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What We Talk About When We Talk About Sustainability, Part One

El Gorrion coop members at the mill. Yali, Nicaragua.

If you're buying specialty coffee in America in 2015, and definitely if you're reading this blog, you're having sustainable coffee marketed to you extensively. Sustainable coffee is a multi-billion-dollar segment of the coffee market, and more roasters pop up every year selling coffee with a veneer of environmental and/or social ethicism.

This is Part One of a planned series in which I explore the concept and practice of sustainable coffee. In this article, I simply aim to briefly define the major extant market certifications.

So...what exactly is meant by "sustainable?"

Sustainable coffee refers to any coffee that carries an independent certification, namely Organic, Fair Trade, SMBC Bird-Friendly, Rainforest Alliance, and Utz certificates

Some of the labels you might see on the shelf.

Organicrefers to coffee grown without the use of any synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, hormones, or genetically modified crop strains. International Organic guidelines are set by the OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association), with national Organic certifiers taking control within their own territories. Our facility, for example, is certified by the USDA via the NMDA and we get annual plant inspections and a chain-of-custody audit. The NMDA can and has also showed up, unannounced, to pull random samples for residue testing. Not all roasters are up to this level of scrutiny.

Fair Trade means that coffee producers are guaranteed both a minimum price for their goods--this minimum covers the cost of production to protect them from losses during years when the market price for coffee is below production cost--and a Fair Trade premium, which is paid on top of the market price for coffee. FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International) sets international Fair Trade standards and our plant is certified and audited by the American certifier, Fair Trade USA.

SMBC Bird-Friendly guarantees that farms are 100% Organic and that coffee is shade-grown under trees that reach a minimum height for migratory bird habitat. Rainforest Alliance has various standards for the use of its label, including waste water management, animal habitat conservation, worker safety, child labor bans and agrochemical guidelines. Utz, like Rainforest Alliance, has both social and ecological goals, including good farm management, environmental conservation, and minimum wage requirements.

The way the chain of custody works for all these certifications is that every bag of coffee that gets produced in the country of origin gets its own lot number stamped on it. That's the number that all these organizations refer to as the bag travels internationally and gets bought and sold--in some cases, more than once. Once we get the bag, we obviously open and roast it and we can no longer refer to that lot number, so at that point the roast date for the coffee becomes the reference number. At the end of the year, we just have to prove that all the coffee we sold under certificates matches all the coffee we bought under certificates.

And what about Direct Trade?

Direct Trade is not a certification. It has no legal definition or system of audits. It's a method of sourcing that encourages direct negotiations between roasters and growers. It's a reaction to perceived failures in the Fair Trade system. I'll get into this in the next post, but, like the aforementioned certifications, Direct Trade has some benefits and some major drawbacks.

Next time: what does a certified "sustainable" farm look like? What are the benefits to the farmer?