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.

keurig-logoKeurig Green Mountain (KGM) has released its 2013 sustainability report. This is the company formerly known as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. The CEO notes that the name change “better reflects who we are as a Company…” In other words — they are now focused on single-cup brewers and coffee. It’s hard to imagine how a company whose primary products dominate one of the most spectacularly wasteful trends in consumer products in decades can make many sustainability claims. Unfortunately, the way KGM did it, in part, was by making statements that qualify as greenwashing.

First, let’s get one fact straight: K-Cups are not recyclable. KGM baldly states this right on “Reducing Product Waste” page of their sustainability report. People still argue with me about this but hey, just because you throw the thing (or some of its parts) in the recycle bin, does not mean it gets recycled.

Keurig Green Mountain noted they recovered 4.7 million K-Cups in 2013…without disclosing that is only 0.05% of the total number of K-Cups that they produced that year.

KGM states that they have a target date of 2020 to make 100% of K-Cups recyclable. They have been talking about this since shortly after they took over Keurig in 2006. I asked them about it in 2007 and they replied they were working on finding renewable materials for the K-Cups.

If not recycling, then…

The report explains, “While we continue to work toward a 100% recyclable K-Cup pack, we also offer programs for responsible disposal of the K-Cup packs that are currently on the market.” KGM went on to describe their Grounds to Grow On program where workplace customers can return K-Cups for composting and energy-to-waste processing; I wrote about in detail here.

KGM goes on to tout that in 2013, the program recovered an estimated 4.7 million used K-Cup packs. That number may seem impressive, but in 2013 KGM produced 8.3 billion K-Cups.  Providing a large figure of the number of K-Cups diverted from landfills in a sustainability report without noting that it only represents 0.05% of the K-Cups produced in a year is not only misleading, but actually represents a huge failure of sustainability.

Comparing apples and oranges

The Assessing Product Impact page explains KGM’s Life Cycle Assessments on their K-Cup packs, and incorpates obfuscation as a means of greenwashing.

My emphasis added to this statement: “On average, when compared with competitive batch brewers, customers waste less brewed coffee when they use a single serve Keurig brewer than when they brew a full pot of coffee”.

  • For home use, they compared one of their at-home single serve brewers (no model specified) to a cheap ($21), 12-cup Mr. Coffee with no small-batch setting; they didn’t specify their own or the other competitor’s commercial models.
  • Obviously, it is wasteful for me to buy an extra large, 12 slice pizza if I only want a slice or two. KGM knows that waste is not an issue if a consumer simply makes one or two cups of coffee using a pour-over or other dead-easy method.  How much was wasted? They didn’t say. It is a FACT that using K-Cups is a WASTE of money. I gave an example that I would have to dump 11 gallons of coffee in a year before it became more cost effective to use K-Cups.

KGM contends the disposal of K-Cups is a small portion of the total environmental impact because “significant impacts occur in the cultivation of coffee beans, use of brewing systems, and the material used in the products’ packaging.”

  • Since the specific thing they are assessing is a brewing method and the packaging, it is misrepresentative to consider steps prior to that (cultivation, processing, transport to roasting facilities…things that are similar among most brewed coffee products) when evaluating the environmental impact of the K-Cup.
  • They listed four areas of environmental impact they did evaluate (admitting in a footnote that one is “not a true environmental impact category,” although they showed a graph for it).  None of them showed impacts of waste disposal, product-to-packaging ratio, or for that matter toxicity of their proprietary #7 plastic blend used in the K-Cups.

What about certified coffee sourcing?

KGM has increased the amount of certified coffee that it has been purchasing up to around 28% of its total purchases (longer history here). However, the amount of Rainforest Alliance coffee has been decreasing, from 9% in 2011 to 5% in 2013. In the past, KGM has indicated how much of their Fair Trade certified coffee was organic, but the last two years have been lumping it all together.  Fair Trade standards themselves have very few specific and measurable environmental criteria, and none related specifically to coffee, so knowing the amount of organic coffee purchased is important. I calculated a five-year average of 72% of the Fair Trade total, but it has ranged from 59% to 87%. I don’t see the figures presented by KGM as misleading or greenwashing, but I do wonder why they are now lumping all Fair Trade coffee and not showing how much is organic.

Another page shows that 70% of KGM’s coffee sales in 2013 were non-certified coffee, and you can read more about their certification goals here.

KGM is going the way of using their own supplier guidelines as an alternative or supplement to third-party certifications, with a goal of 100% of their primary agricultural products sourced under these guidelines by 2020. These guidelines are no substitute for strong (or even so-so) certification criteria. Take a look at the brief, generic environmental section (PDF) – no specific requirements, goals, or metrics (“All suppliers should protect and restore biodiversity” and “We encourage agricultural partners to protect and restore soil and water resources”). These are weak non-standards that offer little in the way of providing a framework for clear, meaningful, measurable criteria for environmental sustainability.

Pablo Escobar Conundrum

Writing about KGM’s use of greenwashing pains me. This is a company that has a long history of supporting and promoting social and environmental justice and sustainability in so many ways. They still do amazing work in coffee communities, including access to clean water, food security for coffee farmers, and the fight against coffee leaf rust. These are powerful and important initiatives, for which KGM deserves praise. And one can certainly argue that when KGM makes a pile of money on K-Cups and single-cup brewers, they have more money to invest at origin.

Do the positive things that KGM does offset the hundreds of thousands of pounds of non-biodegradable plastic K-Cups being dumped in landfills each year? I call this the Pablo Escobar Conundrum, after the notorious drug lord who built hospitals, schools, churches, and soccer fields, and frequently contributed to charity. I’m not equating KGM with Pablo Escobar, only the dilemma of entities that do both tremendous good as well as substantial harm. We all know two wrongs don’t make a right. I don’t know how to figure out how many “rights” it takes to cancel out a “wrong.”

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Revised on March 26, 2014

Posted in K-Cups/Keurig brewers: alternatives

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(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

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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

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