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The Wall Street Journal reports that the sustainable coffee business, “which tries to pay growers a premium while helping the environment, has gone mainstream,” with companies like Starbucks, Caribou, Peet’s and Green Mountain Coffee all “educating drinkers about the rough times growers suffered in recent years and about different types of joe.”

This so-called “ethical coffee consumption” trend has, according to some analysts, really taken off…despite the fact that it raises the cost of the product. According to the Journal story, “last year, companies globally paid 27 cents a pound more for organic than non-organic beans, and 8 to 12 cents more for Rainforest Alliance than regular beans.

The Journal writes: “Gretchen Ruethling, Rainforest Alliance spokeswoman, was surprised when she stopped at a Caribou Coffee shop in Milwaukee this spring and found it filled with stuffed toy frogs--the Rainforest group mascot--along with tropical posters and brochures being read by customers. She said students have started asking college cafeterias to serve sustainable coffee.

“Starbucks gets lots of credit for raising consumer interest in producers. Under its in house CAFE Practices, or environmental and social standards for growers, Starbucks bought 155 million pounds of beans in fiscal 2006, comprising 53% of its coffee purchases, said spokeswoman Stacey Krum. ‘Our goal is to buy 80% of our coffee from CAFE Practices suppliers by 2012.’ Six percent of Starbucks' java purchases were fair trade-certified in fiscal 2006 and 4% were certified organic, with crossover between the two.”
KC's View:
It is worth repeating the story I told you about when I was in Shanghai last month, and I interviewed Jean-Pierre Blanc, the directeur general of Cafes Malongo, a coffee retailer and distributor based in France that has been in the Fair Trade business for more than 15 years. Cafes Malongo plans to unveil a new program that will allow consumers to order a cup of coffee in one of his shops and use computer technology to find out who grew the coffee beans that went into that particular cup, and learn something about their lives and growing practices. It is, in many ways, the ultimate transparency.

And it seems to be what at least some customers are demanding.