Walmart’s deceptive coffee claim

by JulieCraves on July 30, 2008

Walmart claims that if every Walmart shopper bought a bag of Sam’s Choice Rainforest Alliance (RA) certified coffee, it would preserve 135,000 acres of land.

And that’s complete bull.

In researching another article, I came across Walmart’s “Sustainability Substantiation” page. It lists a number of their “earthy-friendly” products, and the supposed impact if every Walmart shopper bought one of that particular item.

The claim for Sam’s Choice Rainforest Alliance (RA) certified coffee is that if every Walmart shopper bought a bag, it would preserve 135,000 acres of land. Here’s how they calculated it:

200,000,000 = # of Wal-Mart shoppers
0.000675 = acres of land every 12oz bag of Rainforest Alliance Certifiedâ„¢ coffee helps preserve
135,000 = acres of land that 200,000,000 12oz bags of Rainforest Alliance Certifiedâ„¢ coffee helps preserve

The math is correct, but the premise is completely wrong. I don’t know where they got the figure that each bag of coffee “preserves” a fraction of an acre of land, but it really doesn’t matter. The fact is that buying RA certified coffee doesn’t preserve anything. RA doesn’t take a portion of each sale and go out and purchase land and create nature preserves, and coffee farmers don’t take their small extra profit from the sales of certified beans and go purchase land to “preserve” (if anything along these lines, they’d plant more coffee, perhaps clearing land to do so). The land is already “saved,” no matter how many bags of coffee from these farms is purchased.

Further, the majority of the land (or “tropical forest”) this coffee purports to preserve (or “help preserve,” “protect,” or “save” — different terms and calculations are used on the page as well as the web page of the coffee itself), is not pristine forest or forest at all, it’s COFFEE! Some farms do include land set aside for conservation, but the bulk of certified land is planted in coffee under varying degrees of shade. As I write about here all the time, it’s better than sun coffee, but not as good as forest for biodiversity.

The ridiculousness of this claim is illustrated by playing along with Walmart’s math. What if every Walmart shopper bought one bag of Sam’s Choice RA certified coffee once a week for a year, a reasonable level of consumption? That’s 10,400,000,000 bags of coffee, resulting in 7,020,000 acres of land “preserved.”  (Let’s ignore the fact that RA certifies only a million acres of farmland worldwide — including all other crops they certify). The entire country of Brazil, the source of Sam’s Choice coffee, has about 2.3 million hectares (5,681,000 acres) planted in coffee. Look! In less than a year, Walmart shoppers can “preserve” the entire coffee production area of Brazil, the world’s largest producer of coffee!

You get the point.

Don’t get me wrong

I’m not knocking the purchase of Rainforest Alliance certified coffee, from Walmart or anyplace else. I encourage it!  And arguably Walmart can expose more people to the concept of and issues around sustainable coffee than any other retailer in the world, which is terrific. I appreciate this effort at education, but abhor the obvious implication that each purchase contributes to the creation or true preservation of actual forested land. It’s misleading to consumers and does nothing to help those of us who know better to trust Walmart’s sustainability efforts.

Buying Sam’s Choice RA certified coffee doesn’t “save” or “preserve” land. It can encourage, through higher sales and more profit for the producing farms, other farms to become certified. This should result in improved environmental conditions on these farms, such as the addition of shade trees or upgraded water treatment methods — if the farms needed to make improvements to become certified, versus obtaining certification for existing sound practices.  This is a good thing. Why can’t they just say so?

Revised on November 19, 2016

Posted in Corporate coffee

Roaster Dave August 5, 2008 at 5:24 pm

You are absolutely right! Walmart has simply jumped on the sustainable band wagon in an attempt to try to get a chunk of the niche. And yes…..the majority of plants in these areas are coffee…..a non native species which is probably relying on a large amount of chemical additives as well as much slave style labour to keep them turning out crops!!

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