Birders still in the dark about shaded Bird-Friendly coffee

by JulieCraves on March 5, 2021

A group of authors have an open-access paper in the journal People and Nature, a publication of the British Ecological Society: Tapping birdwatchers to promote bird-friendly coffee consumption and conserve birds. The authors noted there are 45 million birdwatchers in the U.S. alone, and they are considered the primary target of coffee certification schemes.

They surveyed birders who were members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and subscribers to the Lab’s magazine; thus, a relatively well-off* demographic that was also highly educated, with 55% having a graduate degree or higher. They found (quoting the abstract, my emphasis added):

Nearly half (49%) of respondents reported considering bird habitat when purchasing coffee. However, only 38% of respondents were familiar with the Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification and only 9% reported purchasing it. … The highest rated constraints on buying bird-friendly coffee were lack of awareness, cost, and lack of availability.

I don’t have a lot to say about this. Over a decade ago (!) right here on this site I expressed my frustration at the resistance of birders at changing their coffee buying habitats, and made a pointed plea to birders and conservationists, as knowledgeable consumers, to set an example and drink coffee that was grown in a sustainable manner, and spread the word to others. Several months later, I again lamented the lack of action (or hypocritical behavior) on the part of this generally affluent group.

Considering the demographic of the survey respondents in this study, lack of awareness and cost are excuses, in my opinion. The very magazine these respondents subscribe to has had at least two articles about shade coffee and birds, as well as additional articles on their website. Other major birdwatching magazines have also published similar articles, including this one by yours truly.

Lack of availability, however, is a legitimate reason why more birders (and others) don’t drink Smithsonian Bird-Friendly coffee. As of 2018, less than 0.1% of world coffee production was grown on Bird-Friendly certified farms, and only 9% of that was sold as Bird-Friendly certified**. Despite improved efforts to promote this coffee and make it easier to find and purchase, this is indeed a niche product. Lack of demand and lack of availability create a destructive feedback loop.

There is more to mull over in this paper, but we might bear in mind that it focuses specifically on certified coffee. The trend over the last decade of a proliferation of coffee certifications with a vast array of different standards (and in particular the effort to dilute ecological criteria to make certification more accessible) has created a complex, confusing, and opaque landscape for consumers.

Certified coffees are only part of the solution to ecologically-sustainable coffee production and sustainable livelihoods for farmers. While the market works itself out, I think it’s worthwhile to not only encourage the purchase of Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certified coffee, but also stress the importance of what coffee not to buy — cheap, corporate coffee with mystery origins. Boycotting Folgers and Maxwell House, two brands that represent nearly 30% of the retail volume of coffee sold in the United States, is the least we can do given their unimpressive efforts at sustainability.

More on this study:


*The study did not ask about income, but noted that the participants had either paid a $44/yr membership fee and/or made a $100 donation to the Lab, indicating some level of disposable income.
**For various reasons, growers may not sell all of their certified crop to buyers who will sell it as such. For example, Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certified coffee cannot be mixed in with other beans and sold as certified.

Market data in last paragraph via Euromonitor Passport.

Revised on January 7, 2022

Posted in Certifications

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