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.

(Update: Read comment section for dialog with Rainforest Alliance, and add your thoughts.)

Periodically, the standards criteria of coffee (and other) certifications undergo an overhaul, as they should. The criteria used for Rainforest Alliance certification (the Sustainable Agriculture Network standards) are now being worked on.

Coffee is a major and perhaps the best known RA-certified crop, and one of nine “agroforestry crops” certified by RA (those that can be grown with a shade tree canopy). However, RA now certifies over 100 crops. This is likely a major reason why the SAN Standard has been modified over time to be more simple and generic — completely understandable.

The proposed Standard, which will replace the current 2010 Standard, continues the trend in this direction. You can view and comment on the criteria for the new Standard online here; the current round of public comments ends March 11. You can download the 2010 Standard here (PDF) for comparison. This is the main component (or generic standard), but actually the overall standards and development process is fairly complex. You can read more on the SAN web site.

I am going to try to focus here on the “shade criteria” which is very important for coffee, especially as it relates to birds. This is the criteria many people have in mind when they are looking for “shade coffee” that is eco-friendly and provides habitat for birds and other biodiversity.

In 2005, the SAN standard did have critical criteria that required a conservation program that included establishment and maintenance of shade trees for traditional agroforestry crops. There was no specific canopy, tree, or shade requirements. Those were included in a separate coffee standard. Here is the original 2005 shade standard included in this separate document; it is criteria #2.8:

2.8 Farms located in areas where the original natural vegetative cover is forest must establish and maintain, as part of the conservation program, permanent shade distributed homogenously throughout the plantations; the shade must meet the following requirements:

a.  A minimum of 70 individual trees per hectare that must include at least 12 native species per hectare.

b.  A shade density of at least 40% at all times.

c.  The tree crowns must comprise at least two strata or stories.

A farm without shade can be certified once it has a shade establishment or expansion plan and shade established in at least 25% of the production area. Shade must be established in the remaining 75% of the production area within five years. Farms in areas where the original natural vegetation is not forest must dedicate at least 30% of the farm area for conservation or recovery of the area’s typical ecosystems. These farms can be certified once they have a plan to establishment or recover natural vegetation within ten years. Vegetation must be re-established or recovered in an equivalent of 10% of the total farm area (one-third of the 30%) during the first three years of the plan.

The separate coffee standard seems to have disappeared by the time the 2008 generic standard was issued. The new 2008 generic standard included the #2.8 shade criteria. The introductory wording slightly changed to “Farms with Agroforestry Crops located in areas where the original natural vegetative cover…” but that was minor.

In the 2009 standard, the language relevant to shade was watered down. The three bullet points changed to:

a.  The tree community on the cultivated land consists of minimum 12 native species per hectare on average.
b.  The tree canopy comprises at least two strata or stories.
c.  The overall canopy density on the cultivated land is at least 40%.

Importantly, the requirement for a minimum of 70 individual trees per hectare was deleted. 

This language was kept in the (latest) 2010 standards.

While not as strong as the original 2005 coffee standard, criteria #2.8 at least sets out some sort of shade and tree diversity requirements. Some of this language change probably occurred to accommodate all nine agroforestry crops. Meanwhile (I said this was complex!) in order to have more specific coffee requirements, SAN had individual countries put together “interpretation guidelines” that are used for specific crops. I think this is actually a great approach — coffee growing conditions are different in many regions (perhaps not in every country) and a customized standard might be good from a conservation viewpoint as well as a practical matter for farmers. However, there are only nine countries that have them for coffee. In Latin America, they are Brazil, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, and Honduras. None are in English, but translations reveal they vary widely in their guidance, and they are not binding for certification. Further, countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and West Indian producers, do not have such guidelines. Do they just default to the generic standards? If so, we must again be concerned with the changes that have taken place with “shade” criteria #2.8.

And alas, criteria #2.8 is no longer included in the proposed standard in its present form. It has been replaced by two new criteria:

2.4  A five-year plan shall be documented and implemented to conserve or restore a tree cover of:
a.  At least 20% of the total farm area for farms where the majority of the production plots are occupied by shade-tolerant crops.
b.  At least 10% of the total farm area for farms where the majority of the production plots are occupied by non-shade-tolerant crops.

Such areas may consist of any combination of:

•  Area set-aside for conservation of existing natural ecosystems or areas under restoration, including movement and dispersal corridors for animal and plant species;
•  Tree-covered agroforestry or silvopastoral production plots, gardens, live fences, or border plantings with native plant species; or
•  Off-site compensation areas located outside of the farm.

2.5. The shade density of shade tolerant crop production plots shall be managed to reach optimal levels depending on local production systems, climate, altitude, soil characteristics, and slope levels. The tree canopy of these production plots shall be composed of 12 different native shade tree species.

Obvious shortcomings jump out:
  • Requirement has gone from 40% canopy density to 20% tree cover, reduction of shade to a level that is far less beneficial to birds and other taxa. While 2.5 indicates shade density should be managed to optimal levels, it defers to local guidance, presumably given in the interpretation documents mentioned above, which are lacking for many countries, vary widely, and are not binding for certification.
  • “Tree cover” is not the same as “canopy density” or “overall canopy density.” Conceivably, a farm could have a limited number of scattered trees and come up with 20% tree cover. Ecologically speaking, these terms are very different.
  • The requirement is to conserve or restore a tree cover of at least 20%. What if there is already 60% cover, for example? Does this give the farm room to REDUCE tree cover (perhaps in the name of higher yield)?
  • There are no strata requirements. These strata are the various “layers” of trees, seen in the shade diagram here. This type of structure is critical to biodiversity in ecosystems; the more the better.
  • “12 different native tree species” is not the same as “minimum 12 native tree species per hectare on average.”

That’s just a start — many of the other criteria being proposed trouble me greatly. But already you can see that there are real problems here just pertaining to the shade criteria applicable to coffee.

The criteria for shade for agroforestry crops has been weakened.

There are no over-arching coffee-specific shade standards.

Only a few coffee producing countries even have non-binding coffee growing guidance documents. These are quite variable, and they are not easily accessible by English-speaking consumers.

And perhaps most of all:

This is all very confusing to coffee consumers!

This generic, diluted, convoluted, piecemeal approach has the potential to make the Rainforest Alliance seal useless for consumers looking for “shade coffee” that is eco-friendly to birds and other diversity. It will be truly difficult for me to recommend Rainforest Alliance certified coffee under these circumstances — am I supposed to tell people to check the country of origin then look up, translate, and evaluate the coffee guidelines for that country (if they exist) and see if they exceed the insufficient generic standard?

There are some good additions to the proposed standard. Overall, I applaud the work of Rainforest Alliance and their efforts to bring so many producers of so many products under sustainability guidelines, as well as their excellent public education campaigns. But these changes are truly disappointing to me.

On the bright side, this is not yet a done deal. I will be making many comments online, and you should, too, if only on some of the criteria. Or you can write to SAN at The deadline is only a few days away, but I am hopeful further comments will be accepted. I’ve always found RA to be responsive to my inquiries and concerns, so even after the deadline I think it’s worthwhile to give them your thoughts at

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Revised on March 18, 2014

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance


Last summer, I taped an episode of The Green Room, a local program of the City of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Community Television Network (CTN) and the Washtenaw County Environmental Health Division. It recently aired, and you can view the streaming video below, or go to the episode page here.  I’m interviewed on the show on the issues surrounding bird conservation and your choice of morning coffee.

Green Room viewers new to Coffee & Conservation may be interested in my article in the February 2013 issue of BirdWatching Magazine (formerly Birder’s World), The True Cost of Coffee.  If you are new to the whole eco-friendly coffee issue, here is a list of resources I compiled in response to the BirdWatching Magazine article:

How is coffee grown, and why is it important to birds and other biodiversity?

What do all the certifications mean?

Why should I pay more for certified or environmentally-friendly coffee?

Where can I get environmentally-friendly coffee?


Feel free to leave a comment or question and I can either direct you to a post or posts that has covered the topic, or tackle it in the future!


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Revised on July 8, 2014

Posted in Background information

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You may have seen companies promoting the fact that they are “B Corps,” including many coffee companies. What are they? Which coffee companies are B Corps? Should we care?

Benefit corporations — the legal kind

First, there are “benefit corporations” or “B corps” for short, which are legal corporate forms recognized in 20 states plus the District of Columbia as of this writing.  Benefit corporations are for-profit companies which have chosen a governance that also requires them to consider the social and environmental benefits of their corporate actions. These companies have transparency requirements including publishing a public annual report on their benefit efforts.

certified-b-corpB Corps — the certified kind

Whether a legal benefit corporation or not, a company can go through a qualification process to become a certified B Corp, verified by the non-profit B Lab. The organization certifies companies once they have met standards of social and environmental performance and have changed their bylaws to take into account the impact of their decisions on the environment, community and employees. The non-profit also supports the enactment of legal benefit corporations, and created GIIRS – Global Impact Investing Rating System — a rating and analytic tool to measure social impact of companies, much like financial metric ratings such as Morningstar.

The process involves a self-assessment by the applicant company. The assessments are developed and updated by an independent advisory council. This is followed by a phone review by B Lab staff to clarify points, and if the company scores 80 out of 200 points on the assessment, a request for documentation of key points. Companies then are required to amend their governing documents to reflect their commitment to social and environmental impacts. Finally, they sign a declaration and pay. Certification costs $500 to $25,000 a year depending on a company’s annual sales. Certification is good for two years.

How rigorous?

I’m generally uncomfortable with corporate self-assessments, although they are a starting point for a strong review. However in this case, the initial scoring review and any on-site review (only 10% of companies are chosen at random per year for the latter) are not done by an accredited third-party auditor.  I’m also a bit leery of a certification where 40% is a passing grade, but it depends on what is actually being scored.

I was most interested in the environmental assessment and scoring.  The assessment questionnaires are not posted online, as there are 40 different versions tailored to company size, sector, etc. I think this is positive, because a one-size-fits-all approach is less likely to be meaningful. The B Lab staff let me go through and review a self-assessment such as might be used by a medium-sized coffee roasting company. For the most part, the environmentally-oriented questions dealt with the physical plant and overall company operations. For instance, there were questions on:

  • LEED certification or other green building initiatives
  • Recycling at the company, as well as use of recycled and other green supplies and materials
  • Monitoring environmental impacts of company operations (water use, solid waste, greenhouse gases), and reduction of the company’s carbon footprint by commuting practices (allowing use of telecommuting, encourage carpooling, public transportation, etc.)
  • Overal energy use and conservation, including monitoring, the use of renewable energy sources, and so on.

Product-oriented questions were aimed at recycled packaging, energy use, and waste generation/reduction in production; the use of Life Cycle Assessments, and things that seemed a bit on the periphery of what we as consumers might be interested in as far as coffee as a product.

When I ponder a coffee roaster’s sustainability efforts, I admit I generally think about their sourcing and whether they purchase coffee that is sustainably grown. Of course, the company’s own efforts at being environmentally responsible are important, too, and a high score in this category gives an indication of how deep the commitment goes. Perhaps many of the questions (at least in the version I poked through) are not entirely appropriate to many small specialty coffee roasters and retailers.  The B Lab folks completely get that, and request comments on content, wording, scope, or focus through a feedback link on each question.  Thus, the assessments can continue to evolve and become more customized to different businesses.

The final positive aspect to the assessment process was that it contains benchmarking, best practices, and tools and resources to improve scores.

If a company completes an honest assessment and then provides feedback and fully utilizes the resources available through this process, I think it says something meaningful and is a worthwhile designation. I’m not totally convinced there is a way for a consumer to really evaluate a company’s efforts just by looking at their scores, and especially if they just see the B Corp badge on a website. But I like the concept, intent, and spirit of the B Corp movement. Since it is a work in progress and still evolving, I think it has some real potential to help consumers assess the companies they do business with.

There are currently nearly 900 certified B Corps. Here are the coffee roasters and importers with their overall and environmental scores.

And here is the 2013 list of the companies of all types in the top 10% for environmental impact, divided by company size.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Background information,Retail and specialty roasters


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