How Many Labels are Too Many Labels?

Organic, Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Shade Grown, Bird Friendly, C.A.F.E., Whole Trade, Rainforest Alliance…

When Sam Fromartz’ article — Is This the End of Organic Coffee — first appeared in Salon it generated quite a lot of reader responses, with many folks writing along the lines of, “Just drink Fair Trade coffee, instead.” I wrote a letter, too, trying to make the point that not all certifications are created equal —

Organic and Fair Trade are each distinctive certifications, with different goals and methods and results in coffee farming communities. To suggest that in lieu of buying organic you can instead buy Fair Trade is well intentioned, but misstated.

Organic certification protects the land, the water supply, and the ecosystems that surround coffee farms — including many of those greenhouse-gas swallowing rain forest canopies that still exist — and exceeds the environmental goals and criteria of Fair Trade certification, alone.

It takes *years* to achieve organic certification on a coffee farm, and it costs not only dollars, but blood, sweat and tears to do so. Pulling the rug out from under coffee farmers who’ve worked hard to attain certification for their farm — and the subsequent price differential for their crop — only to lose it at the stroke of a pen in a government bureaucracy thousands of miles away is not just disheartening, but it could break the will of farming folk who’ve endured hardship enough, already.

In today’s Chicago Tribune, writer Monica Eng continues that theme by providing a Cert Cheat Sheet of sorts… and being in Chicago she includes Chi-town’s own Intelligentsia Coffee’s Direct Trade™ label, too —

Direct trade: A term that was created by Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea Inc. roastmaster and green coffee buyer Geoff Watts in response to his frustration with “Fair Trade.” Watts wanted to work more directly with individual farmers and to send his own representatives to verify adherence to a list of criteria, including a “verifiable price to the grower or the local co-op, not simply the exporter, must be at least 25 percent above the Fair Trade price; the grower must be committed to healthy environmental practices; the grower must be committed to sustainable social practices.” Watts is especially proud of the program’s ability to give a higher price to individual farmers who have produced outstanding harvests, even on small levels.

I admire the goals of Intelligentsia’s Direct Trade model (and have said as much, before) but I really begin to wonder: how many certification models do we need? Can any retailer-specific label carry the same weight as one that’s applied and certified by a third-party? And at what point do people who love specialty coffee start to get blinded and dizzy by the glare of too many labels?