Starbucks Says It Now Serves “99 Percent Ethically Sourced Coffee.” So What Does That Mean?

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Paper Starbucks cup sitting on a table

ND Strupler / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Today, Starbucks announced that an impressive 99 percent of their coffee is now ethically sourced. That’s big news, as Starbucks is the largest coffee retailer in the world. But of course, we may not all agree on the definition of ethically sourced. So, what does Starbucks mean?

Sustainability at Starbucks

In 2004, Starbucks partnered with the nonprofit Conservation International to create the Coffee And Farmer Equity Practices, which go by the cute acronym CAFE. The CAFE Practices are a third-party verified program for farmers to ensure certain human rights and environmental standards are met. As of now, 99 percent of the coffee Starbucks buys for its stores and grocery products has been certified by either CAFE Practices or Fairtrade.

Bambi Semroc, Senior Strategic Advisor at the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business at Conservation International said the CAFE Practices are designed to be a “continuous improvement” program, with lower barriers to entry than Fairtrade. The program helps participating farmers to improve their sustainability over time using a score-based system. Farmers participating in the program are found in 22 countries and on four continents.

A win for the CAFE Practices is that they’ve largely prevented forest canopy loss, as 99 percent of participating farms have not converted forest for coffee production since 2004. Preventing tropical forest loss is an important means of fighting climate change, because they’re a major carbon sink. It’s worth noting that when many companies commit to sustainable palm oil, deforestation is the major environmental concern they’re aiming to address. As part of that push to preserve forest cover, 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest on farm estates have been set aside for conservation.

Employment and Environmental Practices

Ensuring fair employment conditions has also been a success for the CAFE Practices. According to field data from Conservation International, over 440,000 workers on coffee farms earned better than the local minimum wage, 89 percent of workers received paid sick leave during the analysis year, and all children living on coffee estates attended school.

But of course, there are other aspects to sustainable coffee production. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, shade-grown coffee has environmental benefits in terms of preserving habitat, preserving soil quality and reducing pesticide use. So, while the CAFE Practices encourage and reward shade grown coffee, they don’t require it. “We recognize that there are some places in the world where shade grown is just not the dominant production system, and it’s unlikely that it will become so,” said Semroc.

As for chemical inputs, the CAFE Practices prohibits the use of pesticides classified as “Extremely hazardous” or “Highly hazardous” by the World Health Organization, but doesn’t have as many requirements as USDA organic.

Yet, the CAFE Practices program has made training a major goal, so participating in the program means that farmers can learn and implement better practices in the future to improve both their yield and their sustainability. And in some cases, that’s allowed coffee farmers to earn additional sustainability certifications.

“We found that CAFE Practices are acting as kind of a stepping stone into other sustainability markets, like Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade or organic,” said Semroc.

A Hopeful Future

Coffee is obviously Starbucks’ primary tropical commodity, and the company has said they’re striving to buy 100 percent ethical coffee. But they also use other "forest risk" commodities, like palm oil and soy, in their products--not to mention paper cups, napkins and packaging. Forest 500 gives Starbucks a 2 out of 5 overall ranking on their forest commitments, but they only assess soy, pulp for paper products, and palm oil.

Conservation International is hopeful that the learnings from CAFE Practices can be applied to other goods. Starbucks has committed to 100 percent certified sustainable palm oil by this year, and could use their experience with the coffee sourcing to source sustainable soy and produce, said Semroc. “They are trying to take the lesson learned from coffee and apply it to other commodities.”