Corporate Coffee Responsibility Ratings

June 25, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

Co-op America (my former employer of nearly seven years) runs a program called Responsible Shopper that provides corporate social responsibility news and ratings about companies and whole industries. Here are their comparative ratings of the biggest coffee companies.

Co-op America\'s Resposnible Shopper Coffee Scores

Notice in the small print that the color scheme ranges from green to yellow to orange to red in descending order of ‘responsibleness.’ Now notice that none of the biggest companies in the coffee industry earn a yellow score or better. Kraft and Starbucks fall in the orange sector while Sara Lee, Proctor and Gamble, and Nestle all deserve the red zone of corporate malfeasance.

Co-op America’s conclusion for how to be a ‘Responsible Shopper?’ Buy fair trade, organic, shade grown coffee.


USFT Campaigns for Fair Trade at University of Houston

June 18, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

My brother, Tim O’Brien, is at it again on campus at the University of Houston. He’s been waging a campaign to get the school to convert to fair trade ever since he started a chapter of United Students for Fair Trade there about two years ago.

USFT Universoty of Houston protest

Tim first tried the conventional channels – he got himself elected to the student government where he succeeded in passing a resolution calling for fair trade coffee on campus. Then he worked through the administration and the dining services company, Aramark, and managed to get some commitments and a minimum level of fair trade offerings made available on campus.

But these nominal successes were not enough – why accept a few token sides of chips and dip instead of going for the whole enchilada? So in recent months he’s taken the campaign to the next level by conducting attention-getting direct action events like the one he pulled off yesterday. He rallied a crew of about 20 students and delivered a giant papier mache coffee bean to University Chancellor Renu Khator’s office. Khator was out of the office but the police were called in anyway to hustle those pesky students away – and their giant coffee bean too!

Read the whole story in today’s Houston Chronicle.

Coffee, Harbinger of Storms

June 15, 2008

Coffee RevolutionPosted by Chris O’Brien

(This post is a work in progress that will probably appear in some form in the forthcoming book being written by the three people who publish this blog. I welcome your feedback and specifically seek information about other ‘revolutions’ associated with coffee.)

Unlike water, which is found (in varying quantities) everywhere, and wine and beer which are brewed from native plants anywhere, coffee cultivation originated uniquely in one place: the western highlands of Ethiopia. Since its earliest cultivation outside this birthplace, coffee has followed or caused political upheaval.

In his 1935 classic, Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity, H.E. Jacob called coffee the “harbinger of storms.” Antony Wild titled his 2004 book on beans, Coffee: A Dark History.

Why such sinister views on a matter as mundane as a mug of joe? As you’ll see, the story of coffee is tainted with terror and transgression. Revolutions have indeed been sown by the coming of coffee. The powerful and the impoverished have each been stirred to arms over the commerce of coffee.

One version of the coffee origin myth in Yemen attributes its unwelcome arrival to an Ethiopian invasion in 525 CE. Since then, coffee has come to cover the globe through conquest and trade. In 1517, Khair Bey, viceroy of Mecca, claimed coffee drinking “led to riots” and forbade its consumption. In 1537, residents of Cairo were prohibited from enjoying coffee in places of public entertainment. Charles II of England considered the coffee houses of London “hot beds of sedition and a breeding ground for subversive movements” and ordered them closed in 1675.

The drink even played a role in the American Revolution. In 1789, just after his swearing in oath, the triumphant first President of the United States, George Washington, was received by well-wishers at the Merchants coffee house in New York. But Merchants was more than a convenient place for a reception, it was also known by some as “the birthplace of the Union,” due to the role it served during the Revolution as a gathering place for plotting patriots.

Just months later, on July 12, 1789, French rabble-rouser Camille Desmoulins climbed atop a café table and goaded a Parisian coffeehouse crowd into storming the Bastille, thus touching off the French Revolution.

In America, the 1950s-60s saw the Beat Generation congregate in coffee houses, leading an artistic and intellectual revolution that contributed to the eventual overhaul of gender roles and restrictions, and assisted in the overthrow of the legal system of racial segregation, among many other dramatic changes provoked by a caffeine-fueled culture.

Today, coffee is at the heart of an indigenous people’s revolution in Mexico. It also makes its way into the marketing of specialty roasters such as Just Coffee, a company that even incorporates the notion into their slogan: “Not just a market but a movement.” Roasters like Just Coffee are, in fact, part of a larger and growing movement advocating radical changes in the rules of the global coffee trade.

Coffee Companies Help Launch ‘B Corporation’ Standards for ‘Good Companies’

June 8, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

B Corporation

B Corporation is a new certification system for socially and environmentally responsible companies. The ‘B’ stands for ‘benefits.’

I couldn’t find out much about the people behind this effort, apparently a non-profit group called B-Lab, but the standards seem legit from what I can tell so far. The founding companies are a cast of the usual suspects – many are names that are already highly associated with the ‘responsible’ business movement. On the one hand, that is a good thing – it means companies with real commitments are the ones being recognized by the certification. But on the other hand it raises the question of whether this is a well-intentioned effort that will never reach beyond the same core of businesses that are already doing the right thing.

But perhaps this is a good thing. An article in the Financial Times reports that Coen Gilbert, one of B-Corp’s founders, intends for the certification to serve as a way for the many small and medium sized ‘truly green’ companies to differentiate themselves from the older, bigger companies that are suddenly talking green for the first time.

Of the more than 100 ‘founding’ B-Corp companies, a few are in the coffee biz: Moka Joe; Mugshots Coffee House and Cafe; One Village Coffee; and Pura Vida Coffee. To become certified, each company completes a survey evaluating their practices. A minimum score of 80, out of a possible 200, is required to receive certification. In addition, the company bylaws or articles of incorporation must specifically require consideration be given to all the company stakeholders, including employees past and present, suppliers, customers, and the communities and society in which the business operates.

Moka JoeThe completed company audits are available for viewing online. That way interested stakeholders can see that, for example, One Village Coffee scored a measly 9.1 points on the environmental section of the assessment, which is just 24% of the points available in that category, and that they barely squeaked through the certification at all with just 86.1 points total. Whereas Pura Vida earned 32% of the environmental points and scored 103.4 on the evaluation overall. But Moka Joe performed considerably better than both, meriting 90% of the environmental points and reaching an impressive (comparatively) 129.4 on the test as a whole.

I realize the aim of this system probably isn’t to compare the certified businesses to each other, but rather to differentiate them all from the business-as-usual pack. However, the website that houses the reports is a little clumsy – there is no easy way to compare companies to each other but more importantly, there is no way to know how individual company scores relate to average industry performance. Another problem is that the information is presented only in summary form – we see how a company scored but we don’t know why they earned that score.

I do, however, like the scheme overall. The site refers to the current system as Version 1 and claims that Version 2 is already in development. I’m impressed so far and look forward to seeing how they improve this useful tool in the future.

To read more about B Corporation and to access company reports, go to and click on the ‘B Community’ tab. Currently, the only way to search for reports is to either browse company names at random or to use a key word search. I typed in ‘coffee’ and found the four above-mentioned companies.

At last! Fill up your gas tank with spent Coffee Grounds

May 16, 2008
Now this is what we’ve all been waiting for. Our love of great coffee may someday fuel our addiction to cars!
Cafe Racer Touted as a “carbon negative” vehicle, the 1975 GMC pick-up known as the Cafe Racer is fueled by spent coffee grounds (or most trash) through a process known as gasification.

‘What is gasification? Gasification is the general term used for processes where heat is used to transform solid biomass into a “natural gas like” flammable fuel. Through gasification, we can take nearly any solid biomass waste and convert it into a clean burning, carbon neutral, gaseous fuel. Whether starting with wood scraps or coffee grounds, municipal trash or junk tires, the end product is a flexible gaseous fuel you can burn in your gasoline engine, cooking stove, heating furnace and/or flamethrower.’ (click here for more info on the Cafe Racer)

Carbon Neutral Coffee

May 13, 2008

I recently attended the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual shindig. This whopper of an event gathers thousands of attendees and hundreds of companies for five days worth of conferencing and tradeshowing.

I attended one session that featured stories from coffee companies who have partnered with a non-profit called Trees for the Future in order to offset their greenhouse gas emissions through tree planting initiatives in the places where coffee is grown.

Trees for the Future (TftF) is first and foremost a development oriented enterprise dedicated to tree planting projects that aid impoverished people. Lately, the NGO has been linking with businesses interested in supporting the efforts financially by claiming some of the carbon benefits from the plantings. Founder and director Dave Deppner explained during an SCAA presentation that coffee businesses need to improve their energy efficiency but they need to simultaneously be scrubbing as much carbon out of the atmosphere as possible so as to slow global warming. That’s where the tree planting projects come in handy.

Coffee companies partnering with TftF include: Alakef Coffee, Cafe Imports, Mojo Coffee, Signature Coffee, and Thanksgiving Coffee. TftF conducts an energy audit of each partner and plants trees in tropical and subtropical regions to absorb the volume of gases equivalent to those generated by the business partner. The process, TftF admits, is inexact but Deppner claims that they intentionally overcompensate by building a conservative fudge-factor into their calculations in order to ensure that enough trees are planted to make up for any margin of error.

In person, Deppner comes across with an attitude of “let’s just do it and not get bogged down in details that might slow down our urgent work.” It’s an understandable approach but not one that is likely to last long in the emerging age of carbon trading, in which guaranteed, measurable carbon benefits will be mandatory for any claims about emissions offsetting. Never-the-less, TftF’s efforts are laudable and Deppner’s personal charm exudes an infectious good-heartedness that builds immediate trust – despite the lack of independently verified carbon benefits.

Here’s an eight minute video about TftF’s programs and approach that provides a sense of their motivations.

One less Political Prisoner in Oaxaca

March 7, 2008

By Chris Treter a year of incarceration, David Venegas has been released from the Santa Maria Ixcotel Penitentiary. On March 5th, within a coffee beans’ throw from the prison he was just released from he stated amongst a throng of human rights activists, friends and family that he “is ready to continue struggling for a Oaxaca full of liberty and justice.” While leading a fair trade tour across Mexico last year I had the honor of getting to know APPO and the family and friends of David. Below is an old blog entry I’ve dug up about the situation. Look it over and plug in por favor.


Oaxaca City has had a rough year. It all began in May of 2006 when thousands of teachers staged an annual sit – in on the city’s center to protest low wages and inadequate conditions in the schools of the state. The demands were not unfounded. According to Oaxaca based EDUCA, Oaxaca is the 2nd poorest state in Mexico (after Chiapas) with 76% of the population living in extreme poverty and only 2.9% of the state’s annual budget going to social programs in the country side.

After police violently attacked teachers on the 14th of June the townspeople, coffee farmers, activists, and campesinos came out in throngs to support the teachers from Section 22 of the CNTE teacher’s union. Barricades were set up to protect the teachers, roaming para- military police assassinated many and brutally attacked the struggling community as the democratic movement which became know as APPO – (Popular Assembly of the People’s of Oaxaca) – resisted and demanded the resignation of the state’s mayor Ulises Ruiz. Death threats, drive – by shootings, the continued closure of 14,000 schools and popular resistance became an everday reality as 50 blocks of downtown came screaching to an ungovernable standstill.

Months after the brutal police repression that left 23 dead, a slow creeping presence of undercover police vigilance and harassment remains in Oaxaca City. Most recently, April 14th saw 24 year old student activist David Venegas detained and beaten as police drove him for hours through the streets of this tourist city. Though he was snatched off the streets in midday while meeting with a school colleague, his family did not know he was “officially” in police custody until nearly 10 pm the same night. Eventhough family and friends pleaded for information of his detainment throughout the day. This week saw us meeting with the family and friends of David to learn about his incarceration. Police sure took notice!

As his family and friends (names withheld for security) told the story, undercover police peered in to the small cafe in downtown Oaxaca City where we had taken refuge. We were not surprised by the vigilance of the police as many in the city were afraid to meet with us fearing arrest or disappearance. Earlier in the day undercover police, with radio in hand, took pictures of our group as we waited outside to meet a friend. We had done nothing but simply listen to the testimony of his family and friends.

Family and friends painted a picture of David as a former student turned activist, working with the disenfranchised youth of the city while advocating justice for the crimes committed against members of APPO by police and paramilitary. They stated that his charges are ludicrous and unfounded. David was “officially” charged with possession of cocaine, although his friends told us he did not use drugs, deal drugs, or have any drugs found in his system. They state that the official photo released to newspapers show a beaten David with a large bag of cocaine held by someone behind him as he refused to touch the bag. In fact, they insisted, the first bag of cocaine they put in front of him was too big to even fit in the backpack he was carrying! Later, after the attempt by police to paint him as a street kid on drugs failed, they charged him with burning down a building that he was no where near and as such were no witnesses to place him within miles of the location.


There are still many wrongfully imprisoned in Oaxaca. The killers of American journalist Brad Wills have still not been brought to justice. The demands of APPO have not been met. Visit