Coffee Information

What is Sustainable Coffee and How Does it Affect My Wake Cup?

Gourmet coffee lovers have been seeing a few new terms in the local premium coffee shop as they file past the seasonal retail displays of roasted whole bean bagged coffees. Phrases include eco-friendly, organic, shade grown, fair trade and certified sustainable. Most often those beans seem to the casual buyer to be simply more expensive than the corporate mega-brands.

But these few phrases represent far more than at first glance, including economic and social gains for the growing regions and farmers, harvesters and processors of green coffee beans at the local level. Sustainable coffee means premium prices and quality coffee due to organic farming practices, fair market payment for beans to local growers and quality controls being adopted by the "certified" coffee brands.

Those premium coffee prices reflect growing concerns worldwide of paying fair wages to growers, using more expensive ecologically friendly organic farming practices, better pay for traditionally underpaid harvesters and processing workers and strict quality controls being adopted for "certified sustainable coffees."

Daniele Giovannucci consults with governments, international agencies, and businesses on coffee markets and production strategies to improve competitiveness and support innovative environmental and rural poverty reduction work. Giovannucci has authored exhaustive studies, including the 2003, "The State of Sustainable Coffee Report - A Study of Twelve Major Markets."

This study discusses coffee market forces in Europe and Japan and the growth of sustainable coffee around the world, estimating that fair trade, organic, and eco-friendly coffees represent less than 2 percent of coffee consumption in developed markets.

Another Giovannucci authored study, "Sustainable Coffee Survey of the North American Specialty Coffee Industry," he estimates the Global market for sustainable coffee to be approximately $565 million retail for over a million 60 kilo (about 132 pounds) bags of green coffee beans.

It is estimated that growers of certified sustainable coffees can nearly double their income from otherwise depressed coffee prices. So economically challenged third world countries see small farmers adopting organic growing techniques as a ticket out of poverty and subsistence. Corporate buyers are attracted to sustainable growers by consumer goodwill and health concerns related to those organically grown coffees. This leads to dubious claims by some of the corporate coffee representatives and has lead to the need for certification authorities.

One group, Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) has been active in monitoring and certifying, auditing and verifying standards for sustainable coffees. Another, named Transfair USA, carries on similar activities in the American coffee market. Consumers are justifiably confused when many terms are applied to sustainable coffees and fail to differentiate between organic, eco-friendly, fair trade and sustainable terms.

Premium prices are sometimes supported by certification, labeling and monitoring by third-party organizations and sometimes by local governments such as the "Jamaica Coffee Industry Board." But some labeling is simply slick sales and PR by greedy corporations seeking premium prices for average coffee beans, so support for labeling initiatives and independent certification is growing.

Fair Trade and sustainable coffees are seeing increasing production in Central and South American growing regions, most notably in Mexico and Peru. Columbia has seen some pressure and attempts to divert production of cocaine with coffee crops for the fair trade market with little major success to report so far. Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia are big participants in sustainable coffees in Africa while East Timor, India and Indonesia are major supporters of sustainable coffee in Asia.

With the North American coffee market dominated by multinational giants Sara Lee, Kraft and Procter & Gamble, little interest has been shown in adopting sustainable coffee by major corporate coffee producers. Meanwhile, Brazil and Vietnam, the world's No. 1 and No. 2 coffee producers, respectively are flooding the market with poor quality beans and driving down coffee prices.

But major grocery chains are seeing demand for sustainable coffee and may adopt fair trade and organic coffees to sell nationwide at Safeway, Kroger and Albertson's stores. Increases in availability, demand and awareness of sustainable coffee are leading to more of the same in a spiraling increase for fair trade organic and shade coffees in premium markets. Some sustainable coffees are even finding their way into instant coffees, but the vast majority of the sustainable market is in premium and specialty markets.

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Tastes of The World coffee company focuses on specialty gourmet coffees which are not readily available in the United States. Rare Gourmet Coffee from Jamaica Blue Mountain to Kopi Luwak exotic and fine Italian Espressos from Illy and Marcafe as well as a selection of premium Puerto Rican coffees including Cafe Tres Picachos.

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