New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt coined the term “greenwashing” to describe the phenomena we at Willy Street Co-op see and hear a lot about.  Greenwashing is when a company decides to improve its image as an environmentally responsible business and the effort is exposed as suspect. Ever since the Internet, folks like us at Willy Street Co-op have a pretty easy time exposing greenwashing. There are many examples of greenwashing. Huge corporations participate in it all the time. They spend many millions of dollars to do it.

It is possible to be successful in a greenwashing effort if you use certain buzzwords. One of the questions that recently came to me at Willy West was from a gentleman who had questions about the coffee. I was not surprised that he had these questions because I recently noticed that even in convenience stores, words like “environmentally responsible” and “fair trade” are starting to appear. At Willy Street Co-op, we source as many products as we can responsibly and are especially conscious of the coffee market. Just like chocolate, coffee is traded internationally at large exchanges. Most growers of cocoa beans and coffee simply sell their products to a buyer who then places them on the exchange. They are then purchased by the roasters. From there the coffee is distributed and sold again as a finished product to people who specialize in the marketing and merchandising and name-branding.

Let’s take for instance a particular coffee called Java which is being sold locally as a socially responsible product. After a bit of research I was able to determine that this coffee is actually from an organization called Distant Lands Coffee. If you go on the Internet you will be able to find the Distant Lands Coffee website.

Their website is actually very well done. On it you learn that they have some very advanced features on their coffee farms. And on the whole I would have to say they seem to really care about many of the values that we at Willy Street Co-op care about. There is however a very interesting difference. The folks who actually grow their coffee are getting paid a wage for growing it. So they do not really own the land or the crop. Under our definition, this coffee is not really fair trade. In fairness to Distant Lands, they do not claim that it is. Distant Lands sells their coffee to large distributors including Supervalu, which is a corporation based in Minnesota. Supervalu would like everyone to think that their coffee is coming from the highest and most socially responsible source. But is it? You can decide for yourself.

Just Coffee and Equal Exchange
Willy Street Co-op’s coffee passes through very few hands to get to you. Just Coffee and Equal Exchange know exactly where the farmers who grow their coffee live, who they are, and what their needs are. You as a consumer also know that the person who did all the work in the first place is getting directly compensated and improving their own economic picture. Willy Street Co-op is glad that Distant Lands Coffee sees the value in many of the initiatives that they have placed in their operation. We hope this consciousness expands into understanding how their products are marketed in convenience stores and mainstream grocery stores where all kinds of other issues abound such as solid waste and respect for workers and health care, etc. If Distant Lands goes out of business or falls under new ownership or has a crop failure, what actually happens to the workers there?

What we dream of at Willy Street Co-op is a lofty goal indeed. In fact it’s a culture change that the earth sorely needs. Ultimately for us it’s about transparency. Greenwashing is not transparency. Greenwashing is advertising manipulation. Even though Distant Lands can showcase some great operations in Central America, they themselves say they source coffee from places like Ethiopia and Sumatra. What are the conditions like in those places? How do those people live? Are they producing the extra coffee needed to keep the supply chain moving?

It is imperative this time that consumers make wise choices. At Willy Street Co-op, we will continue to aim high and are happy to help you make responsible choices.