What Do All Those Labels Mean?

Coffee is Marketed Under a Variety of "Causes"

In the rugged highlands of Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, local people still harvest some of the world’s best-tasting beans. As Oxfam explains, "The coffee-growing area in the mountains to the west of the Great Rift Valley is so ideally suited to growing arabica coffee the farmers need no fertilizer or insecticides." However, the people who actually tend the plants were hit hard by the recent crisis of coffee prices.

In poverty-stricken Ethiopia, coffee farmers such as this woman have banded together to seek higher prices for their sustainably produced beans.©TransFair USA

Further, as Miju Adula, chairperson of Ethiopia’s Kilenso Mokonisa Cooperative, puts it, "We used to sell our coffee to exporters who would cheat us and sometimes they did not pay us at all." Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon, because coffee farmers usually lack access to cell phones and computers, so they cannot locate fair price operations. They must often agree to low prices before harvest, when they are desperate for any upfront cash middlemen offer. Many Ethiopian coffee growers cannot afford to send their children to school, buy medical supplies or, in some cases, even purchase enough food, reports Oxfam. In 1999, the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU) was established to link 35 cooperatives, representing 23,000 members. The union returns 70 percent of the profits to the farmers.

"We worked with Oromia to introduce the first-ever Fair Trade, organic Ethiopian coffee into the U.S.," says Dean Cycon, president of Massachussets-based Dean’s Beans coffee company. "When I brought back roasted "Oromia Blend" to the farmers, they went wild! Few had ever tasted their own coffee and none had ever seen it packaged with their name on it," he says. Dean’s Beans now runs a program to help build much-needed wells in coffee communities, paid for by company sales. In Nicaragua, Dean’s Beans helped set up a café roastery, where all profits fund a charitable prosthetic limb clinic, a godsend in a region plagued by land mines in addition to poverty.

Clearly, coffee can have a positive impact on source communities, and according to the Hartman Group, 63 percent of consumers say they will pay a premium for products that demonstrate a positive environmental impact. But the trick for busy consumers often becomes sorting out potential marketing hype from those brands that make a real difference. That’s why certification is such a hot-button issue.

Joseph F. DeRupo of the National Coffee Association says his group’s recent research found that consumer awareness of organic coffee has jumped from 42 percent in 2003 to 52 percent in 2005 (when a quarter of respondents said that knowledge would influence their purchase decision). For Fair Trade coffee, awareness went from seven percent to 15 in the same time, and for shade-grown coffee it went from 10 to 15 percent.

Organic Planet

For North Americans, organic coffee may be the most intuitive, since we’ve all seen the plethora of organic foods in stores across the continent. Buying organic coffee has less to do with personal health than, say, reaching for USDA-certified peaches or chicken cutlets, however, because research suggests your latte is likely free of chemical residues. Organic certification is handled country by country, and all foodstuffs sold in the U.S. can be labeled with the respected USDA seal. Generally, coffee labeled organic fetches a higher retail price.

Alba Luz of the Costa Rican co-op El Dos picks ripe coffee cherries.©Amy Hansen

"There’s still a lot of what we call "passive organic" coffee farming in Guatemala and other places, in which the growers are so poor and so isolated that they continue to work the old way, without any modern chemicals," says Jeronimo Bollen, the founder and president of the Guatemala-based farmer-support organization Manos Campesinos. Bollen says some of these farmers could benefit from organic certification, and adds, "There are things they can do to increase their yields, such as learning to use advanced soil conservation and compost techniques." Bollen says the easiest way to identify an organic farm is by its tree cover, because "essentially all organic coffee farms are shade grown, whereas most non-organic farms aren"t." He says the cost to farmers of getting the certification is about one cent extra per pound produced.

In one innovative approach, the small Connecticut-based group Builders Beyond Borders is working with an association of Costa Rican organic coffee farmers to help increase sustainable production. Builders Beyond Borders recruits American high school students to travel to disadvantaged communities, and in this case young people will be helping build a new facility where organic coffee farmers will be able to meet, receive training and support, recruit new growers, display and sell their products (especially to tourists) and conduct other tasks.

Beneath the Shade

"Once consumers learn the story of how important shade-grown coffee is, particularly for songbirds, it is an easy and empowering decision for them to switch to a shade-grown product," explains Sandy Pinto, director of licensing for the National Audubon Society. Audubon has been using its substantial educational muscle to help build support for shade-grown beans, especially those—such as the society’s own branded offering—that are certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s standards.

"Luckily, in recent years we’ve been able to find those who still grow coffee the traditional way, and try to reward them for their eco-friendly efforts," adds Greg Butcher, Audubon’s director of bird conservation. "This will hopefully keep them from joining the technified bandwagon."

Trading Fair

The international Fair Trade movement is trying to improve the lives of the world’s beleaguered farmers, and in the case of coffee this means guaranteeing that producers earn at least a floor price of $1.26 a pound for their green beans, or $1.41 a pound if it’s organic. Fair Trade premiums are paid only to cooperatives with democratic governance, many of which date back to the late 1970s. Buyers must agree to offer credit and cultivate long-term, stable relationships. Most co-ops reinvest some of the profits in the community, building wells, schools, coffee-processing equipment and so on.

Certification is managed by the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, and in the U.S., TransFair USA places the "Fair Trade Certified" label on cocoa, tea, bananas and other fruits, although coffee is the biggest seller. This label is specific to each batch of product, although companies can widely use the Fair Trade Federation logo if they can be shown to meet the standards across the board.

According to TransFair spokesperson Haven Bourque, the system benefits more than 800,000 farmers in 48 countries. She says the certified coffee sells, for a small price premium, in about 45,000 retailers. Some 32,866,758 pounds of green coffee were certified in 2004, a 76 percent growth since 2003 (and representing about 1.8 percent of the global java market). "In 2004, about 68 percent of Fair Trade coffee was also organic, and many co-ops use the revenue they get from Fair Trade to pay for organic certification," says Bourque.

In 2002, the progressive hamlet of Berkeley, California made national headlines with a ballot initiative that would have required all brewed coffee sold in town to be

Fair Trade (or organic or shade-grown). It didn’t pass, but a number of municipalities in the United Kingdom have since voted to become "Fair Trade towns," and have agreed to serve only certified coffee at official meetings and generally promote the politically correct beans. This summer, New York City and San Francisco passed resolutions that encourage purchase of Fair Trade coffee by government agencies.

Like any movement, Fair Trade has had some growing pains, and some critics have attacked the concept. Some argue that Fair Trade premiums could lead to an even larger glut of coffee, but Bourque counters, "That tends not to happen because these are small plot farmers who won’t grow more than they can keep up with. They just want to stay on their land and farm traditionally." A 2003 Seattle Times article charged, "The program doesn’t teach farmers how to compete in the global market, critics say, and the coffee tastes bad." Bourque says a few early Fair Trade coffees may not have been the best tasting, but she points to numerous quality and excellence awards since then. TransFair argues that, far from taking away consumer freedom, Fair Trade is really about giving consumers information so they can make their own choices.

One of the biggest complaints of Fair Trade is that the requirements for eligible farmers are quite restrictive, specifying that they must be poor land owners organized into co-ops. "My farms cannot be Fair Trade certified because we are too large," says Diego Llach of El Salvador, who says he pays his workers 50 to 110 percent above his country’s minimum wage.

"That is definitely a point of contention," says Bourque. "Some people argue that the workers on large coffee farms need the most help of all, and there should be a way to bring them into the model, while also increasing the overall volume of certified products. But a number of co-op leaders sit on our board and they don’t agree."

Oxfam America recently gave Wild Oats an "A" grade for promoting Fair Trade products, but gave Whole Foods a "C." Whole Foods declined to comment for this story, but its website is critical of Fair Trade and promotes the practices of Allegro Coffee, its own in-house brand. Critics say Whole Foods doesn’t go far enough to protect worker rights and lacks transparency. Similar claims are often made of companies that eschew TransFair in lieu of their own ambiguous "fairly traded" labels.

Although a number of small companies sell 100 percent Fair Trade coffee, larger companies, such as Starbucks and Green Mountain, buy one to 12 percent, and it has often been difficult for consumers to know when it will be offered, and in which stores.

"We built the model to accommodate many different types of businesses, and now Procter and Gamble’s Millstone Mountain Moonlight Fair Trade Certified Coffee will be in thousands of U.S. supermarkets," says Bourque. America’s largest retailer of coffee-by-the-cup, Dunkin" Donuts, has announced that all its espresso-based beverages will be Fair Trade certified, although the company won’t talk about volumes.

In response to critics who say not enough Fair Trade beans are available, Bourque responds, "That’s impossible. Many farmers must sell their crops outside of the Fair Trade system, because not enough companies are buying at Fair Trade prices."

Rainforest Alliance Makes a Difference

Building on its success with sustainable forestry and then bananas, the New York City-based advocacy group Rainforest Alliance has been certifying coffee for ten years. "Our certified coffee is now available in more than 20,000 outlets around the world," says Sabrina Vigilante of the group. Many small companies offer it, and Kraft will reportedly soon launch a U.S. brand (Kraft’s "Sustainable Development Coffee" is now available in the UK). "We worked with a broad range of stakeholders to develop a program that is as comprehensive as possible but applicable to a wide range," says Vigilante.

"Our standard has been called the gold standard by many farmers, who say it’s the most demanding but also the most rewarding because it helps them change the way they manage their farms, including improving efficiency and coffee quality," explains Rainforest Alliance’s Chris Wille. The standards require limiting use of agrochemicals, planting native trees, protecting water and wildlife and other changes. Diego Llach credits his adoption of Rainforest Alliance principles with helping him farm in balance with nature, and greatly improving worker productivity and morale. He says he has planted 90,000 trees, replaced toxic pesticides with a marigold extract, rebuilt worker housing and helped found a medical clinic and school.

"Rainforest Alliance’s program is great on protecting the environment, but their program shouldn’t be misrepresented as something that helps workers," argues Bourque, who points to Fair Trade as the solution. Wille points out that Fair Trade is an alternative trading system, while Rainforest Alliance certification is a farm management system. "Fair Trade, by definition, doesn’t help hired workers," he says. "Even though there are many more small farms, most coffee is actually grown on big estates, whose work forces swell hugely during harvest. Many of these workers are children, women and indigenous people. We don’t guarantee a minimum price, but that has nothing to do with workers. We wanted to sweep big producers into a program, and require a full complement of workers" rights."

Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans praises Rainforest Alliance for trying to do "all the right stuff," although he says, "I don’t believe enough resources are on the ground to make sure the standards are being enforced. Rainforest Alliance is very well intentioned, although some people are worried about potential greenwashing since their funders include Neumann Kaffee Group, Volcafe, Starbucks, Kraft, Chiquita and Mitsubishi."

Wille responds, "Through our Sustainable Agriculture Network, we have way more people on the ground than any other certification program, and we have a very clear policy on accepting support from companies to strictly avoid conflicts of interest. In any case, certification is the best antidote to greenwashing, because farmers can only use the seal by making improvements to the satisfaction of independent auditors."

What are Consumers to Do?

A number of industry-sponsored programs have also been launched around coffee’s social and environmental footprint. According to Wille, Rainforest Alliance has been working on a steering committee of the industry-sponsored Common Code for the Coffee Community, which is trying to create a program that would work faster than niche certifications and would be more broadly applicable.

Starbucks—long the target of many activists, including the New York City-based Reverend Billy (born Bill Talen) and the Church of Stop Shopping’s "cash register exorcisms"—has developed its own guidelines called Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) Practices. Global Exchange criticizes the program for being self-generated, but Wille says, "Starbucks is doing good things with their coffee sourcing. The company has a reputation that it’s the McDonald’s of coffee shop

s that pushes out local businesses, but the prices they pay for coffee and insistence on traceability have been quite positive."

So, the simplest answer is to make sure every cup of java that touches your lips is triple certified, correct? A number of green groups have called for exactly that, and a few companies offer up the beans. But not everyone agrees this strategy makes sense. "That would be exceptional if all coffee would be triple certified, but in fact, very few farms would be able to meet all three programs," says Vigilante. "Also, for farmers to invest in all these programs would require multiple costs, and multiple visits by auditors during the busiest times."

Chris Wille argues that triple certifying is an inefficient use of resources. "[Cause-based] certification is still reaching only a small number of farmers, so why should we be wasting our limited resources doubling coverage of specific farms?"

"All these programs are complimentary and have similar goals," concludes Vigilante. Asked if consumers may be overwhelmed with discussion of labels, she responds, "I don’t believe in the confusion factor. Organic is pretty mainstream now, Fair Trade has been building support, and Rainforest Alliance has been certifying products for more than a decade."