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?


  1. One thing that should simplify matters is that on a common sense level one cannot certify one’s own business or products. One might add a self-created _label_ to one’s own products, but I don’t think many people find that credible (at least not once they realize what’s going on.)

    So, if you accept that, then we’re still left with a number – but its more manageable: Organic
    Fair Trade
    Rainforest Alliance
    & SMBC’s “Bird Friendly”.

    However, rarely does a consumer ever see more than 2 of these at a time (and even then, its the increasingly familiar duo of Org & FT). “Bird Friendly” sometimes appears with Org, and more rarely w/FT, too (as with Cafe Ibis). RA is usually by itself, as on the new Yuban coffee.

    As for “when will people get blinded by so many labels” etc I think a big factor is “how often do they see X or Y label?”

    For example, organic is now a permanently entrenched part of the grocery/food landscape. You see the words on thousands of products in the stores and all the time in the media. Thousands of food companies, retailers and restaurants are promoting it. So its here to stay (even if threaten in the coffee sector right now).

    Likewise – though to a smaller degree – Fair Trade is pretty well established. For ex, there are already over 3,500 Fair Trade Certified products (from rice to chocolate to coffee to sugar) in US stores, and another 600 new products were launched just in 2006. Plus you have over 500 companies promoting it. Civic groups like United Students for Fair Trade, and Lutheran World Relief are advocating for it big time, too. So it’ll probably endure.

    By comparison, my guess is that there are maybe a few dozen products with Rainforest Alliance seal, and only 10-20 companies using it.

    Lastly, there is exactly one company promoting Intelligentsia’s “Direct Trade”. So I think its fair to say that that “seal” is going to have the hardest time establishing itself in the crowded landscape of seals & labels.

  2. I think third party certification and firsthand knowledge/transparency are categorically different things and Intelli’s Direct Trade isn’t an effort to establish a new certification. I don’t know how well it competes as a label versus licensed third party certifications (or to what degree it needs to) but it is proving effective at advancing a dialogue with our customers which is the intention. It is synonomous with our reputation rather than being merely window dressing for it.

  3. Hi, Tonx!

    I understand your perspective.. but I’m also aware that you’ve come to it from the inside, cursed with the knowlege of Intelligentsia’s intent. ;)

    If Direct Trade™ proves effective as a vehicle to make your customers more knowledgable and appreciative of your origins, and the tree to cup story, I think that can be nothing but a good thing all ’round. Still, I think that the mark *is* at competition with Fair Trade and Organic and Bird-friendly et al. in the marketplace of ideas — which I think is demonstrated by its inclusion by Ms. Eng in the Tribune article which prompted this post. And then there’s the implied question… are we going to see other coffee companies with a relationship model similar to Intelligentsia adopt the Direct Trade label as they adopt its philosophy?

    In my own experience — and I recently saw this manifest at — a vast number of coffee drinkers believe that certifications and trade labels are largely fungible. That suggests to me we’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us in advancing customer education.

    …and Hi, Rodney!

    I agree that Fair Trade is gaining some traction of late (w00t!) even as I dread the chilling effect of the USDA decision on Organic group certification — which, frankly, I didn’t see coming — and I gather I’m not alone.

    I think that decision, and the attention it will inevitably bring to most all sorts of third-party certs may have a treacle (as in slowing down) effect on the growth of double-, triple- and quad-certified (no kidding!) coffees… or at least the march toward collecting as many certifications as possible for a single offering… and few if any of them having something to do with the quality of the cup.

  4. If you’re dealing with customers that appreciate great coffees and will take the time to do the research, it really doesn’t matter how many certifications there are. We’re dealing in an era where there is more transparency and more clued-in consumers simply due to technology – albeit a relatively small percentage. So Intelly will retain its customers for DT and will generate more through word of mouth and others (CCC, Stumptown, etc.) doing similar things will also grow.

    If we’re dealing with consumers who don’t want to think very much, then you need the decal and one certification authority.

    But the folks that support that certification authority shouldn’t be dumping on Intelly and others with careless and mean-spirited snipes like the one Rodney used in his first paragraph.

    I’m an Intelly customer. I know what they’re doing and actually feel much more comfortable selling their products than I would something where I’m simply relying on the FT decal to tell me it’s fair. The folks at Intelly have worked hard to gain my trust and they’ve earned it, not just with the philosophy and execution, but also with the quality.

    I don’t understand why some people are so intent to undermine him and set the bar lower.

  5. I appreciate what RichW wrote, and I think he mis-understood what I was trying to say in my first paragraph (where I said that, in essence, there is no such thing as self-certification).

    And its reasonable that RichW took it as a “snipe”. As they say, 80% of communication is non-verbal. So maybe I should write with more care.

    That said, I still stand by my basic premise that _certification_ is by its essence something granted by an un-interested third-party, and not something any of us can grant upon ourselves. I understand what Intelligencia is doing (and Starbucks and Endangered Species with its “ethical trade”, etc.) because for the first 10+ years of Equal Exchange’s existence there was no TransFair to certify what we did, so we, too, had no 3rd party seal, and even later after TransFair came into being we did not use them for our tea program because (at least at first) the Fair Trade system did not certify small-farmers – who are at the core of our mission. So people had to take us at our word – which also meant gaining their trust, just as Intelly has successfully done with RichW.

    But there exists a real, and unfortunate, limit to how many RichW’s there are out there who have the time and interest to learn about their coffee/tea/cocoa/chocolate/sugar/rice/banana/wine suppliers, etc. I – respectfully – suggest that even RichW (& me) have limits for how much research we can do for all we consume. For example, I don’t _personally_ know that my cereal/tomatos/lemons/dairy products are organic, and I need the organic certification seal to do that homework for me (as flawed as that system can be.) Likewise most people who care about sourcing issues will usually need an honest information broker (certifier) to sort the wheat from the chaff.

    Besides time constraints, the other 1/2 of the equation that increases the need for good certifiers is that there are plenty of less scrupulous firms out there who will either cut ethical corners or even engage in out-right deception in these areas. The recent effort by conventional factory egg & poulty producers to create their own bogus self-administered “humane” seal is a great case in point. And as long as that’s happening (which will probably be forever) the public needs to maintain a healthy skepticism whenever a company says, basically, “just trust us”. And, in turn, that skepticism means Intelly and others will be unable to persuade many consumers who need more than promises.

    So, in summation, this is not to say that Intelly cannot _be_ trusted, but rather that some consumers simply will _not_ trust them, no matter how good their actual performance. Its a marketing problem more than an ethical one.



  1. Bloggle » Shade Grown Coffee — Just How Shady Is It? - [...] coffee certifications are not equal. I’ve touched upon this idea before, most recently in How Many Labels are Too …

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>