Posted on February 1, 2016 @ 08:26:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Over the weekend I was in a large grocery store looking for coffee with this ecolabel on it.
Unfortunately, they had no bird-friendly coffee for sale. I became interested in bird friendly coffee as a result of reading the first couple of chapters of Coffee Agroecology (2015).
The book enlightened me about the different agricultural approaches to growing coffee. The terms "sun coffee" and "shade coffee" refers to the two ends of a spectrum of coffee production methods with sun coffee being the main method of production these days because they can produce more coffee per unit of land by growing coffee trees without much shade cover. Coffee, however, is traditionally an understory tree and grows well in the shade. Shade coffee can be produced without cutting down rain forests and without chemicals because the biodiverse forest habitat includes pest predators and natural sources of fertility (e.g., leaf and branch litter, animal droppings, dead animals). It is arguably the closest you can get to organic coffee and is in many ways superior to organic because shade coffee systems support a large amount of biodiversity that organic labeling does not specifically address.
Most coffee is grown in tropical regions of the world and you might wonder why you should care how they grow it down there. One reason is because many birds of North America migrate to the tropics during the winter months and the type of habitat they encounter there affects their populations in North America during warmer months. Hence the ecolabel for bird-friendly coffee. It should be noted that bird friendly coffee, or shade coffee, supports much higher levels of biodiversity generally than sun coffee and if you are looking for high quality organic coffee that is fairly traded, the label might signify that as well. Unfortunately, bird-friendly coffee does not appear to be something I can buy locally. Not even one of the major brands appears to support it. Why is that?
This raises the issue of ecolabelling communication and how effective it is. Even if some company did put the Smithsonian bird friendly certified label on their coffee, would this add sufficient value to that product to make people want to buy it or perhaps pay more for it? Most people would not know what it meant and would therefore probably not care. For ecolabelling to be effective there has to be some outreach and education about why we should care that a product is sustainable in the ways the ecolabel certifies. I think this label would be more effective if it included a url where people could go and learn more and feel like their efforts are making a difference.
The Ecolabel Index website is currently tracking 463 ecolabels. Some of the ecolabels such as EnergyStar are well known whereas others are not. There are gaps where I think ecolabelling could be better such as indicating the longevity of an appliance and not just its energy consumption. It is an interesting exercise to walk through a store and imagine the type of ecolabelling that could appear on various items. Is there a label in this index that could be used or would a new ecolabel have to be created? Exercises such as this might help you imagine a new product or a new approach to marketing your product.
In North America the most successful ecolabel is arguably the "organic" ecolabel. While many people argue that the label has become increasingly meaningless with the entry of large corporate organic farms, the fact is that it is still a label that "adds value" to the food that it is attached to. For many companies getting certain types of ecolabels is now a cost of doing business. Most large forestry companies, for example, are expected to be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. Here again we might wonder whether there should be better ecolabelling as some of the forestry practices of such companies could be better. Would we buy or pay more for wood that was harvested to ensure forest qualities like supporting biodiversity, selective logging, uneven aged stands and so on?
Will ecolabelling need to become more prevalent and more meaningful if we are to address some of our sustainability challenges? Will social media and the internet provide a better way to make ecolabelling more meaningful, effective and participative? How general does an ecolabel have to be in order to be worth promoting? There are lots of issues to think about when it comes to ecolabelling and the purpose of todays blog is to begin exploring some of them. There is also a significant amount of marketing research on ecolabelling and what makes it effective that this blog does not discuss which might be the subject of a future blog.