May 17, 2007 / 12:19 AM / 12 years ago

Coffee companies aim to boost eco-friendly purchases

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rainforest Alliance, an organization that certifies agricultural products grown in ways that benefit both farmers and the environment, has seen its coffee business grow almost 700 percent in three years.

“The amount of coffee that we’re certifying and selling into the marketplace has grown by 100 percent a year for the last three years,” Chief of Sustainable Agriculture for Rainforest Alliance Chris Wille said on Wednesday, on the sidelines at a Rainforest event in New York City where the group is based.

Coffee purchases through the Rainforest Alliance program, which must pass specific environmental, social and economic criteria that target long-term sustainability, increased to an estimated 54.7 million pounds in 2006 from 7 million pounds in 2003, the group said.

Increased consumer awareness about environmental issues and farmers’ working conditions, combined with a stronger understanding by companies that want to secure quality beans through promoting sustainable farms, are what have led to the increase, he said.

“This year we’ve seen a dramatic increased interest from companies that we’ve been working with for a long time, such as Kraft, which has Yuban (coffee brand) here in the U.S.,” Wille said.

Kraft Foods Inc. KFT.N, the biggest buyer of Rainforest certified beans, wants to see the sustainable product mainstreamed, said Annica Johansson, of Kraft’s Commodity Sustainability Programs.

The company increased its Rainforest Alliance certified coffee purchases to 26.5 million pounds in 2006, from 5.5 million pounds in 2004, Johansson said.

“We want to grow, of course, in line with consumer demand,” she said.

Some 30 percent of the beans in Kraft’s Yuban coffee brand are the result sustainable growing techniques, the minimum percentage required for certification.

“Our goal is to continue to try to grow the Yuban trademark,” said Gregory Nesmith, senior brand manager of Yuban coffee for Kraft. The brand, made from 100 percent Colombian beans, was first introduced in the United States in 1905.

Nestle Nespresso S.A., a subsidiary of Nestle NESN.VX that sells premium quality coffee, also plans to increase the amount of sustainable coffee that it buys to 50 percent by 2010, from 30 percent, said Gerhard Berssenbrugge, Nestle Nespresso S.A. chief executive.

The Swiss company is working with other nongovernmental organizations on the issue as well, Berssenbrugge said.

“There needs to be a very close relationship to the coffee farmers and the consumers. They think it’s the right thing to do, to help those people who produce such great coffee,” he said.

The Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Caribou Coffee Co. Inc. CBOU.O, also aims to increase its Rainforest certified coffee to 50 percent by 2008, up from an expected 35 percent in 2007, a company spokesperson said.

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