How many labels does
coffee need?

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Welcome to 2015. If you happen to live in the Western world – and if you’re reading this you probably do – you won’t need to look for too long before you run into a piece of advertising in any way, shape or form. We are consuming more than ever before and, more important, we are more aware than ever in history of both our individual and collective power as consumers.


The way we consume products has changed, and so has we understand advertising and brands. We want to consume, yes – in fact we are thirsty for new goods and gadgets to call our own – but in order for us to purchase them, we now need brands to give us strong reasons why we should. We want them to convince us; to persuade us to buy; to tell us a story that will hopefully get into our consumerist hearts and thus fulfill our little souls until we swipe our credit card. What we want it to buy products that are aligned with our aspirational lifestyle standards.

Let’s talk about coffee, shall we? Within the consumer goods industry, coffee is one of the products whose marketing raison de vivre has changed most dramatically during the last few years. In the seventies we simply drank coffee. Nowadays we are not only aware and interested in where it comes from, but also in its roasting process, its environmental impact and whether the farm workers at the coffee plantations were exploited in its making.

The obsession with labels

In 1973 coffee became the first article of consumer goods to be distributed under the Fair Trade label. It’s been over 40 years since this milestone, and in that time Fair Trade coffee has become a common deal all around the world. So common that, according to the International Trade Forum Magazine, coffee now accounts for 25-50% turnover of industrial countries’ fair trade organisations nowadays.

In 2001 Starbucks launched together with Conservation International the label CAFE – an acronym that means ‘coffee’ in Spanish and stands for Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices. The fact that a mighty corporation such as Starbucks – the epitome of a marketing-driven company – invested massive amounts of money and resources to support the development of this label could only mean one thing: the trend was real.

Over a decade later, it seems that there is a label for every consumers’ concern. See Bird Friendly, a certification created by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington D.C. It guarantees respect for the environment and the habitat of the birds. This certification is one of the few that has nothing to do with labour conditions, and acts as living proof of how consumers are now concerned about environmental issues, too.


The Bird Friendly certification might stand out among the rest of labels, but there is one that has become even more popular than Fair Trade.  We are talking about Organic. It’s fair to say that the organic obsession has transformed the way we understand food. Coffee is just one example, but there are also fruits, vegetables, bread, milk, chocolate, wine… It’s the organic era.

In the meantime, other brands such as Nespresso have already created their own labels, too. Its AAA Sustainable Quality Program aims to accomplish ‘sustainable quality’ while respecting both the environment and the farmers’ working rights. And besides the EU common regulations, we may find countries like Suisse which have developed their own label, too. Bio Suisse is the name of the label for the organic products distributed in the country.

The list of coffee labels goes on and on. Yet the question is whether we need so many to achieve a goal that should be global. We all want to drink the best possible coffee while respecting the health of the planet and its inhabitants. Are these good-hearted labels or simply marketing strategies? It sure is one complex question that needs an in-depth analysis, but the fact that we, as consumers, are able to start this discussion is already a hopeful sign for the future.


Pictures by Iris Humm