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Coffee….Part 3

May 14, 2009

As the final piece of the coffee series, today’s post will explain the last two (of the largest four) certification options available to coffee producers and roasters: UTZ CERTIFIED and Certified Organic.

Stated bias:  UTZ CERTIFIED is one of my clients. I have worked with them for over a year. That said, I chose to work with UTZ because I think they have a very strong value proposition, and I saw real opportunity to make a difference. Additionally, I have also worked for an organic coffee company and with companies that are only Fair Trade. At this point I have strong opinions on all, and am doing my best to state only what I think is most relevant to my readers.

logo_utz_certified_175x175UTZ CERTIFED Good Inside is an agricultural certifier for commodity products (‘agricultural commodities’ refer to the stuff that Mother Earth mass produces…like the Proctor and Gamble of the natural world…includes things like coffee, tea, cocoa, oranges, soy, etc…). UTZ offers two main values that set it apart from the others:  1. They work directly with farmers to help them  become better business people, improve their productivity, and reduce their environmental impact.  2. They have a world-class, only-one-of-its-kind, traceability system. This means that when you buy a bag of UTZ Certified coffee, you can go to their website, put in a number found on the bag and track the coffee in your hand all the way back to the farms where it was grown. Check out IKEA’s tracer here. This is a HUGE idea that, if properly marketed, could change the way people buy things from developing nations. Wouldn’t you like to know where everything you buy comes from? I mean, I stopped feeling warm and fuzzy about those little gold foil ‘MADE IN CHINA’ stickers quite a while ago.

Key points about UTZ:

1. They work in-country. This means that they hire native people who understand the localized challenges and complexities for each coffee growing region to help farmers get certified.

2. They have very few barriers for producer entry. Farms of any size may join and become certified (a challenging, but manageable process).

3. Their business model is designed to help producers become better at what they do, so they can be paid more for a better product, instead of simply setting prices to avoid poverty. Think of UTZ as the ‘teach them to fish’ model. Hand up, not hand out. They are like republican greenies.

4.  UTZ is more than willing to work with any coffee roaster of any size. In my opinion this is good and bad. Because of the nature of the specialty business, no high end roaster wants to work with a label that is also on a Folger’s package…no matter how good the program is. From a marketing standpoint, this is a difficult hurdle, as the high-end roasters often set the trends for the rest of the market. However, no other certifier can handle the volume requirements of the very large companies, they simply do not have enough certified coffee available, so someone needs to grab the middle of the market to steer for more sustainable solutions. That’s where UTZ comes in.

MDA_USDA_Organic_Big_176138_7Certified Organic:

Everyone knows what organic is. I don’t need to go in to a lot of detail here, but the basics are that organic coffee is grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or any other man made crap you can think of. Organic is a fantastic program because it improves the nutrient content of the coffee beans, and goes a long way in improving water quality and soil erosion in areas where there is no man-made drainage systems or water filtration.

Key points on Organic:

1. Water is a big issue here. Coffee is grown at high altitudes, often on a terraced hillside. Frequently, area residents live at the bottom of the hill. When the crops are sprayed with pesticides, then it rains….  I’ll give you three guesses as to where the chemicals end up (guess what else rolls down hill). Organic production is known to dramatically improve water quality.

2. Roughly fifty years ago, all coffee was organic. Come to think of it, so was everything else! It is important to remember that chemicals are the new thing. Your grandparents never had to worry about DDT residue on their coffee beans when they were your age. This I can guarantee.

3. Organic has a very high barrier to entry for producers. The cost of transitioning is very high and takes a minimum of three years, however, once certified, producers do make higher average prices and often achieve better yields.

Ok folks….that’s all for your Coffee Certification 101 class. If you have burning coffee questions, feel free to email me at


Greenwashing: Why Green Magazine Issues are Stupid

May 8, 2009

I promise….I will get back to the coffee series really soon, but I just had to share this first.

The topic today is really all about Greenwashing.

I just read an article in Environmental Leader (an online daily source of neato and interesting greenie stuff, that was highlighting the fact that ‘Green’ issues of magazines are under-performing.
Gee….do you think it might be because in a bad economy, consumers don’t want to think about anything but keeping their heads above water? Or perhaps by offering one or two ‘green’ issues each year, magazines are saying that we only need to think about ‘green’ once or twice a year? It’s the same reason I think Valentine’s Day is ridiculous. Giving people an excuse to compartmentalize important ideas, that they should probably think about every day, is what got us here in the first place. How many successful relationships do you know, that have lasted for years when the couple only does nice things for each other on V-Day?

Green is not a once-a-year problem. For WAY too long we have all, as a culture, collectively decided that we will only deal with problems when they happen. “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” Right? The single biggest issue that needs to be addressed is the fact that we have stopped questioning. As a culture, we have stopped thinking about the consequences and implications of how what we do today affects what will happen tomorrow.

The generally accepted definition of sustainability goes something like this:
Live your life (or run your business) in such a way that you are not compromising future generations’ ability to do the same.

So, you want to know why ‘green’ magazine issues are stupid? Because they give us an excuse to only think about how bad the environment has really gotten, and what people are doing to help, just once a year. An alternative you ask? Why not integrate sustainable concepts into the fabric of their publications? Green should not be a section of a magazine, or a single issue. Green is a shift in consciousness, it has to be talked about and explored as at least a subtext in everything we do and plan for. For example, when Newsweek talks about the president’s latest trip to somewhere important, why is there not also a conversation about how he got there, the fuel use, and implications thereof? Or, when a beauty magazine talks about a great new makeup product, why not also talk about the fact that the ingredients are known to cause cancer? What ever happened to investigative journalism? Oh yeah, bloggers, I almost forgot.

I know that this is a broad sweeping political and financial issue that I have no intention of tackling here, but my point is, if we treat Green like a trend, it will be one. Consumers will get totally sick of hearing about it and it will go the way of the dodo bird and Hannah Montana (I’m going out on a limb here and saying that the girl’s days in the public eye are numbered…I’m just sayin’…).

So, my friends, before your collective attention span is totally spent, listen up!

‘Buying green’ is dumb. Yep, I said it. $150 bamboo pants will not save the world, they will only serve as a reminder in your closet, ten years from now, of that phase you went through when ‘being eco-chic was totally ‘in’.
Compact flourescent light bulbs will not save the world. They are cool, and I do think they are a good move, but they are not perfect, and they are not a solution to the energy crisis.
Green Marketing is like a fish on a bicycle. It is everything we hate about mass media. Don’t tell me everything that’s good about your product without telling me the implications of buying it. Doing that is the same as any other marketing. So shut up already. I really don’t care if my shampoo comes in a recyclable package if the product itself has chemicals that can disrupt my immune system. Tell us the good, and seriously….DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE BAD…then you’ll actually have something to say that consumers want to hear! There is no such thing as green marketing. There is good marketing, and there is bad marketing.

greenwash-paint-150That’s what the word ‘greenwashing’ means…..Inflating one good ‘eco-point’, just to sell products, while ignoring all of the negatives.

In closing, don’t buy Time’s green issue. If you want to know about green, buy a ‘green’ publication or book. Ask questions, read fine print, read blogs! Subscribe to mine! Don’t let the big kids on the playground tell you what’s right and wrong, and then steal your lunch money. Stand up for yourselves! You are smarter than you know.

An that’s why Green Magazine Issues are Stupid.

P.S.- I’m struck by the irony of this image:

paint ad_Campaign_Retail_green

Greenwashing from an actual paint company….HAHAHAHAHA! Greenwashing is bait and switch advertising. It’s basically saying, “Hey, look over here at this shiny green thing! Pay no attention to the child labor behind the curtain.”  I mean seriously? Paint your house with toxic, chemical-rich paint as a way to capture, uh….Green-ology? Did I read that right? So Green really is just a color. Got it. Seriously, this goes out to ad agencies everywhere….Stop helping. Really. We’re good.

Coffee…Part 2

May 5, 2009

First off….before you go any further, check out yesterday’s post titled ‘Coffee, Coffee, Coffee’….but you already did that, right? Good…let’s move on to the next certification program: Rainforest Alliance (or ‘The Frog’ torainforest-alliance those in the coffee world). RA has a long history and a very well-known name as a credible program for environmental good.

Rainforest Alliance partners with the Sustainable Agriculture Network to certify farmers under the RA system. RA also works with several other crops, and is the largest certifier of FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) lumber in the world. Unlike Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance does not set minimum price requirements for purchasers, though it does require that a small amount be paid over and above the regular purchase price for being RA certified. This fee is paid in the supply chain, and is not an added to the consumer price. Currently, the fee is averaging approximately $0.10 per pound of green coffee (green means un-roasted…note that coffee loses approximately 20-25% of it’s weight in the roasting process), though this information is not readily available anywhere publicly that I could find….and I looked HARD. RA’s primary value proposition is that it is an environmental steward, though it does have secondary messaging about improving productivity and social programs, it is an expensive program for producers to implement.

Key Points on Rainforest Alliance:

1. Like Fair Trade, RA does not require 100% content to use their label, instead, they require just 30%. Though in my opinion, this may open some market access to companies that can not feasibly convert all of their coffee to a more sustainable option, I just can’t help but wonder about the 70% of coffee in that Yuban can that was grown in a clear cut forest and picked by small children who were sold as day labor by their parents. And no, that is not an exaggeration.

2. RA is HUGE. They have a giant budget and several hundred people telling you how great they are.

3. RA, like Fair Trade, flat out refuses to work with other certifiers at origin (origin is the generic term the coffee business uses to describe anywhere coffee is grown). Their stock answer as to why they refuse is, “Well, not everyone buys a Volkswagon.” I kid you not. I have heard that at several conferences direct from their high-ups.

Overall RA is is a program thatyuban-ra has brought tremendous attention to sustainability, just like Fair Trade. Unfortunately, it is also not a market-based program, meaning prices are set by buyers that understand the western market, and sold by farmers that generally don’t, and they do not have mechanisms in their system to change this. There is also no facet of either model that incorporates quality as an indicator of what the price should be into the scheme’s framework.

Fundamentally, one of the largest problems in the coffee industry is that prices are controlled by the very complicated and convoluted commodity market. This means that the crappiest, most undrinkable coffee is all lumped together in the pricing structure with the finest, most exotic and rare varieties. It would be like if we charged the same price for Miller High Life (the undisputed Champagne of Beers) as we did for Dom Perignon….even beyond that, it would be like pouring them together in a big vat, splitting it in half, and selling half as High Life and half as Dom. Does that make sense to you?

Farmers need education, financial help, and environmental support, but much more than that, they need western buyers to be willing to pay what coffee is really worth, and the knowledge to then improve their quality accordingly.

We have to stop throwing money at the problem. Here’s an idea I actually got from a republican: Pay what something is worth. Better quality should get better prices. …….Oh, and crappy quality is destroying the world (I added that last bit myself).

I will cover price in another post very soon. Tomorrow’s coffee topic will be about UTZ CERTIFED, one of my current clients. I will also be talking about why a latte costs $4.00 now, and why you should pay that much (at least sometimes), and whay all those financial planners telling you to stop with the cappuccinos are dead wrong.

Coffee Coffee Coffee

May 4, 2009

daily_apr07_2006_peetsAs many people reading this know, I worked in the coffee business for a very long time. There are those far and wide that have been put to sleep to my rants about good espresso vs. great espresso. Though I still judge a coffee house by how high-pitched the sound of the steaming milk is when I walk in, that is not the topic for today. Today I want to begin a discussion about navigating the labels. You know what I’m talking about….USDA Organic, Fair Trade, Bird Friendly, Shade Grown, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified….and that’s just the ones you have probably heard of. There are more in the pipeline…waiting patiently in the wings for you to get bored or over-saturated with the current offerings…so they can tell you what to buy. I work in this business, and I have no idea how any of these organizations expect consumers to understand why one is better than the other, and/or what they all mean. For the next few posts, I will cover each of the labels individually (’cause you will get SO bored if I try to make your read it all at once).

Before I jump into what the difference is between all of these, I want to begin by saying that they are all useful, all well-intentioned, and are all helping to solve a problem that has truly global implications. Though I have done significant work with UTZ, I do try not hold any biases, and only want to tell you what I know from the inside of a VERY complex industry.

To understand the solutions (that are available right now), first you need a picture of the problem. Coffee is the second most highly traded commodity in the world, second only to oil. When I talk about ‘farmers’ or ‘producers’ I am talking about literally millions of people in more than thirty countries, that speak hundreds of different languages, and deal with an ever growing and dangerously diverse set of political, environmental, and socio-economical problems that are unique to every single region. Almost all of these growers live in total poverty. It is estimated that more than fifty sets of hands will touch every single bean from its origin to your cup. It is one of the most difficult crops to grow, in some of the harshest and most remote corners of the planet, and is shipped all over the world where it is then roasted by master craftspeople who train for years for the privelege, and yet, we pay an average of just $0.08 per cup. When was the last time you drank a $0.08 glass of wine? For that matter when was the last time you could but $0.08 worth of soda? And soda is pretty much just suger and water mixed in a big bucket by a machine. The one thing I am hardline on is that good coffee should cost more. Bad coffee is a whole seperate issue.

Ok, so back to the labels. The first program I am covering is Fair Trade:


This label means that a farm has paid several thousand dollars to become certified, and that they have agreed to adhere to certain standards for environmental, social, and fiscal standards set forth by the Fair Trade Labeling Organization. The basis of FT’s program is that when a consumer sees the FT label, they know that the maker of the product was paid a fair wage. A key point on this is that that price is SET BY FAIR TRADE. It is NOT contingent on quality, consistency, pesticide use, or environmental considerations. Their system is designed to stop the coffee market from crashing again, as it did in the 90’s, when Vietman flooded the market with low quality coffee, and the price for all grades (quality levels) dropped to catastrophically low levels, destroying the livlihoods of farmers worldwide. Think of it as an insurance policy for the industry. If prices were to drop, those that are FT Certified would not be subject to the drop because they would have purchase agreements with exporters and roasters that would require the set price be paid, not matter what the market does.

A few other good things to know about FT:

1. Farmers must be a member of a democratically-run growing co-op. Farmers must be between four and eleven acres in size, thus excluding very small holders, as well as huge farms that cause much more environmental damage.

2. It is also important to note that the premium price paid by the consumer for FT coffee goes to the co-op, NOT THE FARMER. The co-op then takes their administration fee and distributes the rest to farmers. There is no system in place to monitor how the money is spent.

3. Fair Trade and Organic ARE NOT LINKED IN ANY WAY. If you want Organic, Fair Trade coffee, you must look for both labels.

4. Fair Trade only requires that 50% of the contents in their coffee bags is actually certified. Makes you wonder what the other 50% is, doesn’t it?

Tune in tomorrow for explanations of Organic and Rainforest Alliance! Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions on this topic. I am leaving a lot out, and am happy to fill in the blanks for anyone who would like more detailed info. Or….check out this other blog….this guy said it all really well (and really thoroughly).

Compact Flourescent Bulb Disposal

May 2, 2009

So….now you want to know what to do with those bulbs, huh? Well, according to the Energy Star website:

“The EPA recommends that consumers take advantage of available local recycling options for compact fluorescent light bulbs. EPA is working with CFL manufacturers and major U.S. retailers to expand recycling and disposal options. Consumers can contact their local municipal solid waste agency directly, or go to or to identify local recycling options.”

Sounds complicated. I am SO buying candles tomorrow.

No really, the point is, doing the right thing is complicated. We can’t just throw things ‘away’ anymore.

There is no more ‘away’.

‘Away’ is now a garbage atoll off the coast of Hawaii that is now DOUBLE the size of Texas. DOUBLE THE SIZE OF TEXAS! It is the largest landfill in the world, only it’s not a landfill, it is the place where several thousand species of marine life used to reside. Maybe we can move there when the beaches of Hawaii are under water. Birds in the area are falling out of the sky, and when they are autopsied, scientists are finding their bellies filled with the shadows and shells of our society; plastic lighters, bottle caps that still read, “You’ve won a FREE Mountain Dew!” I’m sure that brings great comfort to the current owner.

We can no longer throw thingspacific_garbage_patch-600x600 away. There is no more away.

The Clean Slate

May 1, 2009

Everyone always asks me why I haven’t started blogging.

“You have so much good stuff to share,” they say.

“Why don’t you put it out there?”

“You know things that other people don’t”

You get the idea. The answer is simple. I know enough to know how much I don’t know. But, I do know a little bit about a lot, and I know a lot of the players that do have the answers, and until recently, I failed to see the value in that awareness.

I am beginning this exchange with the intention of being a conduit between those that have questions about sustainability, and those that have answers.

Because this is the first post, I want to begin by saying that I am giving anyone reading this permission to release what I call ‘Green Guilt’. We are starting fresh together. A clean slate. You no longer have to feel bad about buying a bottle of water at lunch, forgetting to turn the lights off, or running the faucet while you brush your teeth. Let it go. Today is a new day, and I am giving you permission to be flawed, confused, overwhelmed, and probably a little terrified by how big this problem is and how small and ineffective we all feel to make a difference. We are all confused. We are all scared and we  would all rather stick our heads in the sand and just hope for the best. But what we are missing is the fact that we have been doing exactly that for far too long. For far too long, we have been putting all of our faith in systems, rather than people, to make a difference and make change happen. This is why Green is not about light bulbs or plastic bottles or carbon offsets or organic tomatoes. All of these thing are band aids on a much larger, but much simpler problem. As a people, we have lost our ability to inquire and make informed and personal decisions. We crave simple, clean solutions that help us sleep better at night. We listen when Oprah tells us to change our light bulbs, but we don’t ask, “What am I supposed to do with the mercury in the light bulb when it burns out?” We don’t ask because we are a right now society. We seem to think that in seven or eight years, when the bulb burns out, that Oprah will be there to tell us what to do with it so that it doesn’t end up in a landfill, where it is crushed, the mercury is released, where it seeps into the water deep below the surface where it then travels to our rivers, gets eaten by a little fish, which gets eaten by a big fish, which then gets eaten by nice, well meaning people who just wanted to get a good sushi dinner before they drove their hybrid to their solar powered house, where they conceive a child who ends up being autistic. They blame the vaccinations, but really it was that well-meaning person who changed all their light bulbs, just like Oprah said, but never bother to ask, “How do I get rid of these safely?”

My goal with every word I write is to help people understand the need for questions in every corner of our lives. We must ask if the products we buy will harm us; if the water we drink is safe; if cutting back on gas will really save us. Beyond that, we must also ask if the products we use harmed those that made them, and if their is a better way.  In my opinion, the single most destructive force in driving us to the brink is the fact that we take our lives, our loved ones, our possessions, and our planet for granted. As a result, we have detached our collective selves from the natural world. Fundamentally, we are not separate. We are a pulsing, thriving force for change and growth on this planet, and we are not evil. We are complacent, and we are scared. We must again become a culture of pioneers, of trailblazers, of inquiring minds.

In the simplest of terms, sustainability is defined as living our lives in such a way that we do not compromise future generations’ ability to do the same.

We must do better, and to do better we all need to understand what the problems really are, what the current solutions look like, and how we can integrate all of that into our lives and our businesses.

If every adult died tomorrow, would our children know what to do with all those light bulbs?