“You know the greatest paradox? All the certification organizations have offices in Costa Rica – and yet, the country has the smallest share of certified coffee in Central America.”
I stare, taken aback by the passion of the speaker. I am in a conference room with the specialists in Costa Rican coffee production, about to discuss our new project proposal, but we still have a couple of minutes before the meeting starts. I’d wanted to use the time to quiz some of the marketing people on their view of certification schemes – but I hadn’t expected such a surprising response.
He goes on to explain that the Costa Rican coffee sector is different from many other countries’, such that certification schemes are virtually unnecessary. Wages are much higher than in neighboring regions. The government has passed laws that make sure that most profits go back to producers. Plus, in keeping with the green image of the country, there are environmental regulations in place that prevent the most harmful wrongdoings.
In addition, he explains that the Costa Ricans have built a reputation of being reliable business partners. They even keep forward contracts when they could get a better price on the spot market – apparently, this is so unusual that it warrants a special nod.
Thus, going through time-intensive and expensive certification is often not worth it for Costa Rican producers. They already get prices significantly higher than the world market averages due to their focus on higher quality. The Arabica bean that is grown here can be refined more and is the one used in speciality coffees, enabling producers to focus on quality that has its worth.
Once all of this is said, my spirits falter. Part of my work here is to investigate what the current landscape of sustainability labels looks like, including which ones are venturing out into the world of low-carbon products. In my mind, there are a lot of synergies that can be harnessed between our nation-wide project and the specific ones that private labels or even brands are pursuing. Yet, possibly I am on the wrong track focusing on certifications so much?
Part of what I want to explore is the alternatives: marketing over the national coffee association, direct sales to small and big roasters, Starbucks chiefly among them, and roasting it in-country, which harnesses the greatest added-value. Still, I wonder whether certifications are really obsolete. I ask what is on my mind as a European coffee guzzler (hail Sweden) – “but do you think the end consumer will know that Costa Rican labor and environmental standards are up to par, even without a label?“
The two marketers look at each other. They frown. “Well, the end consumer might not, but the roasters definitely do.” But this doesn’t answer the swarm of questions in my mind – with slogans such as “follow the frog” and “buy fair – be fair”, consumers are increasingly attuned to issues of social justice in the supply chain. Never mind labeling fatigue, most consumers now know that products with a label guarantee certain standards, while products without labels don’t. Under public pressure, big traders have committed to sourcing responsibly: which often translates to sourcing products with one – or any – label attached to it.
While direct or quality-based trade definitely has its place, the story is longer and more complex. Labels exist in order to short-circuit our decision-making process. By leaving third-party certifiers in the dust, is Costa Rica going the path of the future or locking itself out of growing markets?
A large part of my stay here will be dedicated to exactly these questions. Let’s explore this issue together!