• Sustainability, certification, verification, corporate guidelines

    Sustainability has been defined by some as ‘meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. It can then be further defined in social, ethical and environmental dimensions with biodiversity perhaps as the key measure of environmental sustainability in the natural world. This concept appeals to coffee growers and consumers who are not necessarily interested in, or who see no rationale to the production of organic coffee as such, perhaps because they believe that low yields coupled with increasing availability of organic coffee will always prevent small growers from generating the high incomes that some proponents of organic coffee production believe can be achieved. Others do not see the market potential as sufficiently large, and still others simply believe that it is possible to achieve more or less the same objectives without going the organic way, which for mainstream producers would be very difficult if not entirely impossible to do.

    This is not the place to pronounce for or against any of these arguments but, if a production process maintains biodiversity then, presumably, one may consider that it sustains rather than harms the environment. If so, and when linked with consideration for social and ethical issues, this concept presents a broad alternative for the more directly focused objectives of some individual labels.

    Sustainability in itself of course does not need the guarantee of a certification or verification. Often, producers are already improving performance and efficiency significantly through the use of good agricultural practices (GAP) and/or good management practices (GMP). Certainly, this does not imply the need for an audit procedure. Nevertheless, consumers generally wish to be able to place a certain trust in claims such as “this is an environmentally friendly” or “socially responsible” product. Hence the existence of different ways and means to provide such guarantees to roasters and retailers alike that allow them to offer what is sometimes also called ‘no-worry coffee’.

    Certification guarantees through a certificate that specific rules and regulations of voluntary standards are met in a certain environment (e.g. individual producer, producer group, cooperative or even region). These producers have to meet certain requirements – social, economical, environmental – and certification calls for independent third-party confirmation of this status, conducted by an accredited auditor. Mostly, certifications have to be renewed on an annual basis.

    Roasters buying certified coffee benefit from the guarantee provided by the certificate by using the logo and related information on their retail packaging. Certification protects both buyer and supplier, often also resulting in better marketing opportunities since there is a specific demand for certified products. Examples of well-known certification schemes in the coffee sector include www.fairtrade.net, www.rainforest-alliance.org, www.utzcertified.org.

    Verification also ensures that certain agreed criteria and practices are met, but does not use a certificate to market the claim to the final consumer. Instead company standards or internal supply chain standards rely on verification processes that are not as rigid and costly as a certification process that has to be conducted by appointed auditors. Instead, local third-party actors such as NGOs - or even second-party actors - may be asked to verify adherence to specific criteria. In addition, the timing between repeat verifications may be significantly less onerous than an annual re-certification process. In the coffee sector the most prominent example of a verification scheme is 4C – the Common Code for the Coffee Community. 4C offers guidelines for better coffee farming that link up with GAP and GMP, whilst aiming at continuous improvement. The claims 4C makes are therefore not as specific as those of certification schemes and it refrains from using an on-pack (retail) logo. See http://www.4c-coffeeassociation.org for more.

    Corporate guidelines or buying standards broadly pursue the same objectives and also set standards that aim at improving sustainability. Different from open certification and verification schemes, corporate guidelines or standards are company-specific. That is, retail credit can only be claimed by the buyer that initiated the standard. By far the best-known examples of such standards are the Starbucks CAFÉ Practices Program and the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality™ both of which, in addition to the usual sustainability issues, also deal with coffee quality.

    For more on this see: http://www.scscertified.com/retail/rss_starbucks.php and www.nespresso.com.

    Of course the quest for sustainability does not end with coffee production. The end objective for the coffee industry is to extend sustainability throughout the entire supply chain. In this respect it is noteworthy that in March 2011 the well known roaster Illycaffé (www.illy.com) in Trieste, Italy was formally awarded the certification of Responsible Supply Chain Process by the certifiers DNV Business Assurance, a unit of Det Norske Veritas (www.dnv.com). The event marked the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of the Ernesto Illy Brazil Award for Coffee Quality. The certification marks the organization’s ability to provide a sustainable approach to processes and stakeholder relations all along the production chain, and specifically in the supply chain.
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