All third-party coffee certifications are not equal. I’ve touched upon this idea before, most recently in How Many Labels are Too Many Labels. I think it’s a point that bears repeating, and some critical examination, too. To our good fortune Coffee & Conservation is doing both, by digging deeper into some of those certifications. They’ve recently offered a closer look at two labels that certify shade-grown coffeeRainforest Alliance, and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s “Bird Friendly” mark — and found that not all shade is equal, either.

[T]he criteria having to do with vertical stratification — the number of layers of vegetation and the leaf volume in each — are critical components for preserving a rich mix of species. Many ecological studies support the key role of structural diversity (sometimes referred to technically as floristic heterogeneity) in increased biodiversity — of many types in many ecosystems well beyond the realm of coffee growing.
Coffee & Conservation

If that’s a little hard to follow, then the pictures and tables you’ll find at Coffee & Conservation will help. 😉

For more, Intelligentsia’s RoastMaster Gerneral, Geoff Watts, has written a thoroughly accessible piece on the subject. In particular he compares and contrasts shade-grown certifications with Intelligentsia’s own Direct Trade model.

Too many of the programs marketed as “solutions” are really just patchwork attempts to fix historical mistakes and seek immediate gratification without trying to rebuild the system from the ground up in a way that can be enduring and self-sustaining. At their worst they involve a lot of moral posturing without providing a great deal of benefit to anyone except a handful of consumers who can feel better about themselves without having to work very hard or think too much to do it. Transparency is the key…delivery of facts and details with clarity (and documentation).
Geoff Watts

I think Geoff finds it difficult to set aside his disenchantment with third-party certifiers — a point of view that’s understandable, as Geoff himself visits Intelligentsia’s coffee origins far more than any certifier I know. But for every Intelligentsia there’s a hundred other roasters who don’t have the wherewithal to visit origin with the same frequency, if at all.

For those roasters, third-party certification is the standard-bearer. So it’s important that we all — roasters and customers alike — understand just what those standards are.

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