-certified, specialty coffee this year, we paid the lowest price per cup in our five-year tracking history. Let us now put a fork in the myth, once and for all, that high-quality, sustainably-grown coffee “costs too much.”

Here are all the 2013 stats:

  • 79 bags of coffee totaling 65.5 pounds.
  • Total retail price for the coffee only = $1109. This year, we moved to a more coffee-friendly community, so we were able to buy more coffee locally and spend less on shipping, just $74. Our previous 5-year average for shipping was $127.  Our grand total was $1183 for the year.
  • Cost per six-ounce cup: only $0.44 ($0.41 without shipping), calculated using the common industry standard of 11 grams of coffee beans by weight per 6 fluid ounces of water.
  • The average price per pound including shipping this year was $18.08, or $16.95 excluding shipping.

Previous results

The five-year average is 63 pounds of coffee a year at an average of $20.04/lb, and $0.49 per 6-oz cup, including shipping.


We are not very typical consumers in two cost-inflating ways: 1) We buy most of our coffee online and do not buy more than we can drink in under two weeks, incurring high shipping costs; and 2) we buy from an average of over 20 different roasters each year, in order to try a variety of coffees, nearly always single origin farms and frequently higher priced microlots. Had we only repeatedly purchased our favorite locally-available coffees, our estimated cost for the year would have been around $900 total, and $0.34 a cup.

Great coffee that helps support ecosystems and rural communities worldwide is not too expensive for all of us to enjoy. You can calculate how much a cup of coffee costs, based on the price of a bag of beans, using the spreadsheet below (it’s a little tempremental, click on the cells a little to get it to work).

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Revised on January 2, 2014

Posted in Certifications,Coffee news and miscellany


rusty-folgersIn 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.

You can read my whole recap and analysis of the 2012 report here. As for the current 2013 Corporate Sustainability Report (PDF), it’s pretty much a rehash of the points above.

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.

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Posted in Corporate coffee

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ResearchBlogging.orgForest bolsters bird abundance, pest control, and coffee yield. Karp, et. al., 2013. Ecology Letters.

I’ve summarized several papers from Matt Johnson and his students at Humboldt State University (CA) who study how birds provide pest control on coffee farms in Jamaica by preying on coffee berry borers. Here’s a new paper on the same theme, with the research being done in Costa Rica.


From top: Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Rufous-breasted Wren, White-tailed Emerald, Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow Warbler. Credits below.

These researchers looked at coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei, CBB) predation by both bats and birds; since bats were not found to be significant predators on CBB in this study I won’t go into those findings. The farms examined were “sun coffee” with less than 25% canopy cover, as shade coffee is not common in Costa Rica. To determine what birds were eating CBBs, the authors used DNA analysis of bird droppings.  This is a great way to determine if birds are feeding on the CBB, since the insects are extremely tiny they would be difficult to detect in droppings visually. Still, the bird would have had to have recently fed on CBBs, and the DNA would need to have passed through the digestive system without too much degradation to be detected by this method.

When birds were excluded from the coffee shrubs, the number of shrubs infested with CBB almost doubled, and the CBB drilled deeper into the coffee cherries. Birds were more common in farms that had some embedded or nearby forest cover…and the more forest cover the less severe the borer infestations on control plots. Perhaps surprisingly, very small (less than a hectare) forest patches weaving through the farms provided more of this pest-control benefit than having a large forest reserve nearby.

The authors also calculated the economic benefits the birds provided to farmers. For two farms that formed the core of their study, birds saved between 25 and 70 kg of coffee per hectare annually, for a cost savings of US$75-310 per hectare based on the prices being received. For the smaller farm the total economic benefit of birds preying on CBBs was between US$3500-$9400, and for the larger farm US$17,000-55,100. Since the CBB has only been present in Costa Rica since 2000 and in the vicinity of the study sites since 2005, cost savings provided by the birds may be even higher when CBBs are more-well established.

Bird species that were found to have preyed upon CBBs were:

  • Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner (Automolus ochrolaemus). A common and widespread resident bird in the tropics which feeds on insects in shady forest situations.
  • Rufous-breasted Wren (Pheugopedius rutilus). A common wren resident wren in parts of Central America that feeds on insects in thickets and forest edges.
  • Rufous-capped Warbler (Basileuterus rufifrons). A resident tropical warbler profiled here in our Know Your Coffee Birds series.
  • White-tailed Emerald (Elvira chionura). A resident tropical hummingbird known for inhabiting shaded coffee farms.
  • Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia). While there is a resident form of Yellow Warbler in Costa Rica, it inhabits coastal areas. The Yellow Warblers in this study were migrants that breed in North America.

It’s interesting to note that although CBB have not been in the area for very long, native and migratory birds are already using them as a food source.

These studies on the identification, ecology, and effectiveness of natural predators of CBB are critical, given the expected spread of this pest due to climate change and the fact that they are evolving resistance to the potent insecticides used to combat them.

See also:

 Photo of Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner by Jerry Oldenettel; Rufous-breasted Wren by Francesco Veronesi; White-tailed Emerald by Michael and Ellen Cox; all under a Creative Commons license. Rufous-capped Warbler and Yellow Warbler by Julie Craves, all rights reserved.

D.S. Karp, C.D. Mendenhall, R. Figueroa Sandi, N. Chaumont, P.R. Ehrlich, E.A. Hadly, & G.C. Daily (2013). Forest bolsters bird abundance, pest control and coffee yield Ecology Letters DOI: 10.1111/ele.12173

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Research on coffee growing


ra-sealRainforest Alliance recently announced the release of an important study outlining an overlooked benefit for farmers of achieving certification: the ability to get larger and more frequent small loans. The study, Farmer Bankability and Sustainable Finance: Farm-Level Metrics that Matter, focused on Rainforest Alliance certified coffee and cacao producers, but results are likely to apply to other types of certification.

The study found that loans provided to certified farmers averaged 25% more than those to non-certified producers; the average dollar amount was over $2200 greater. Certified producers were also able to obtain more frequent loans than non-certified producers (1.36 loans annually, versus 0.66).

There is a fairly common group of metrics that lenders require from farmers on loan applications, including information on cash flow, crop volume and production figures, etc. What we as coffee consumers tend to forget is that many coffee farmers have limited literacy and keep very minimal records. For instance, in this study fewer than half of non-certified producers kept revenue records, and not even a third kept expense records. For certified farmers, 90% or more maintained these data.

Certification organizations (in this case Rainforest Alliance and its partners) provide training and technical assistance to farmers to help them achieve certification, as well as to perform the monitoring necessary to continue to renew certification. These improved record-keeping skills are very transferable: with them, the farmer has the ability to not only successfully apply for credit, but show the lender their needs and outcomes. While producers belonging to cooperatives can often obtain this kind of assistance from their organizations, fewer than 10% of small producers (less than 10 hectares) belongs to such an organization. Even so, lenders indicated that these types of records kept at the farm level enhanced the credit-worthiness of cooperatives and improved their access to financing as well.

These types of short-term loans are critical for producers to purchase organic fertilizers, farm equipment, replacement seed and plant stock, and so forth.  Since coffee is a once-a-year crop that is so dependent on weather and market prices, coffee farmers can be particularly handicapped without access to credit. Finally, the more detailed records kept by farmers to maintain certification and obtain loans is really essential for them to improve their sustainable farming methods. Win-win for all!

The study compared Rainforest Alliance certified (63) and non-certified producers (57) in Colombia and Peru growing coffee (84) and cacao (26). Various lenders and finance organizations were also interviewed. The report has a lot of interesting information in it, including recommendations for standardization of records kept by producers and required by lenders. You can download the PDF here.


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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance