What is carbon-neutral coffee?
The most recent "certification" used to promote coffee (and other products) to environmentally aware consumers is the "carbon-neutral" label. By its nature, coffee is a product that has the potential to create a large negative environmental impact. In the worst case, forests are cleared in the tropics to make way for sun coffee plantations that lead to water contamination by pesticides and herbicides, erosion, and loss of habitat. Then the coffee is shipped to developed countries, roasted, and shipped again to consumers, consuming energy and adding to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases widely blamed for global climate change. For environmentally concerned consumers, this can take a little bit of the joy out of the morning cup of coffee.
Claims of carbon neutrality aim to eliminate that feeling of guilt and appeal to those consumers. A carbon-neutral business is one that, through the sum of its activities, does not add to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But determining a company's net emissions is anything but simple business.
There is no uniform, internationally recognized methodology or standards for determining if a company is carbon-neutral, so even more than direct trade coffee, carbon-neutral claims place an impossible burden on the consumer who wants to make a fully informed choice. Other certifications, such as Rainforest Alliance, are complicated enough, with their technical standards for biodiversity on coffee farms and the percentages of certified and non-certified coffee that can be blended together and still carry the seal. Yet these complexities are minor in comparison to the numerous factors that go into determining a company's total carbon footprint. Are both direct (exhaust from the tailpipe of the truck that transports the coffee) and indirect (emissions from the factory that built the truck) emissions considered? If the company counts the preservation of forest cover on coffee farms as a positive offset to other emissions, what assumptions are used? Do they assume the land otherwise would have been clear cut? How do they calculate the amount of greenhouse gases removed by the preserved forest? Does the company achieve carbon neutrality through changes in business operations or by buying carbon credits (essentially paying someone else to plant trees, recycle, or do something that reduces overall emissions)?
Perhaps the best that can said is that companies that have gone to the expense of conducting an audit, in order to claim carbon neutrality, are at least trying. But given all the forms of energy use and all the complexities involved in international trade such as the coffee business, proving precise carbon neutrality is a lot like trying to measure air. Actually, that's exactly what it's like.
What are the environmental standards?
In intent, carbon-neutral coffee roasters, importers or vendors are demonstrating the broadest concern for the enviornment. While organic farmers may reduce pollution in their home countries, and shade coffee growers and Rainforest Alliance producers may preserve tropical forests, which indirectly benefits everyone, the carbon-neutrality movement concerns itself with the environmental health of the entire world.
It does not set strict environmental standards for the coffee farms, however. Since the goal is to reduce the sum of the company's activites to net zero emissions of greenhouse gases, poor practices in one area can be offset by positive practices elsewhere (or by buying carbon credits).
More importantly, because there are no internationally accepted standards, each company's certification is only as good as the rigorousness of the consultant who was hired to determine the company's net emissions.
What are the labor standards?
Carbon neutrality is concerned solely with environmental impacts, not working conditions for coffee producers. But many of the companies that care enough to go through the effort to try to make their operations carbon-neutral are also concerned about labor conditions for farmers and their workers. These are addressed through direct trade relationships or by buying and selling Fair Trade certified coffee.
What's the downside?
Unless the vendor is charging higher prices, there really is no downside for the consumer in buying coffee from a company that claims to be carbon-neutral, except for the ambiguity of the standards and methods used to support the claim.
How does the coffee I buy get labeled as carbon-neutral?
Companies that wish to promote themselves as carbon-neutral hire a consulting firm to study their operations, determine their carbon footprint and make suggestions for working toward neutrality. Some of the larger international consulting firms license seals that can be used on products, much like the Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade seals.
In the end, the carbon-neutrality claim is only as good as the company that comes up with data to support it.