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Coffee Certifications: Certifiably Insane?

Coffee Certification Seals
Ever stopped to wonder about the certifications and seals of approval you see on products? It seems that they're ubiquitious, and they range from the seemingly helpful (QAI's certifications of organic products) to the seemingly routine (toothpaste endorsed by the American Dental Association), to the to the questionable (does anyone really have any idea what the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval is about anymore?) to the downright ludicrous (the Susan G. Komen Foundation's repeated "pinkwashing" of products that carry cancer risks). Even coffee -- perhaps especially coffee -- isn't immune. Granted, for some people, coffee is just another consumable. It's a supermarket staple, it gets us going in the morning, and it pairs well with chocolate cake. Beyond that? Meh. It's coffee, right? But for another small-but-growing subset of coffee drinkers, coffee is about more than just the coffee. Some of us want our coffee to taste good, but we'd also like it to be sourced in a way that's responsible and sustainable, and doesn't screw over the workers who produce and harvest it. To that kind of coffee drinker, a certification can provide reassurance that we're doing good (or at the very least, doing no harm) with our habit.
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That's not as easy as it seems. I'm reminded of this when I read (and re-read) "Corporate Money and Pseudo-Certifications," from the website Coffee & Conservation. While they call out Nestlé and JM Smuckers, their primary bone of contention in this particular case is The Sustainability Consortium, a Walmart-founded and backed certification that's been plastered on several products carried by the chain. While the scant documentation hits all the right buzzwords and lip service (deforestation is bad, mmmkay?), the criteria -- to say nothing of the results -- are far from transparent. And several of the company's "sustainability" partners (among them Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Dupont, and BASF) raise more questions than they answer. And if Wal-Mart's own disclaimer doesn't give you pause (“The Sustainability Leaders badge does not make representations about the environmental or social impact of an individual product"), nothing will.
We approve of this seal (image: Gemma Correll)
There's plenty more contained in the article linked above. Bringing this from the theoretical to the practical, what can you and I do as consumers? Given a regulatory environment that's all but meaningless, and that isn't likely to change any time soon given the money in play, we have to approach products and their certifications with a healthy degree of skepticism. If you see a certification, whether it's for fair trade, direct trade, organic, hand-inspected by macaques, et cetera, research it. If you have a smart phone, you can do it right there in the supermarket; if you don't and the certification's important to you, wait on making your purchase 'til you've had the chance to do some research at home. After all, nobody wants their coffee to leave a bitter taste in their mouth. Further Reading: Read our earlier posts on shade grown coffee and fair trade vs. direct trade vs. organic coffee Coffee Habitat has plenty to say about the intersection of sustainability and coffee, including the original article that was the inspiration for this post, a companion post (Discontent With Certifications) and a page with information on coffee certifications. Grist has more on Wal-Mart's greenwashing efforts. Also worth exploring is Dietitians for Professional Integrity, which includes an extensive news and reporting section.