Saturday, July 9, 2011

What is Sustainable Coffee and How Does it Affect My Wake Cup?

Gourmet coffee lovers have been seeing a few new terms in the

local premium coffee shop as they file past the seasonal retail

displays of roasted whole bean bagged coffees. Phrases include

eco-friendly, organic, shade grown, fair trade and certified

sustainable. Most often those beans seem to the casual buyer to

be simply more expensive than the corporate mega-brands.

But these few phrases represent far more than at first glance,

including economic and social gains for the growing regions and

farmers, harvesters and processors of green coffee beans at the

local level. Sustainable coffee means premium prices and quality

coffee due to organic farming practices, fair market payment for

beans to local growers and quality controls being adopted by the

"certified" coffee brands.

Those premium coffee prices reflect growing concerns worldwide

of paying fair wages to growers, using more expensive

ecologically friendly organic farming practices, better pay for

traditionally underpaid harvesters and processing workers and

strict quality controls being adopted for "certified sustainable


Daniele Giovannucci consults with governments, international

agencies, and businesses on coffee markets and production

strategies to improve competitiveness and support innovative

environmental and rural poverty reduction work. Giovannucci has

authored exhaustive studies, including the 2003, "The State of

Sustainable Coffee Report - A Study of Twelve Major Markets."

This study discusses coffee market forces in Europe and Japan

and the growth of sustainable coffee around the world,

estimating that fair trade, organic, and eco-friendly coffees

represent less than 2 percent of coffee consumption in developed


Another Giovannucci authored study, "Sustainable Coffee Survey

of the North American Specialty Coffee Industry," he estimates

the Global market for sustainable coffee to be approximately

$565 million retail for over a million 60 kilo (about 132

pounds) bags of green coffee beans.

It is estimated that growers of certified sustainable coffees

can nearly double their income from otherwise depressed coffee

prices. So economically challenged third world countries see

small farmers adopting organic growing techniques as a ticket

out of poverty and subsistence. Corporate buyers are attracted

to sustainable growers by consumer goodwill and health concerns

related to those organically grown coffees. This leads to

dubious claims by some of the corporate coffee representatives

and has lead to the need for certification authorities.

One group, Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO)

has been active in monitoring and certifying, auditing and

verifying standards for sustainable coffees. Another, named

Transfair USA, carries on similar activities in the American

coffee market. Consumers are justifiably confused when many

terms are applied to sustainable coffees and fail to

differentiate between organic, eco-friendly, fair trade and

sustainable terms.

Premium prices are sometimes supported by certification,

labeling and monitoring by third-party organizations and

sometimes by local governments such as the "Jamaica Coffee

Industry Board." But some labeling is simply slick sales and PR

by greedy corporations seeking premium prices for average coffee

beans, so support for labeling initiatives and independent

certification is growing.

Fair Trade and sustainable coffees are seeing increasing

production in Central and South American growing regions, most

notably in Mexico and Peru. Columbia has seen some pressure and

attempts to divert production of cocaine with coffee crops for

the fair trade market with little major success to report so

far. Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia are big participants in

sustainable coffees in Africa while East Timor, India and

Indonesia are major supporters of sustainable coffee in Asia.

With the North American coffee market dominated by multinational

giants Sara Lee, Kraft and Procter & Gamble, little interest has

been shown in adopting sustainable coffee by major corporate

coffee producers. Meanwhile, Brazil and Vietnam, the world's No.

1 and No. 2 coffee producers, respectively are flooding the

market with poor quality beans and driving down coffee prices.

But major grocery chains are seeing demand for sustainable

coffee and may adopt fair trade and organic coffees to sell

nationwide at Safeway, Kroger and Albertson's stores. Increases

in availability, demand and awareness of sustainable coffee are

leading to more of the same in a spiraling increase for fair

trade organic and shade coffees in premium markets. Some

sustainable coffees are even finding their way into instant

coffees, but the vast majority of the sustainable market is in

premium and specialty markets.

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