The Death of Coffee Certification – Let’s Hope

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.

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