Looking for Justice and Sustainability at Coffee Fest DC

Posted by Chris O’Brien

I’ve been looking forward to this for about a month. Finally the Coffee Fest as arrived – and I’m sick as a dog.

I had planned on taking a couple of the $95 seminars on cupping and blending but frankly I couldn’t smell the difference between a cup of Rwandan Zirikana and a piece of burnt toast right now. I’ve had the worst cold of my life for five weeks now. It hit me the day I landed in Colombia for coffee coop visits and I haven’t been able to shake it yet. In fact it’s gotten so bad I even – gasp – went to see a doctor. Four days on prescription meds and I’m still clogged up, congested, bronchially infected and generally down and out and dejected.

So I skipped the costly (but probably worthwhile) training classes and barely managed to haul my belling-aching ass to the show at all today. I traversed the whole show floor in less than two hours. It was a little smaller than I expected, which was a relief since I was so sick, but made the $30 door charge seem slightly steep. I tried to get in on a press pass but got no response at all from my emailed request. So right off the bat I was going in already docking them points for poor media relations.

My goals ranged from seeking sustainable packaging and serviceware, talking with roasters, importers and certifiers about sustainable trade issues, and looking for roasting equipment for my own possible coffee roastery business (shh, that’s kind of a secret). I left mildly better informed on each of these points.

Here’s what I learned.

Marketing claims about ‘green’ packaging and service items were all over the place. In fact, the majority of the booths offering these products made some kind of eco-assertion.


EcoSleeve. Made from polystyrene, this cup sleeve is marketed as “100% recyclable.” The bad news is that polystyrene, a.k.a. styrofoam, a.k.a. #6 plastic, is NOT recyclable where I live. As one might expect of one of the most liberal counties in America, Montgomery County, Maryland has a robust curbside recycling program, and even sponsors a free waste veggie oil exchange program in order to encourage conversion of this byproduct into useful biodiesel. If styrofoam is not recyclable here I wonder where it is recyclable.

EcoSleeve also claims to be “#100% biodegradable.” I’ve never heard this claim about styrofoam before, but the product brochure references a certification by EcoLogo, a credible eco-certification program that I’m very familiar with from first hand experience with the people who run the company. In fact, I’m giving a series of seminars in California next week with one of their VPs. I’ll have to make a note to ask him about this product because he is fond of noting in his presentations that biodegradability claims are generally bogus since nothing degrades in a sealed landfill. The EcoSleeve website further claims that one sleeve produces 66% less waste than a paper sleeve. That seems vague since it leaves me wondering whether the product itself just has less mass or if they are accounting for all the waste in the respective manufacturing processes, or what.

Despite the EcoLogo certification, the combination of three dubious claims (recyclability, biodegradability, waste-reduction) earns this product a double thumbs down from me.

GreenGood. This company produces PLA cups and containers; plates, clamshells, and other containers, made from recycled paper pulp and sugarcane waste; and 42% post-consumer waste recycled plastic cup lids. PLA stands for polylactic acid, which basically means plant-based plastic as opposed to plastic derived from petroleum. This is generally a good alternative to regular plastic, especially if you have a composting program for the used cups. However, my sense is that prices are steeper than conventional plastic plus PLA has the disadvantage of breaking down when exposed to sunlight or high temperatures. The good news is these guys also sell something called CPLA, or crystallized PLA. The science is lost on me but the salesman explained that it’s a microwaveable version of PLA, but it too has a performance tradeoff in that the crystallization process turns transparent PLA into a tan opaque color, thus obscuring the beverage.

Ag waste and recycled paper are definitely better options than virgin paper pulp. And the recycled plastic lids seem like a pretty good no brainer. I wasn’t able to do a cost comparison on any of the above because there were no price lists. But if you’re looking for solid environmental benefits, GreenGood seems to deliver.

CupCoatCupCoat. Why is everything twowords combined into one these days? CupCoat is reusable “fabric” cup sleeve claiming to be environmentally preferable because it replaces multiple disposable sleeves. The promotional literature claims that one CupCoat saves “approximately 2-5 lbs of garbage per person.” Hunh? How ever did they arrive at that number. The “coats” are made of such eco-friendly materials as “faux-fur” (okay, that tells me what it’s not, but it doesn’t tell me what it is), “rubberized synthetics” and “waterproofed t-shirt material.” Not sure what the second one is there either but the last one is apparently an obfuscating way of saying “cotton,” which happens to be the most chemical input-intensive crop on the planet. Sorry CupCoat, you are way bogus. Oh, except you almost won me over with the “T-zur” line. I’m a sucker for animal prints.

ecotainer Hot Cups. These are apparently an International Paper product marketed under the brand JavaStock. The ecotainer ™ is simple a virgin fiber paper cup with a PLA lining instead of a regular petro-plastic lining, earning it a BPI Certification. That’s a new one to me but on first glance the certification looks legit. Unfortunately, there’s a hefty price premium for this eco-benefit. For example, 1000 8 oz. ecotainer cups cost $82 compared to $59.40 for the regular kind. Seems steep and for that price I’d think you could get some recycled content fiber in there too. This gets a marginal thumbs up on the environmental improvement but a big wet raspberry for the jacked up price.

Rainforest Alliance
. I talked with the folks from Rainforest Alliance about how their sustainability standard stacks up against the many other coffee certification schemes. The staff rep at the booth asserted that its “up there with Fair Trade and organic” and emphasized its focus on “conservation” whereas Fair Trade addresses “trade.” I asked who pays and how the label is applied to products. Confusingly, he said anyone along the chain of supply can pay, but when I pressed him for a firm answer it became clear that ultimately farmers must pay the costs unless some generous partner offers to pay it for them. He also explained that there is a “traceability” system that serves to verify a company’s right to use the logo, but when I asked how a coffee drinker could access that traceability system he allowed that they couldn’t and the best they can do is ask a roaster for their certificate. We weren’t able to get into much more detail but this conversation highlighted to me how the trade and environmental communities continue to see themselves as separate instead of focusing on their obvious commonalities. Ultimately, long-term sustainability must include people and the planet.

Fair Trade Proof. I was happy to then run into Tripp and other good folks associated with Cafe Campesino. Finally a friendly face in what was mostly a sea of food-colored-syrup-flavored “coffee” drinks. I indulged in a cup of medium roast Colombian since he offered and because I was kinda grooving on the fact that I had just visited Fondo Paez, the coop that grows these very beans. I asked Tripp about whether CC had considered Rainforest Alliance certification and his direct answer was that there was no way they could ask their producer partners to pay for another certification. He also thought that organic certification more or less covered what was important in terms of shade canopy and that this extra certification would be like “splitting hairs.”

Cafe Campesino

I’m not convinced on this latter point (and I’d advise Tripp not to say such a thing to the bloggers over at Coffee and Conservation!) but I do see the inherent contradiction in holding growers responsible for the costs of certification in general, be it Rainforest Alliance or otherwise. It forces the good guys to pay for being good while letting the polluters/exploiters off scot-free. But the advantage is that it provides transparency to business claims about justice and sustainability. Cafe Campesino, and it’s importer Cooperative Coffees, will soon be launching an online transparency program called Fair Trade Proof that allows regular old everyday coffee drinkers to access company trade documents which show producer origin and payments. This is a significant stride forward in terms of truly transparent business and I look forward to announcing the launch when its ready. But I think you can already take a sneak peak now, just click the link above.

Direct Trade. Speaking of transparency, my next stop was Intelligentsia Coffee right across the aisle. They treated me to a Rwandan Zirikana and I spoke with a company rep who explained a little bit about their “Direct Trade” business model. Importantly, he first mentioned that it incorporates quality. Many certification programs for other unrelated products are going this same direction. For example, Green Seal launched a new certification last year for recycled content paint which incorporated performance standards from the Master Painters Institute. This is a significant trend because it helps dispel any notion that going “green” or “fair” means a compromise in quality. The myth that green equals poor quality has slowed the uptake of sustainable products for decades.

But Direct Trade, as far as anyone has been able to explain to me so far, including this rep from Intelligentsia, is not a certification and as far as I can tell it isn’t even a standard. It is really just a company (and a couple other companies they like) making unsubstantiated claims about fairness and sustainability. Their brochure lists six “criteria” of Direct Trade including that the price must be at least 25% above the fair trade price. It’s not clear whether this includes the fair trade premium or just the fair trade floor price and its also not clear whether this includes the additional organic premium required by the fair trade standard for the 80% or so of fair trade coffees that are also organic. When you add those both in and then consider that Intelligentsia’s coffee’s retail on their website for $14 or $15 dollars a pound all the way up to $28 and even $60 per pound, one wonders whether 25% is really very meaningful. Keep in mind also that by skipping certification, this company also gets to avoid paying its own share of the fair trade fees. I asked the rep point blank, without any certification, why should I believe that any of this is true? His response was “come to Nicaragua with me.” Hardly a viable option for 99.9% of this company’s customers. Ironically, one of his first assertions in our conversation was that their model is “totally transparent.” I got this same claim about Direct Trade from folks at Counter Culture in an online discussion we had over at the fantastic Coffee & Conservation blog.

One thing is clear: everyone is making claims about justice and sustainability in the coffee trade but there is little agreement about what that means. Hmm, someone ought to write a book. Oh wait, that’s what we’re doing!


4 Responses to Looking for Justice and Sustainability at Coffee Fest DC

  1. RICK says:



  2. Rick Green says:

    Anything disposable is eco-bogus

  3. […] non-recyclable. There are new coffee cups on the market, like the ecotainer (which I wrote about here), that replace that plastic lining with a starch-based material, which makes them compostable. But […]

  4. Alan Gagnon says:

    I wanted to speak with you about our coffee storage containers and your coffee roasting business. When you get a chance check us out on the web. We have spoken to several roasters and retail stores about the idea of using our contianers instead of bags. Let’s catch up and I can fill you in.

    Alan Gagnon
    Regional Sales

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