The Salt
3:20 am
Wed April 24, 2013

Coffee For A Cause: What Do Those Feel-Good Labels Deliver?

Originally published on Thu January 9, 2014 3:50 pm

What does it take to find guilt-free coffee?

Much of our coffee comes from places where the environment is endangered and workers earn very little — sometimes, just a few dollars for a whole day's work. Coffee farmers have helped cut down tropical forests, and most of them use pesticides.

It doesn't take much effort, though, to find bags of coffee with labels that promise social and environmental improvements. Among the best-known are Fairtrade or Rain Forest Alliance Certified.

I went to Costa Rica to find out what those labels mean and how well they deliver on their promises.

I visited, for example, a hillside in the country's central valley, near the town of San Ramon, where Luis Fernando Vasquez grows coffee.

Vasquez loves showing off his farm, which also produces bananas and honey. He's lived here his whole life and learned to grow coffee from his father. But in the past few years, he says, he's changed the way he farms.

"Before, a tree used to be an obstacle, and we'd just cut it down," he says. "Now, we are coming to understand that the tree plays a role, and it can coexist with our commercial coffee plantation."

Coffee plants that grow in the shade of trees produce fewer beans, but many people say those beans taste better. In addition, trees help reduce soil erosion and provide a home for wildlife.

Vasquez points at the ground, which is covered by a layer of dead, decaying leaves. "We used to pick all that up, bring it to one central point on the farm and then set it on fire," he says. "But now I know that if I leave it there, it will actually help improve soil fertility."

There also have been changes that I can't see: He's using fewer pesticides and recycling his trash.

Vasquez is enthusiastic about these changes, but they were not originally his idea.

They're the result of a long chain of decisions reaching all to way back to American consumers contemplating their many coffee options in the local Stop & Shop.

Several people who are part of that chain are also with me here on the farm.

First, there's Sergio Gurdian, who works for ECOM Trading, the second-biggest coffee trader in the world. ECOM buys beans from farmers and sells them to big companies like Starbucks or Nestle.

Gurdian and his colleagues went to Vasquez and persuaded him to change his farming practices.

Why? "I think that the world is changing right now," says Gurdian.

To be specific, one of ECOM's big customers is changing. Nespresso, a coffee business owned by Nestle, has decided that it wants most of its coffee to carry a particular label: Rainforest Alliance Certified.

And Rainforest Alliance, the environmental group behind this label, has a whole set of rules for farmers, called the Sustainable Agriculture Standard.

ECOM took on the job of getting farmers onboard. "We said, 'OK, it's time to show the producers that sustainability is OK, and that we can offer lots of benefits, not only for them, the producers, but also for their farms," says Gurdian.

There was also a small financial incentive. Now that Vasquez, the farmer, is Rainforest Alliance Certified, he gets about 15 cents more for each pound of coffee.

The number of farmers like him is growing. According to Rainforest Alliance, 4.5 percent of all coffee produced in 2012 came from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms. That's a 45 percent increase over 2011.

There are other labels, of course: fair trade; organic; direct trade.

All of these labels promise slightly different things, and every promise involves some compromises.

For instance: Rainforest Alliance runs a relatively strict system, with independent auditors who inspect farms at random. If the auditors find prohibited pesticides, or workers earning less than the minimum wage, that farm can lose its certification. Sometimes, a whole group of neighboring farms also can be decertified.

You may be glad to know that the program has teeth. On the other hand, those rules shut out many of the smallest, poorest farmers.

Emilia Umaña, who also helps farmers get Rainforest Alliance certification, says the rules ask for things that are too expensive for many small farmers to buy — like special showers for workers to use after applying pesticides. "One of the biggest flaws in the system is that they use the same rule book, worldwide, for every type of producer in every company," she says.

If you're specifically interested in helping small farmers, maybe you should look for fair trade coffee. Its whole focus is small coffee producers. Traditionally, all fair trade coffee has come from cooperatives of small producers.

Christian Mora is general manager of one of these co-ops, called AFAORCA, in Costa Rica. It has just 24 members.

To get fair trade certification, he says, you have to show a fair trade organization that your cooperative keeps an honest set of books, that it operates democratically, and that it treats workers fairly.

"They come in and interview people who work in the coffee fields, and they make sure that salaries are fair, and that labor rights are respected, according to the law," he says.

Once certified, the cooperative gets 20 cents extra for every pound of fair trade coffee that it sells. The cooperative then decides how to spend that "social premium." It could pass the money on to its members, or do something else with it, such as improve a local school.

But there are compromises with fair trade, too. It doesn't focus primarily on environmental practices on the farms, and some buyers complain that fair trade coffee isn't always good-quality coffee.

At the moment, in fact, the fair trade movement is going through a bitter split. One group, Fair Trade USA, wants to expand the label so it can include coffee from individual farmers — even big estates.

Mora isn't happy about this expanded definition of fair trade. "It could be a problem, because the goal of the label gets lost, and it becomes more of a marketing tool for big businesses, and just makes it easier for them to sell their product," he says.

This tension — between trying to be a real alternative to the mainstream and joining the mainstream — comes up all the time in these certification schemes.

The toughest environmental certification is probably one called Smithsonian Bird Friendly coffee. This coffee is grown organically, with no manufactured fertilizer or pesticides, in fields that also contain 10 different kinds of shade trees. Only a few farmers, though, are willing to grow coffee this way.

On the other end of the spectrum, Starbucks runs a really big program called C.A.F.E. Practices (Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices). Like Rainforest Alliance certification, this scheme includes both environmental and social standards, but the Starbucks audits aren't really tests that a farmer can flunk. They're more like counseling sessions. If farmers are doing something wrong, Starbucks will tell them how to improve, but it still buys their coffee.

Yet for all their differences and compromises, coffee producers in Costa Rica say these certification systems, collectively, have had a real impact.

Carlos Rivera Chavarria, general manager of one of the country's largest cooperatives, Coopetarrazu, says certifications all helped farmers to hear what consumers wanted, much more directly than ever before.

These programs allowed his producers to "rediscover quality coffee," he says.

Coopetarrazu sells coffee under the fair trade label. In addition, some of its farmers are Rainforest Alliance Certified, and the co-op sells a lot of coffee to Starbucks.

Now the co-op is experimenting with "direct trade." It's selling small lots of coffee from particular villages to roasters who can pass along the story of that coffee, and that village, to consumers who want to know even more about the sources of their coffee.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, it's Coffee Week here on MORNING EDITION, and today, we're talking about coffee that is good for your conscience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COFFEE TIME")

NATALIE COLE: (Singing) Coffee time, let's listen to some jazz and rhymes and have a cup of coffee...

INSKEEP: That's our coffee theme. Now, coffee grows only in the tropics. Coffee farmers may cut down forests, spray pesticides, and workers often just get paid a few dollars for a whole day's work.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's enough to make you feel guilty, but you can also find coffee with labels that might make you feel better - labels like Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance Certified.

INSKEEP: NPR's Dan Charles went to Costa Rica to find out whether those labels deliver on their promises.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Luis Fernando Vasquez seems to love showing off his farm in the central valley of Costa Rica. He's been growing coffee here his whole life.

LUIS FERNANDO VASQUEZ: (Through translator) I learned this from my father.

CHARLES: But in the last few years, he's changed the way he farms, he says. He's learning to grow his coffee in harmony with nature.

VASQUEZ: (Through translator) Before, a tree used to be an obstacle, and we'd just cut it down. Now, we are coming to understand that the tree plays a role, and that it can coexist with our commercial coffee plantation.

CHARLES: Coffee plants that grow in the shade of trees produce fewer beans, but many people say those beans taste better. Also, trees help reduce soil erosion and provide a home for wildlife. And take a look at the ground, he says. See that layer of dead, decaying leaves that we're walking through?

VASQUEZ: (Through translator) We used to pick it up and bring it to one central point in the farm, and then set it on fire. But right now, I know that if I leave it there, it will actually improve soil fertility.

CHARLES: There also are changes I can't see: He's using fewer pesticides and recycling his trash. But you should understand these changes were not originally his idea. They're the result of a long chain of decisions reaching all the way back to American consumers contemplating their many coffee options in the supermarket. Several people who are part of that chain are with me here on the farm.

SERGIO GURDIAN: Well, my name is Sergio Gurdian.

CHARLES: Gurdian works for ECOM Trading, the second-biggest coffee trader in the world. ECOM buys beans from farmers and sells them to big companies like Starbucks or Nestle. Gurdian and his company went to Vasquez and persuaded him to change his farming practices.

GURDIAN: Because I think that the world is changing right now.

CHARLES: Specifically, one of ECOM's big customers is changing. Nespresso, one of Nestle's coffee businesses, has decided it wants most of its coffee to carry a particular label: Rainforest Alliance Certified. And Rainforest Alliance has a whole set of rules for farmers, what it calls sustainable agricultural standards.

GURDIAN: So, we said, OK. It's time to show them - the producers - that sustainability is OK, and that we can offer lots of benefits, not only for them as producers, but to their farms.

CHARLES: Luis Fernando Vasquez, the farmer, signed up. He's now Rainforest Alliance Certified, and he gets about 15 cents more for each pound of his coffee. He's part of a growing trend in the coffee industry, an increasing number of producers who sell their coffee under labels that promise environmental or social benefits.

Four and a half percent of all coffee produced last year came from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms. There are other labels, too, like fair trade, organic, direct trade. The labels all promise slightly different things, and every promise involves some compromises.

For instance: Rainforest Alliance runs a relatively strict system, with independent auditors who inspect farms at random. If the auditors find prohibited pesticides, or workers earning less than the minimum wage, that farm can lose its certification. Sometimes, a whole group of neighboring farms also does. You may be glad to know there's teeth to the program. On the other hand, those rules shut out many of the smallest, poorest farmers.

Emilia Umana, who also helps farmers get Rainforest Alliance certification, says the rules ask for things that are too expensive for the smallest farmers to buy, like special showers for workers to use after applying pesticides.

EMILIA UMANA: One of the biggest flaws of the system is that they use the same rulebook, worldwide, for every type of producer in every company.

CHARLES: Take another example: fair trade. Fair trade's whole focus is small farmers. Traditionally, all fair trade coffee has come from cooperatives of small producers. Christian Mora is general manager of one of these co-ops, a small one with 24 members in Costa Rica. To get this certification, he says, you have to show a fair trade organization that your co-op keeps an honest set of books, that it operates democratically, that it treats workers fairly.

CHRISTIAN MORA: (Through translator) They come in and interview people who work in the coffee fields, and they make sure that the salaries are fair and the labor rights are respected, according to the law.

CHARLES: And then the co-op gets 20 cents extra for every pound of fair trade coffee it sells. But there are compromises with fair trade, too. It doesn't deal with environmental practices, and some buyers complain that fair trade coffee isn't always good-quality coffee.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Fair Trade does encourage farmers to introduce good environmental practices, such as using less water and handling pesticides safety. Those practices, however, are not a primary focus of Fair Trade certification.]

CHARLES: Also, at the moment, the fair trade movement is going through a bitter split. One group, Fair Trade USA, wants to expand the label so it can bring in coffee from individual farmers - even big estates. Christian Mora is not happy about this expanded definition of fair trade.

MORA: (Through translator) It could be a problem, because the goal of the label gets lost, and it becomes more like a marketing tool for big businesses, and just make it easy for them to sell the product.

CHARLES: This tension between trying to be a real alternative to the mainstream and joining the mainstream comes up all the time in these certification schemes. The toughest environmental certification is probably one called Smithsonian Bird Friendly coffee. This coffee is grown organically, with no manufactured fertilizer or pesticides, in fields that also contain 10 different kinds of shade trees.

Good luck finding this label, though. Very few farmers grow coffee this way. On the other end of the spectrum, Starbucks runs a really big program. It includes both environmental and social standards, but the audits are not really tests that a farmer can flunk. They're more like counseling sessions. If farmers are doing something wrong, Starbucks will tell them how to improve, but it still buys their coffee.

For all their differences and compromises, though, coffee producers say these certification systems have had an impact. Carlos Rivera Chavarria, general manager of one of Costa Rica's big co-ops, Coopetarrazu, says through the certifications, farmers heard much more directly than they ever had before what consumers wanted.

CARLOS RIVERA CHAVARRIA: (Spanish spoken)

CHARLES: These certifications allowed us rediscover quality coffee, he says, the characteristics of coffee in each community, each coffee farm. Coopetarrazu sells coffee under the fair trade label. Some of its farmers are Rainforest Alliance Certified, and it sells a lot of coffee to Starbucks. Now, the co-op is experimenting with a kind of direct trade. It's selling small lots of coffee from particular villages to roasters who can pass along the story of that coffee and that village to consumers who want to know even more about where their coffee comes from. Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Our on-air series here is just the beginning. You can learn more about coffee labeling and test your coffee knowledge with our online quiz at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.