Coffee With a Conscience

Coffee With a Conscience

Java drinkers don't have to travel far to find a cup of Joe that's not only high quality, but also good for the environment and the farmer. A quick stop at Target will do. That's because Target sells organic, fair trade and even cup of excellence coffee, a coveted designation given to the best-of-the-best coffee. It was once inconceivable that such exceptional offerings would be available at a discount

Java drinkers don't have to travel far to find a cup of Joe that's not only high quality, but also good for the environment and the farmer. A quick stop at Target will do.

That's because Target sells organic, fair trade and even “cup of excellence” coffee, a coveted designation given to the best-of-the-best coffee.

It was once inconceivable that such exceptional offerings would be available at a discount chain.

That's certainly no longer the case as retailers wake up their coffee sections with specialty brews that go far beyond providing a morning jolt of caffeine.

“Mainstream America is elevating its expectations of quality coffee,” said Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, Long Beach, Calif.

What's more, today's coffee drinkers are specifically seeking out roasts that have social and environmental benefits. Whether it's saving the rainforest, keeping harmful chemicals in check or paying farmers a fair price, coffee buyers are increasingly seeking out so-called responsibly grown coffee.

At Whole Foods there's coffee backed by the Whole Trade Guarantee, meaning the brand meets high-quality standards and ensures fair wages for growers and sustainable farming practices. Likewise, with every purchase of Whole Foods' Allegro Coffee Co.'s Kanyovu light-roast coffee, shoppers support efforts to reforest the area around Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park, a preserve in the region where the coffee is grown.

“Consumers are increasingly concerned with the social and environmental ramifications of their purchases, so the Fair Trade Certified label offers them a simple way to know that their purchases will make a positive difference,” said Jennifer Gallegos, coffee director of Fair Trade USA (formerly called TransFair), Oakland, Calif., a third-party certifier of Fair Trade Certified products in the U.S.

Last year, imports of Fair Trade Certified coffee grew 25%, according to Fair Trade USA. Much of that growth is due to the increasing availability of Fair Trade-certified coffee in the grocery channel, according to Gallegos. Take Wal-Mart. In addition to selling Fair Trade Certified coffee in more than 600 locations, it's a development partner of Fair Trade USA to help increase the supply and quality of Brazilian coffee, according to Gallegos.

“These investments make huge impacts in the lives of farmers and workers, supporting education, healthcare and other vital social services,” Gallegos told SN.

Starbucks began purchasing Fair Trade Certified coffee in 2000. Last year, it increased it purchases to 40 million pounds - making it the largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified coffee in the world. It buys most of its coffee using its Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) practices, measurable standards for product quality, payment transparency, social responsibility and environmental leadership.

Other retailers also have strict coffee standards in place. The entire bulk assortment (both ground and whole bean) at PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, is Fair Trade certified. Featured brands include Tony's, Kalani Organica, Fidalgo Bay Nature's Crest, Equal Exchange Caffe Ladro and Newman's Own Organics/Green Mountain Roasters.

PCC supports Fair Trade because there's minimal cost to PCC, but big benefits to coffee growers, said Stephanie Steiner, PCC's grocery merchandiser.

“There's a tremendous social welfare benefit to coffee farmers, their families and their communities,” Steiner told SN.

Along with Fair Trade, a newer business model is called direct trade. Direct trade is similar to fair trade in that it seeks to provide a fair price for small farmers and encourage them to develop sustainable, ecologically responsible practices.

The main difference between direct trade and fair trade is that in fair trade, buyers don't pay more for coffee when the quality improves, said Joe Prewett, vice president of marketing for Coffee Bean International.

“With our program, we reward farmers for their hard work,” Prewett said.

Consumers benefit because they get the absolute highest quality coffee, said Prewett.

This is critical at a time when coffee drinkers have more discerning tastes. After commonly visiting Starbucks or another coffee house, consumers often want to replicate that experience at home.

“Premiumization is a big driver in the coffee business,” he said.

Target Corp., Minneapolis, and The Fresh Market, Greensboro, N.C., have both introduced direct-trade, private-label coffee manufacturered by Coffee Bean International, Portland, Ore. Coffee Bean works with independent farmers in the San Ignacio region of Peru.

Direct trade provides transparency in terms of the price that both seller and buyer agree on, said Paul Thornton, Coffee Bean International's coffee buyer and roastmaster.

“The grower and buyer both know what's being paid for products,” Thornton said.

Coffee Bean pays farmers a certain price for roasts that score 82 to 85 on the tasting scale; a higher price for those that score 86 to 88, and the most for roasts that score over 88. Direct trade typically costs consumers at least $10 to $15 per 12 ounces.

“We want to make sure they get paid enough to feel that they're getting the best deal for the best quality,” he said.

SCAA's Rhinehart describes direct trade as an approach that emphasizes a high-quality product and a quality of life for farmers.

“It's a good concept proven by a small group of committed players,” he said.

Along with Coffee Bean International, several other companies are also involved in direct trade. They include Intelligentsia Coffee, MadCap Coffee, Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Counter Culture Coffee.

Intelligentsia generally pays farmers 25% or more above the Fair Trade price to growers committed to “healthy environmental practices.”

“We believe human effort is the most critical factor in quality coffee and that the growers who do the best work should get the best price,” according to company marketing materials.

Steiner, of PCC, has researched direct trade to see if it could be fit for PCC Markets. She likes the concept since it helps farmers financially.

But she has concerns, saying direct trade agreements don't have uniform trade or labor standards, or third-party inspections. She fears this could lead to misinterpretation and misuse of the direct-trade term.

“The standards and inspection process are what give me confidence that I, my company, and my customers are supporting the standards we think we are supporting,” she said.

Fair Trade and direct trade are different in terms of mission and scalability, added Stacy Wagner, Fair Trade USA's public relations and media director.

While Fair Trade focuses on empowering people and communities so that through trade they can lift themselves out of poverty, direct trade is about working directly with one farmer to get the highest quality coffee, Wagner said.

“We support the effort to help farmers grow higher quality crops, but we'd like to see that knowledge dispersed,” said Wagner.

Wagner added, “Direct trade is not bad, we just don't believe it's sustainable.”

25%
The growth experienced by Fair Trade Certified coffee in 2009

SOURCE: Fair Trade USA