Certified Coffee: Marketing hype or real world impact?

What coffee should we choose to save the environment and support farmers the most? Certifications claim to solve this problem. But do they really?

What coffee should we choose to save the environment and support farmers the most? Certifications claim to solve this problem. But do they really?
Scott and Jools embark on a journey to help a friend of the show figure out which is better: Rainforest Alliance or Organic.
Jools speaks with coffee consultant Stuart Ritson to learn the ins and outs of Rainforest Alliance.
Meanwhile, Scott speaks to Jose Posada, a Colombian farmer, to get the lowdown on Organic.

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A massive thank you to Katie Russell who kindly took part in this episode.


Scott Bentley: Welcome to adventures in coffee, a podcast by Caffeine magazine, sponsored by iFinca and Oatly.
Jools Walker: I mean the six episode series, me and Scott will be exploring the world of coffee for people who are curious about what's in their daily cup.
Scott Bentley: Yeah. We're all becoming more invested in where our food and drink comes from. We made this podcast simply to de-mystify this, you know, rather complicated world of coffee. And, you know, maybe we'll have a few giggles along the way.
Jools Walker: They'll definitely be giggles and lots of travel because we're actually going to take you around the world and speak to the experts out there to answer the questions that you and I have always wanted to ask.
Scott Bentley: My name is Scott Bentley. I'm the founder of caffeine magazine, and I have been called a coffee nerd in the past.
Jools Walker: And I'm Jools Walker. If you don't see me on a bike, I'm probably nestled behind a cup of coffee in a cafe, but I am a cycling advocate and you're very everyday coffee lover.
Scott Bentley: And today's episode is about, quite frankly, the overwhelming world of certifications. I mean, whenever this comes up I always feel like I’m walking around in a maze. I’m like, just totally lost
Jools Walker: It’s anything but straightforward. And a friend of the show actually had a question around certifications.So we decided to use this opportunity to eat and figure out which certification we should be choosing. So let's pick up the phone to Katie and have a chat.
Katie Russell: Hello?
Scott Bentley: Hey Katie. It's Scott Bentley here from caffeine. Before we get into the question on certifications, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Katie Russell: So I am a mother. I live in East riding of Yorkshire. I've got two young children under three, you know, I don't know if any of you have children, but young children under three. It's a bit like survival mode.
Scott Bentley: Yeah. I've been there.
Jools Walker: Katie. When, when you're not looking after the kids, what else do you do? Like job wise?
Katie Russell: Um, I work in care. I travel and see people that are housebound
Jools Walker: Big love for that. I am freelance, but I am a full-time carer for my mom at home as well. So I honestly, I appreciate you so much and what you do.
Katie Russell: You too
Scott Bentley: So Katie, you emailed us a question. I wondered for the benefit of our listener. Uh, could you just let us know what that was?
Katie Russell: So I lead such a busy life and I want to feel more ethical about what coffee I drink. I would love to know that I'm actually supporting the farmers, growing the coffee and supporting the environment.You know, I go down to the supermarket and there's just an array of different coffees with different certifications are Organic and there's Rainforest Alliance. I'm like, which do I choose? You know, who, who do I go with?
Scott Bentley: Okay, Katie let's take rainforest Alliance and organic, as you've just mentioned. So look, I'm going to look at organic and through our partners,  iFinca, I've already set up a conversation with a farmer in Colombia, uh, to really better understand these sort of ins and outs and what it really takes to be organically certified.
Jools Walker: Okay. And I'm going to take on Rainforest Alliance for you, Katie. Now I've set up a call with Stewart and he's a coffee consultant, and we'll be able to give us all, probably a better understanding of what the rainforest Alliance certification is all about.
Scott Bentley: How does that sound Katie?
Katie Russell: That sounds great. It would sort of give me that reassurance when buying coffee and by actually understanding the certifications and how truthful they are and what they actually mean.
Jools Walker: Fair dues, Katie. I mean, no one wants to be writing a PhD on this stuff because it is long.  Now Scott's going to go off and find out all the information about organic and I'm going to go off and find out all the information about rainforest Alliance, but how about we do this, like a elevator pitch.
Katie Russell: Okay.
Jools Walker:  So we've got 30 seconds to pitch our respective certifications to you, and then you choose on the basis of how brilliant either one of us are going to be, which one you're going to buy the next time you're in the supermarket. How does that sound?
Katie Russell: That sounds great. I'm looking forward to it
Scott Bentley: Sounds like a challenge, let's do this
Jools Walker:  Bring it on
Scott Bentley: Great stuff, Katie. Well take care and we'll speak to you soon.
Katie Russell: Yeah, chat to you soon, bye
Scott Bentley: Jools I feel sorry that you've got the rainforest Alliance one. I mean, obviously you can speak to Stu, he’s a lovely guy, but. You know, you can lose this
Jools Walker: No, this is the bit that I crush you actually
Scott Bentley: You crush me?
Jools Walker:  Like a bean in a grinder
Scott Bentley: But before all of this let's go to our sponsor messages.

[Sponsorship music starts]
Scott Bentley: How many oats is in a liter of Oatly.
Jools Walker: I don't know, could I count the oats?
Scott Bentley: I don't know how much and oat weighs. I know the weight of the oats in a liter of Oatly though.
Jools Walker: Hall and Oatly, You could weigh Hall and Oates and see if you could sort of find a balance between hall and Oates and how many oats are found in a liter of Oatly
Scott Bentley: Okay.
Jools Walker: Hall and Oates
Scott Bentley: Googling bands with the word oats in their name
Jools Walker: Scott. What's this got to do with what you asked me?
Scott Bentley: Okay. Hundred grams of oats in each liter of Oatly. There you go. That was interesting. Wasn't it?
Jools Walker: That was very interesting.
Scott Bentley: Adventures in coffee podcast is brought to you by, who is it again?
Jools Walker: O A T L Y.
Scott Bentley: Oh it’s Oatly
Jools Walker: Oatly!
[Sponsorship music ends]

Jools Walker: Hey Stuart it's Jools
Stuart Ritson: Oh, hey Jools!
Jools Walker: So Stewart, just for the benefit of our listeners, I was just hoping you could just give a little bit of background about yourself and what it is that you do.
Stuart Ritson: Yeah. So my name is Stuart Ritson sounds weird to say this to you. Anyway, I've been involved in the coffee industry for the last 10 years now, working with cafes, roasters farmers, traveling the world.It's all, quite glamorous set from the lonely nights in hotel rooms, none of which happens anymore. Anyway, because I'm in my home office
Jools Walker: So Stewart, what's the story with rainforest Alliance?
Stuart Ritson: They were started in the eighties by Daniel Katz and the aim was pretty straightforward to stop the deforestation of the rain forest.And with that in mind, they grew to certify farms that did anything to do with forest. So bananas, coffee cacao, and they help consumers to know that buying a product that isn't leading to deforestation issues around climate change, things like that.
Jools Walker: How does it actually work?
Stuart Ritson: So a coffee farm will sign up, get certified by a local certifying body.Then get that rain forest Alliance logo on their coffee. They can then sell that to a roaster who is also signed up with rainforest Alliance and they as well get audited and they can then sell the coffee with the rainforest Alliance logo.
Jools Walker: Okay. So Stewart, how does Rainforest Alliance actually benefit a producer of coffee?
Stuart Ritson: So for instance, they help reduce wastewater going into rivers. And so I've read reports and seen great marketing online about farmers saying, well, now our children are kind of safe. To play in at, around our farm. And we can use the river again for drinking water, things like that. Another really important thing to say is there's no price minimum when it comes to rainforest Alliance products.So in that way, you could be buying a product as cheap as dirt, cheap cheapest chips, and it could still have rainforest Alliance certificates on it. But there is evidence to show that does typically increase the price of coffee produced. One report from 2012, I think showed that prices for Colombian coffees that had the rainforest Alliance certificate where 150% higher than conventional produced coffee.And if that's the case across the board, that's a huge deal. That's a great incentive. And that really helps farmers. But as I said, it's, it's sometimes hard to say if that's really happening everywhere.
Jools Walker: So Stewart, I have to ask some questions about organic. I'm kind of looking for a little bit of dirt. Is it all right for me to ask, what are the downsides of organic certification?
Stuart Ritson: Yeah, one of the things that stands out to me as being kind of unfair about the way organic works is that they have this conversion period. So if I run a normal coffee farm and I like what I do, but I'm thinking, how can I make more money? How can I set my coffee apart? Maybe I should do organic. If I want to become an organic farm, there's a conversion period of three years, so at the start of those three years, I stopped using any synthetic chemicals, I stopped using pesticides, and then for three years later, I can finally use the organic logo, so for three years, I have to run an organic farm, but I can't claim to be organic yet and that can be a big issue when you look at, when you produce in an organic way, you produce less, so even though organic might command a higher price, ultimately if you're producing less, then that's not so great. One thing that's for sure and all farmers agree on with regards to producing organic is that it's more work.You have to set manual traps for pests, you have to hand weed the farm, you have to do a lot more things, which is way more labor intensive and costs a lot more
Jools Walker: considering what you've let me know which one overall would be better. Would it be the rainforest Alliance or would it be organic? That's kinder to the environment.
Stuart Ritson: That is such a hard question.
Jools Walker: And I love the hard questions.
Stuart Ritson: Like you've kind of funny. There's probably no straightforward answer. I think sometimes organic makes such a good impact on the environment and I'm definitely not opposed to organic. And then rainforest Alliance has all these great aims about deforestation and waterways taking care of the environment.But because they have this graded system where you can be not achieving all those goals, but just the bare minimum and get the rainforest Alliance certificate, or you can be doing a huge amount and get the same certificate. It's hard to say which farms are doing what, where's the most impacts taking place?My gut, I sense that organic probably is good in that it's just a cut and dry thing. And if rainforest Alliance could always achieve all of his aims. Then it would be almost a utopian dream, which is super great. But also it makes me question how far along that journey we really are.
Jools Walker: This isn't cut and dry at all. It's left me with more questions than I started with.
Stuart Ritson: That might happen when you pick up the phone.
Jools Walker: So Stuart, before I let you go, could you just let our dear listener know what it's been keeping you busy these days?
Stuart Ritson: I've been working on this project, I call good hands and coffee. And it's basically just a list of all the charities and different nonprofits that work in the coffee sector. And I hope people find a good charity that they want to support.
Jools Walker: That's great. Stewart, we'll pop a link in the show notes Oh Stewart. Thank you so, so much.
Stuart Ritson: Crushed duck that guy
Jools Walker: I’m going to defeat him

Jools Walker:
Right then I've had my excellent chat with Stewart. So Scott, it's time for you to go away and do your homework, where you have your chat with Jose on organic certifications.
Scott Bentley: Okay. Bring it on.
Jose Posada: Hello, Scott, how are you?
Scott Bentley: Yeah, I’m really great,  thanks very much for taking the time to speak to me today, Jose. So you're a farmer in Columbia. Could you tell our listeners exactly where you are?
Jose Posada: Yeah. Our farm is in Medellin, is the biggest farm in the second largest city of the country.
Scott Bentley: Great. Jose, look, let's get straight into this. If you don't mind, I need to prove why organic is, you know, better than Rainforest Alliance. Do you think you could outline to the listener, and to me, what are the benefits of organic?
Jose Posada: To be organic, as a farmer is actually really important because you can see a lot of more animals, insects, you are going to have a lot of more biodiversity in the farm.
Scott Bentley: If I'm buying organic coffee from you, will I be paying a higher price for organic coffee?
Jose Posada: What's the problem with organic? You can have the certification of organic coffee, but that doesn't mean that someone is paying double or triple of the price. You can have organic certification and then have the same prices as the commodity price.The organic certifications are more like for middleman, than, than actually like the benefit that can give to the farmer.
Scott Bentley: Okay, Jose. So to be clear, you're not guaranteed to make more money when you're certified as organic, but what about rainforest Alliance? How much more money do you make when your coffee is certified as rainforest Alliance?
Jose Posada: Yeah. You get like 14 cents for a kilogram
Scott Bentley: 14 cents.
Jose Posada: Yeah.
Scott Bentley: UD dollar cents?
Jose Posada: Yeah. US dollar cents. For one kilogram
Scott Bentley: And that's, that's I 10 UK Pence for the effort, the time and all of this, you have to do. Right. So basically what you're saying here is that a lot of these certifications, you're not really making a great deal, more money from that work you're putting in.
Jose Posada: Exactly
Scott Bentley: So the people that are getting the benefit from all of that are the people that are selling the coffee onto the consumer afterwards.
Jose Posada: Exactly.
Scott Bentley: So Jose, what's the most important thing to you when it comes to selling your coffee?
Jose Posada: It's going to be simple, better prices
Scott Bentley: Better prices. Yeah. So can you give our listener an idea if she just wants to do the right thing? What can she do?
Jose Posada: Okay. So what they can do is like, make a research about like the relationship that, that coffee brand has with the farmer. So you can see a lot of pictures of videos or actually like that brand is coming to Colombia to visit the coffee grower. So when they have like a better relationship, that is going to be better for the coffee grower.
Scott Bentley: Do you have an example of what this more direct relationship looks like? I mean, uh, what kind of interactions do you have with coffee roasters?
Jose Posada: Yeah, so what happened is I do have rainforest Alliance certified in my farm. But my clients actually don't care about that because they know me, they work with me since I don't know, three years ago, and they know all the process and everything that I do in the farm and they pay me three times more than the normal price.Last year I had a problem with a lot of insects and a plage in the farm. And I tell them like, because I'm changing from chemical to more biological ways of farming. So that means that my biological controls, my organic controls are not that effective as my chemical controls. So my, my client just say like, hey man, you're doing better for the environment you are doing better for your farm, I'm going to pay you more expensive your coffee. So he don't need the certification to know that I'm doing the good stuff.
Scott Bentley: Okay. So I think I might've got this now, so we shouldn't be focusing on the certifications themselves, but just looking to find specialty coffee, high quality, you know, the tasty stuff, which costs a little more, but you should get the benefit of that.
Jose Posada: So, yes, actually it's really good, but we have to make sure that the coffee farmers is getting a better price. It's not just that you're paying out a really expensive coffee because maybe the coffee grower is just having maybe 10 of five percentage and the coffee shop is actually selling the coffee for 10 times more expensive, right? So you, you actually want to verify how much is paying to the coffee grower. And that is really important companies, like iFinca that verify the farmgate price with QR code and blockchain technology actually really helps that or social media, you actually can say directly to the coffee grower on and speak to them
Scott Bentley: Is that something you do? I mean, if, if I was a consumer and I texted you on Instagram and I asked you how much money do you get paid for every kilo of coffee you sell? Is that something that you're happy to tell people?
Jose Posada: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I'm actually really happy to see that my clients pay me three times more than their average price.And actually I'm proud of that because I'm achieving a better price, a better coffee quality, a better process. And my businesses is running better than just making a commodity or a normal coffee, you know?
Scott Bentley: So, I mean Instagram or social media sounds great. Actually. Is there anything else, is there another way in which I can kind of track what's going on as a consumer?
Jose Posada: Yeah. So in reality, a lot of farmers don't have like this access to social media. So there is one company is called, iFinca that you can scan the QR code and see saying, Hey, look, this is the price that is actually going to the farmer.
Scott Bentley: Thank you so much for your time.
Jose Posada: Yeah man, thank you. Thank you very much. And thank you to do all this for us for the coffee growers
Katie Russell: Hello?
Scott Bentley: Hey Katie, it’s Scott and Jules here
Katie Russell: Oh great.
Scott Bentley: I’ve spoken to Jose over in Colombia. And I think Jools, you spoke to some geezer who kind of flogs beans, is that right?
Jools Walker: That geezer is my friend. And he's called Stewart
Scott Bentley: I just want to say Katie, I got off the phone to Jose less than half an hour ago. So please be gentle with me.I've been doing my research. I've been, I've been cramming hard, but you know, Jules has had all day to prep, so she's obviously, cause slick and she’s a journalist
Jools Walker: I can tell what you're doing. I can tell what you're doing. Katie. He's trying to set me up for a fall. He's trying to psych me out. It's like mind games
Katie Russell: You just, you know, better give a good pitch and uh, you know
Scott Bentley: you tell her KatieOkay, okay, you ready?
Jools Walker: Is this the 30 seconds? This is the, this is it
Scott Bentley: Yeah baby, 30 seconds on the clock.
Jools Walker: No! Oh my God. I've got so much. Cause if I just find just the end of it.
Scott Bentley: Jools we're going in three, two, one.
Jools Walker: Rainforest Alliance. It's a charity and a certification body that was started in the eighties by an American environmentalist called David Katz.Now, the aim of it is in the name it's to stop deforestation of the rainforest and have sustainable environmentally friendly farming within it. Now, I know we're talking about coffee in this, but rainforest Alliance goes way beyond that. They certify farms who grow other produce in the rainforest. So we're talking about bananas and cacao, for example, and the Alliance helps.The two parties in this, it helps the farmers to be more sustainable. And the consumers like us to know that we're buying
Scott Bentley: That’s it
Jools Walker: Oh, this is cruel. I had so much good stuff I still needed to get in here.
Scott Bentley: It was your rules Jools, this is the point.
Jools Walker: Can I just change the rules? Even though it was like my idea. And I've now shot myself in the foot with that.
Scott Bentley: No
Scott Bentley: Jools you’re timing me  
Jools Walker: Right. It's here
Scott Bentley: Yeah
Jools Walker: In three, two, one. Go!
Scott Bentley: Katie in its simplest form, organic is a set of sustainable farming practices. And the rainforest Alliance is a business first and foremost, and for the farmer, it's a set of business practices. So speaking to Jose, his main concern is basically getting better price for his coffee rainforest Alliance does not give him a minimum price. It just gives him a measly premium of 14 cents on top of a kilos for the, from the stock market trading price. Now Organic standards are  
Jools Walker: Stop, stop
Scott Bentley: I had like three paragraphs to go.
Jools Walker: I think neither of us won that one Scott. We both messed this up!
Scott Bentley: Maybe that’s nil nil then.
Jools Walker:
You know what? Is it actually quite hard to try and sum this up in 30 seconds? Because it's complicated. The two certifications are there for the consumer to have a look at when they're going into the supermarket, but it really isn't that cut and dry as it?
Katie Russell: So reading between the lines, I believe that by the farmer being paid a decent wage, they're more likely to invest that back into the environment and their own communities and give them almost the power to look after where they live and grow their communities.
Scott Bentley: Absolutely Katie, I think you might have nailed it there. I mean, as consumers, we pay premiums for this certified coffee, but unfortunately, sometimes little of that extra money really trickles back down to the farmer.Um, I mean, I think that if I was to suggest one thing, it will be to try and buy a local specialty coffee. Yeah, have those conversations with your roaster about, you know, where they get their coffee from and how much they pay for it. All the other thing to do is if the coffee's been, iFinca verified, you can find out exactly how much their farmer was paid, but if not, You know, you can go on Instagram. Many of these farmers have an Instagram account and they love connecting with people that buy their coffee, struck up a conversation with them. Tell them you love their coffee.
Katie Russell: Awesome, that’s great.
Scott Bentley: Thanks very much for getting in touch with us.
Katie Russell: You too, take care of all of you.
Jools Walker: Bye bye.
Katie Russell: Bye
Jools Walker: All right, Scott let's hit the credits.

Scott Bentley:
This podcast was brought to you by James Harper, the creator of the coffee podcast filter stories.
Jools Walker: And he also tinkles the Ivorys that you hear in the background of the podcast. Now we have put links in the show notes to Jose's Instagram, so you can go and have a chat with him yourself.And we've also put in notes for sure. Britain's list of coffee charities, which is called good hands in coffee. So you can take
Scott Bentley: your pick. If you like this show, subscribe on your podcast app, you can help others to find the show by leaving a review on Apple podcasts or Castbox. And please only five star reviews.
Jools Walker: Now, if you like us live on social media, you can also follow us on all the usual platforms you can find. Scott @caffeineMag, me @LadyVelo and our wonderful producer, James Harper @FilterStoriesPodcast.
Scott Bentley: I mean, who's not on social media, but tell us, do you look for certifications when you're buying your coffee? Which ones do you choose and why?
Jools Walker: Scott I really enjoyed that interview with Jose and that takes us really nicely onto the next episode. Now we're going to explore the idea that if people knew the stories behind the farmer that they’d pay more for the coffee and we've got a beautiful moving story to share with you on this.
Luz Chacon: Todo el esfuerzo que una mujer campesina, when we, women farmers want to achieve our goals, we move forward. Nada que nos ataje, no one can stop us, no hay nadie, no one.  
Scott Bentley: And this idea that people pay more, if they knew the farmer behind the coffee is being put to the test with none other than Jools’ very own mum, mama Velo,
Jools Walker: Yay
Jools’ mum, Mama Velo: Well, when I tasted this coffee It was bitter. It was like drinking poison!
Jools Walker: You can find more episodes of the show, wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much for listening and we'll speak to you next time.