(Original post about this certification can be found here.)
I don’t consider UTZ Certified an “eco-certification.” The emphasis is on traceability and transparency in the supply chain, offering substantial support to farmers of several agricultural products on improving their production and business practices. The environmental criteria in their Code of Conduct are fairly generic and lack much in the way of meaningful, quantifiable ecological goals. Being the first step up the certification ladder (from the ground floor of 4C compliance), it is popular with large commodity coffee companies. To their credit, UTZ has made several revisions to their standards over the past decade, the last being in 2014.
The new revision did not strengthen their environmental criteria, and in fact did away with one that marginally dealt with shade coffee. Thus, UTZ will still not be included among the certifications I include as eco-certifications. But let’s take a look at what changed in the environmental criteria of the last revision.
Brief overview: How it works
UTZ has a general Code of Conduct (one for groups, one for individual producers) made up of criteria that they refer to as “Control Points” (CPs). Most are mandatory within a set time period of one to four years. Some (which ones are up to the producer) are “additional” or optional. By the end of the fourth year, certificate holders have to be in compliance with a certain number of mandatory and additional points.
General changes in the 2014 revision
The CPs were grouped in similar categories. They have now been reformulated into four “blocks” representing the four pillars of sustainable agriculture: Management (35 CPS, 0 additional allowed by year 4), Farming Practices (42 CPs, 3 are additional), Working Conditions (30 CPs, 1 is additional), and Environment (13 CPs, of which 3 are additional).
The environmental criteria, then, are still the least emphasized, with the fewest number of mandatory CPs, around 9% of the total number. With the revision, there are now also several crop-specific additional sets of CPs, including one for coffee. The Coffee Module has four CPs in the Environment block, but none have to do with habitat; they deal with water consumption, treatment, recycling, and monitoring.
Many of the CPs seem to have been simplified and consolidated, or moved from one category to another. This kind of streamlining has been going on with other certification standards and is okay so long as it doesn’t water down the criteria. However, when standards undergo a substantial overhaul it can be hard to make direct comparisons between versions.
Environmental criteria 2010 versus 2014
In the 2010 Code, under the Natural Resources and Biodiversity category, there were 19 CPs, of which 15 were mandatory by the fourth year, and 4 were additional.
In the 2014 Code, under the Environment block there are 13 CPs, of which 10 are mandatory by the fourth year, and 3 are additional.
So a reduction in the number of criteria for the environment, although again, some due to reshuffling. The CPs having to do with buffer zones along water bodies, protection of endangered species, and deforestation appear to be stronger or more specific to me, which is positive. There is now a CP dealing with climate change, and the Coffee Module contains a mandatory CP prohibiting any coffee produced by animals in captivity — e.g., kopi luwak — welcome additions.
Less encouragement for shade
The biggest disappointment was the elimination of the one CP that mentioned use of shade trees in coffee production. In previous versions, there was a mandatory CP that read: The producer uses shade trees whenever this is compatible with the local coffee production practices and takes into consideration the productivity.
That CP is now gone. Instead, “shaded agroforestry systems” are among several options that can fulfill an additional (and thus optional) CP on protecting ecological biodiversity by “enhancing habitats and ecosystems”. Other options that can also be used to fulfill this CP (arguably easier and cheaper than planting shade trees) include planting flowers and preserving hedges.
Since by the end of year four certificate holders only need to have one additional point out of seven or so available, chances are that “shade coffee” is part of a producer’s UTZ certification are slim indeed.
The new Code of Conduct, Coffee Module, and other documents can be downloaded here. I think you’ll agree that it doesn’t quality as an eco-certification. UTZ recognizes that there are pros and cons of the existence of multiple sustainability initiatives, and that each has its strengths and weaknesses. While I can’t endorse it as a label to look for if ecological issues are important to you, I do believe UTZ encourage farmers to move towards more sustainable farming practices, and is especially worthwhile if producers use it as a stepping stone to more robust programs that really promote ecological sustainability.