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by Jim Stewart, Guest Writer

The Death of Coffee Certification — Let’s Hope

Categories: 2012, MarchTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Author:

Editor’s Note: The ques­tion of the future need for social and envi­ron­men­tal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion – and their asso­ci­ated costs – is very much on peo­ples’ minds. Instead of the reg­u­lar “View” from us, we decided instead to devote this space, and much of the rest of this issue, to opin­ions from promi­nent mem­bers of our com­mu­nity. First off is Jim Stewart, co-founder of Seattle’s Best Coffee and one of our industry’s early pio­neers in how to do “spe­cialty.” Farther on we hear from Bill Fishbein, co-founder of Coffee Kids and Founder of the Coffee Trust; Sandra Marquardt joins in sup­port­ing Organic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion; and Fair Trade – USA™ par­tic­i­pates with a Q&A about their resent pol­icy changes. We hope you enjoy this exchange of opin­ions.
Kerri & Miles

In my opin­ion, cer­ti­fi­ca­tions in the cof­fee indus­try are a crutch used by roast­ers and to some degree, by pro­duc­ers as well. It facil­i­tates them not tak­ing the time to get on an air­plane, fly­ing to a pro­ducer coun­try, and form­ing their own close per­sonal rela­tion­ship with a cof­fee pro­ducer. Why should a pro­ducer pay a fee to some cer­ti­fi­ca­tion group, plus then an exporter and an importer each pay another fee to be in the pro­gram, and finally the roaster pays yet more fees, so some stranger can ver­ify their story? Why not tell it your­self? Surely, your cus­tomers will trust you! Let me tell you why. You get the lit­tle sticker so when Mrs. Housewife comes in and says I want Fair Trade, shade grown, rain for­est friendly, etc. etc. etc. cof­fee, Mr. Roaster can point to his lit­tle sticker or maybe 2, 3, or 4 lit­tle stick­ers and say, “yup” we got it lady. What a cop out!

Let’s back up
I live on Vashon Island in Washington State. A very unique place, in fact I expect the sec­ond com­ing to occur there. With lots of cre­ative, sen­si­tive, organic, earth friendly, results ori­ented, opin­ion­ated types of folks. They are on the cut­ting edge of many trends that are way ahead of their time.

So, early one morn­ing in Costa Rica watch­ing CNN, sip­ping my farm’s wild har­vest typ­ica cof­fee, on the screen appears a ring of 24 naked les­bians toe to toe form­ing a “cir­cle of peace” on the cold wet rocks of a Vashon Island beach. It was the first pub­lic nation­ally tele­vised protest of the Iraq inva­sion. As I said these Vashonites are the lead­ers of many trends.

I would say, it was maybe 5 or 6 years ago that some of these same peo­ple, pri­mar­ily the Vashon organic pro­duce farm­ers said “NO”! NO MORE, to organic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Why, they said, should we pay a total stranger in New York City who may not have as much as a flower pot in his or her win­dow a fee that says to my cus­tomers that I am an organic farmer? Further. I know my cus­tomers and they know me. They are wel­come to visit the farm and see first hand what my farm­ing prac­tices are. See my chil­dren play­ing in the fields and know for sure that it is safe. They can choose to trust me the farmer, their neigh­bor and not rely on the word of a total stranger. This is hard to argue with in itself and we have not even touched on the added cost to the con­sumer for this ser­vice. This cost, when push comes to shove, is meet­ing with high resis­tance at the con­sumer level. Fact is in my 40 years at SBC the cus­tomer never was will­ing to pay for all the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion costs and much of it was born by the company.

Several years ago, I stood up, totally out of char­ac­ter, and stated the above at a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion sym­po­sium in Costa Rica’s Sintercafe. My point being that I pre­dicted the end of the cof­fee cer­ti­fi­ca­tion folly in the next five years based on the actions of the Vashon Island organic pro­duce farm­ers. The room, mostly made up of pro­duc­ers and roaster retail­ers plus 6 to 8 of the var­i­ous cer­ti­fi­ca­tion groups exploded in applause.

I hate to com­plain if I can­not offer an alter­na­tive or a solu­tion. I went on to explain that I, in 1977 as a tiny break-even-at-best cof­fee roaster retailer got on a plane and trav­eled through­out Central and South America vis­it­ing cof­fee exporters and pro­duc­ers and how that trip lead to buy­ing directly from pro­duc­ing coun­tries (always thru exporters). I formed per­sonal busi­ness rela­tion­ships and friend­ships that I still keep today. I spoke directly to farm­ers about my con­cerns and rec­om­men­da­tions with regard to the envi­ron­ment, tra­di­tional prepa­ra­tion, the vari­ety of tree, social well­be­ing, etc. etc. etc. You see I was the buyer offer­ing to buy their prod­uct at a pre­mium when my sug­ges­tions were fol­lowed. I was not from some cer­ti­fy­ing orga­ni­za­tion charg­ing for my ser­vice, and leav­ing the farmer with a dream that buy­ers would be clam­or­ing for their cof­fee and pay­ing mag­nif­i­cent prices because they had some stamp of approval. I went on to explain how these rela­tion­ships lead to the for­ma­tion of The Vashon Island Coffee Foundation (the sec­ond best kept secret in the cof­fee indus­try). Thru this foun­da­tion we returned some of the inter­na­tional value of the cof­fee we pur­chased directly to cof­fee pro­duc­ing com­mu­ni­ties in many coun­tries but in par­tic­u­lar to Santiago de Atitlan in Guatemala. In that com­mu­nity, we built two schools, a water sys­tem, a road, and a clinic. You see we did that because we thought we should, because it was right, and not because it was a mar­ket­ing strat­egy. You guys can do it too, you can, and I know you will, in time, just like those Vashon Island pro­duce farm­ers did.

The mod­er­a­tor then gave the cer­ti­fy­ing guys a chance for rebut­tal and I will never ever for­get what Chris Willy of The Rain Forest Alliance said! “We don’t want you build­ing schools!” I was so shocked I could not respond. “‘Scuse me ‘scuse me, what did you just say?” I was so stunned that I never did go to him for clar­i­fi­ca­tion. We were so proud of the work we did, those projects changed lives, and they were the great­est projects. What could he have pos­si­bly have meant?

I made these com­ments after I had sold SBC and was very clear then as I am now that these are my per­sonal feel­ings and have noth­ing what­so­ever to do with cur­rent SBC pol­icy, sup­pos­ing they have any policy.

I more or less for­got about it, went on about my busi­ness of enjoy­ing life and then about three years ago I began help­ing two roast­ers, one on Vashon Island and the other on Whidbey Island buy cof­fee directly from pro­duc­ing coun­tries. These roast­ers are con­tin­u­ing my per­sonal rela­tion­ships and mak­ing them their own. They have trav­eled to the farms that sup­ply their cof­fee to wit­ness first hand the ded­i­ca­tion and pas­sion. They also tes­tify to their own com­mit­ments, pas­sion, and appre­ci­a­tion for the producer’s effort. The roast­ers use the expe­ri­ence to edu­cate their cus­tomers thereby sup­port­ing and jus­ti­fy­ing the value and price of the prod­uct. This fur­ther cre­ates a great feel­ing for the cus­tomer for their con­tri­bu­tion to rais­ing the stan­dard of liv­ing for cof­fee work­ers in devel­op­ing countries.

You can imag­ine my glee when this January I asked the roast­ers how much cer­ti­fied organic cof­fee they wanted and they both said, “none!” Independent of one another they both said we are drop­ping cer­ti­fied organic. “The gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions have become too dif­fi­cult, too expen­sive, and we do not need the aggra­va­tion. The vol­ume does not sup­port the headache and the cost. We are devel­op­ing our own pro­grams based on our trav­els and explain­ing this to our clients directly face to face, one on one. The folks like it bet­ter to be shar­ing with us our per­sonal expe­ri­ences and feel a real con­nec­tion to the cof­fee farm­ers. Quite hon­estly there has been a lot of resis­tance to the added cost of certification.”

Food for thought!

Jim Stewart, along with his brother David, founded Seattle’s Best Coffee within their ice cream par­lor called the Wet Whisker. Seattle’s Best grew to become one of the pre­em­i­nent spe­cialty cof­fee com­pa­nies world-wide. An early true believer in spe­cialty cof­fee, Stewart is truly one of our industry’s great­est luminaries.

Sunrise, Sunset…Sunrise

Categories: 2012, MarchTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Author:

Recent devel­op­ments around the Fair Trade front have shocked the Fair Trade world. Fingers are pointed at those con­sid­ered vil­lains. Perceived betrayal has led to feel­ings of right­eous indig­na­tion. My own voice has been amongst the chat­ter. A few days ago, I took a moment to look at the broader real­ity of what is hap­pen­ing to Fair Trade. In so doing, I came to a sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent point of view.

Fair Trade cer­ti­fi­ca­tion was born in the late 1980’s from a cadre of indi­vid­u­als moti­vated by the ram­pant injus­tice expe­ri­enced by cof­fee farm­ers, in the face of record prof­its earned by cof­fee mer­chants sell­ing the world’s most traded food com­mod­ity. Let’s call them the Idealists.

At first, the Idealists pushed their way into the mar­ket and the dom­i­nant cof­fee cul­ture balked. But, soon it became appar­ent that Fair Trade would become a very pop­u­lar ‘brand’ that could be applied to anyone’s cof­fee, as long as the cof­fee pur­chased met cer­tain stan­dards. Rightly or wrongly, the name Fair Trade became syn­ony­mous with sus­tain­abil­ity, and Fair Trade cof­fee became the hottest sell­ing cof­fee on the mar­ket. Along with its suc­cess though, came a plea from one Fair Trade fac­tion to loosen the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion stan­dards in order to free up sup­ply. Let’s call that fac­tion the Pragmatists.

That plea evolved into a Fair Trade civil war between the Idealists and the Pragmatists over the inclu­sion of estate grown cof­fees under the Fair Trade label, which had pre­vi­ously been lim­ited to small-scale farm­ers from demo­c­ra­t­i­cally run coop­er­a­tives. The Pragmatists are keenly sen­si­tive to the power of the mar­ket and its capac­ity to pull mil­lions of pounds of Fair Trade cof­fee on to super­mar­ket shelves. The Pragmatists also see Fair Trade ben­e­fits reach­ing mil­lions more farmers.

With lower stan­dards, the Idealists are par­tic­u­larly con­cerned that the level of those ben­e­fits to farm­ers will be sig­nif­i­cantly reduced, and that the newly cer­ti­fied estates will siphon off sales from small-scale cof­fee farm­ers. The Idealists also worry that flood­ing the mar­ket with the Pragmatists’ estate cof­fee will also pres­sure coop­er­a­tives to lower their own cer­ti­fi­ca­tion stan­dards to increase their own supplies.

Of course, the Pragmatists’ ship has already sailed. So, let’s take a look at the reality.

The real­ity is that in the course of a gen­er­a­tion, the cof­fee world has become a far bet­ter place because Fair Trade pushed its way into the dom­i­nant mar­ket and carved out a pow­er­ful place and brand image for itself. Consumers are far more aware that their pur­chases affect life at ori­gin, and far more cof­fee farm­ers ben­e­fit from their par­tic­i­pa­tion in Fair Trade coop­er­a­tives today than in 1987. And, with the advent of Fair Trade cer­ti­fied estates, mil­lions more will benefit.

The level of those ben­e­fits may not have reached the level intended by the Idealists. But, the over­all extent of Fair Trade’s impact can­not be min­i­mized. That said, rais­ing stan­dards at this junc­tion will not be easy, as the Pragmatists clearly believe that increas­ing Fair Trade sales is the sin­gle most impor­tant mis­sion, and improved stan­dards are an imped­i­ment to those sales. The Pragmatists are not reach­ing for the stars. But, they are con­sol­i­dat­ing the base.

Fair Trade, as it was orig­i­nally envi­sioned by the Idealists, with their high ideals and high stan­dards, is dead. The new norm may be well below the Idealists’ intended mark, but the num­bers stand to be increased expo­nen­tially along with an ever-increasing pres­ence in the mar­ket­place. The ques­tion begs how to increase stan­dards in a mar­ket overly focused on vol­ume, sales and prof­its. Herein lies the miss­ing piece and an enor­mous opportunity.

The oppor­tu­nity to repeat what began in 1987, to relive the Idealists’ dream, the excite­ment, the energy, and the bur­geon­ing entre­pre­neurism that pushed its way into the mar­ket, is ripe to hap­pen all over again. This time though, the jump­ing off point will be from a much higher level, with higher stan­dards already in place. Yes, the stan­dards are lower than orig­i­nally intended, but higher than pre-1987 by a long shot.

Of course, in order to take advan­tage of this oppor­tu­nity, the Idealists must cre­ate a new name, a new brand and new, stricter stan­dards that will chal­lenge the Pragmatists to raise their own stan­dards. Roasters, retail­ers and con­sumers will be chal­lenged to think, and engage in a more open dia­logue about where their cof­fee comes from. If done with integrity, a fierce com­pe­ti­tion will be born between the Idealists and the Pragmatists, and the play­ing field will be those standards.

All cof­fee farm­ers will stand to ben­e­fit from ris­ing stan­dards. Consumers will get a bet­ter glimpse of the com­plex­i­ties at ori­gin, as those com­plex­i­ties will have to be addressed within the com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ment. This will be a refresh­ing change from the more com­mon approach of pan­der­ing to con­sumers with sound bites and superla­tives that have lit­tle mean­ing origin.

The time is right for a new gen­er­a­tion of Idealists to pick up the baton and run so fast even the Pragmatists’ heads will spin. The next move­ment will require cre­ativ­ity, courage, com­mit­ment, and a seri­ous invest­ment in energy and cap­i­tal. Breaking through to a higher level will not be easy, how­ever it is quite doable. Let there be no doubt that it can be done. Remember, it was already done in 1987, and it was a much harder sale back then.

Bill Fishbein is Founder of the Coffee Trust, as well as the one of the orig­i­nal founders of Coffee Kids, along with Dean Cycon. One of our industry’s great human­i­tar­i­ans, Fishbein not only rep­re­sents the best of our pur­poses, but also advo­cates for all of us to reach toward higher goals.

The View

Categories: 2011, MayTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Author:

Arriv­ing back at my desk on Tuesday after the SCAA Annual con­fer­ence, I began the process of men­tally dis­sem­bling all the infor­ma­tion gath­ered through the Symposium and the reg­u­lar con­fer­ence. Here is a par­tial list of those moments that best show the high­est qual­i­ties of the Specialty Coffee industry.

Rick Peyser. Is it pos­si­ble to say too much in praise of Rick. He is our res­i­dent saint in cof­fee. For years he has preached, often in the wilder­ness, about Los Meses Flacos, the thin months. I think I first heard about this from Rick about 5 years ago, and he has writ­ten about it sev­eral times in CoffeeTalk. For those who do not know what this is about, let me explain. The thin months are the period between the end of the har­vest and the begin­ning of next years har­vest when a farmer must sup­port all his family’s and farm’s needs just on what was earned through the last cof­fee har­vest. In a recent sur­vey across Central America, fully 2/3’s of small hold­ing farm­ers said that they were unable to main­tain a nor­mal diet for their fam­i­lies through the thin months. This con­di­tion is so preva­lent that Los Meses Flacos is well known and widely accepted through out cof­fee grow­ing regions as a gen­eral con­di­tion of life.

Now the mes­sage is gain­ing momen­tum in the cof­fee con­sum­ing coun­tries. At the SCAA Rick Peyser, along with the Coffee Trust pre­sented a film about Los Meses Flacos called “After the Harvest” nar­rated by of all peo­ple, Susan Sarandon. It is a mas­ter­piece of visual and emo­tional doc­u­men­tary that bring forth this cru­cial issue with absolute clar­ity. If you care about cof­fee, you must see this film. Rick Peyser, Green Mountain Coffee, The Coffee Trust, and all those involved in the mak­ing of this film are to be con­grat­u­lated. We are in their debt.

Grounds for Health. GFH cel­e­brated its 15th anniver­sary at the SCAA con­fer­ence and what a mag­nif­i­cent achieve­ment. Grounds for Health is ded­i­cated to end­ing the scourge of cer­vi­cal can­cer in devel­op­ing coun­tries. Cervical can­cer is the lead­ing cause of death by nat­ural causes of women of child bear­ing age in the cof­fee­lands. Although rarely lethal in devel­oped coun­tries, for a vari­ety of rea­sons hun­dreds of thou­sands of women die from cer­vi­cal can­cer every year around the world. What is extra­or­di­nary is that the dis­ease is com­pletely pre­ventable and treat­able if dis­cov­ered early. For about 25¢ a kit, the dis­ease can be diag­nosed in a sin­gle visit and then, if a woman is found with can­cer, for a bit more the treat­ment can be per­formed the same day. Everyday, Grounds for Health is sav­ing women’s lives, literally.

This year, Grounds for Health was awarded the SCAA Sustainability Award for their work. A very big achieve­ment. GFH’s big spon­sor is Green Mountain Coffee – again, as well as Royal Coffee, Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee, and ECOM. CoffeeTalk too is proud to be a (lesser) spon­sor and Kerri sits on their Board.

The International Women in Coffee Alliance. The IWCA expe­ri­enced its break­out moment at the SCAA this year. Dedicated to devel­op­ing chap­ters in cof­fee grow­ing coun­tries through which cof­fee women in con­sum­ing coun­tries and pro­duc­ing coun­tries can build strong rela­tion­ships, sup­port each other, and train in bet­ter busi­ness and agri­cul­tural prac­tices to develop qual­ity and higher value. The IWCA signed char­ters with two new chap­ters at the SCAA this year – the Dominican Republic and Burundi, raised thou­sands of dol­lars to fur­ther sup­port pro­grams with a donor appre­ci­a­tion din­ner as well as the now-traditional IWCA break­fast, and secured fund­ing for schol­ar­ships to allow women from ori­gin to attend the sec­ond IWCA International Conference in El Salvador to be held later this year.

With the addi­tion of the Dominican Republic and Burundi, the num­ber of coun­tries with Women in Coffee Chapters rises to seven, with another twelve wait­ing in the wings to ful­fill the require­ments to become chap­ters and join those groups already enjoy­ing the ben­e­fits of the IWCA. CoffeeTalk is proud to also be a spon­sor of the IWCA and Kerri sits on their board as well.

These are just a few of the great moments at the SCAA. We truly have a great asso­ci­a­tion and indus­try. Thank you.
Cheers,