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Interview with Ashley Parkinson

By David Iozzi

On Friday, May 3, 2002 I Interviewed Ashley Parkinson, the Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign Coordinator for the Seattle Audubon Society. The interview took place in an office shared by the Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign and the Songbird Foundation on Seattle's Lake Union office. These to organizations are two of the more influential migratory bird activist groups in the sustainable coffee movement and the interview therefore provided me with a new angle from which to view the movement.

Friday, May 3, 2002
Could you briefly explain what you do here at the Seattle Audubon Society?

"I am the coordinator for the Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign, organized through the Seattle Audubon Society. Our campaign has been around since 1996 when a group of local coffee companies and Seattle Audubon volunteers got together to try to raise awareness about the shade grown coffee issue. Seattle Audubon has an interest in the issue because our neighborhood migratory songbird populations are in decline, we are seeing about half as many birds migrating nowadays as we did just a couple of decades ago. So the Seattle Audubon wanted to work to protect migratory song birds, and one way to do that is to protected [the birds'] habitat, not only here in the States, but habitat along the migration route and in their wintering grounds as well. Many migratory birds benefit from shade coffee plantations, which are some of the last remaining forests in Central and South America and the Caribbean and Mexico. So, basically, this group of coffee companies and volunteers got together and decided to create this campaign to raise awareness about the issue. It was run by volunteers for several years and then we got grant funding from the Summit Foundation in Washington DC to sort of broaden the issue and broaden the campaign. They then hired me on to coordinate that effort. We work in collaboration with forty-five coffee companies in the Northwest-all the way, actually, from Alaska to San Diego, Montana, Idaho, all over Washington-and we work with these companies to support their efforts to sell shade coffee. We are trying to increase consumer demand for shade coffee so that companies have a reason to buy that coffee and farmers have a reason to sell it."

How do you go about increasing consumer demand for shade coffee, what is your strategy?

"Well, we do several different things: We have earned media. We have had a contract with Environmental Media Services here in town. They helped us create a press kit and materials [for the press] and [provided us with] some training-how to talk to the media, how to do interviews, that sort of thing-and they work with us to identify experts and pitch stories to the media. We have successfully pitched dozens of stories to USA Today, NPR, and Pacific Northwest Magazine. [For example] there is that article over there [pointing to a 'Good Housekeeping' magazine on the shelf behind me] that went out to 500,000 people. However, it is not paid media. We do not pay for TV ads, or radio ads, or that sort of thing, instead we talk to reporters, pitch them stories, and give them information. We try to get them to write a story for free about the issue, it may be a different kind of story depending on what the hook is-maybe it is about churches and coffee, or migratory birds coming back to town in the spring."

Do you have any links to groups outside of the State of Washington? Groups such as Trans Fair USA, Global Exchange, or Oxfam?

"Yes, Trans Fair was working for a year in Seattle, they had a coordinator that they hired to work here-Jeremy Zimmer-and for the past couple of years we have been working pretty closely with them. We sort of created a loose coalition and called it the Seattle Sustainable Coffee Coalition and we did a campaign together last year. We each have our own events, missions, schedules, and that sort of thing, but we tried to do some events and some work in collaboration last year because we are all sort of doing similar work in the same area. We sent out a letter to hundreds of coffee companies inviting them to some events that we had and encouraging them to carry sustainable coffee-Fair Trade, organic, and shade-grown coffees. We also talk regularly, every few weeks at least. This past month Trans Fair had a farmer come up from Nicaragua and she went to many different events in town. I helped organize some of those events; some of them were our events that the farmer came to. We definitely, and with Trans Fair in particular, have done a lot of work together. We also work closely with the Songbird Foundation. We also have met, through the Summit Foundation-our big funder-the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the Rainforest Alliance, who we worked very closely with. The Rainforest alliance probably more closely than anybody else, but then we have been in contact with Oxfam, with Conservation International, with the Nature Conservancy, and a little bit with global exchange. A couple years ago, I did a panel, I went to a couple conferences and spoke with Deborah, and we certainly are in e-mail contact and on each other's list serves, that sort of thing. We try to keep abreast of what is going on."

You focus mainly on shade coffee and migratory birds. What about groups who focus on "livable wage issues" and human rights, is that a separate track or is are those issues closely tied to what you are doing? How much do you identify with those groups?

"I think we both have the same values-we want coffee to be grown in a way that is sustainable [both] environmentally and socially. From our perspective, from the Seattle Audubon's perspective, you cannot grow environmentally sound coffee if you are not paying attention to the farmers and the workers-it just does not work. Right now, with the coffee crisis, farmers are having to cut down their land for firewood or are selling it to huge developers because they cannot afford it. We know that in order to protect land, generally, small farmers are better stewards of the land; they take better care of the environment than big developers do. [In addition,] pesticide affects not just the land, but it affects workers. Definitely, the issues interconnect; but at the same time, our organizations have different missions. The Seattle Audubon works to protect birds and nature through advocacy and science. Trans Fair's mission is to get Fair Trade certified products and to increase the sales for those products. Although those two things can interconnect, they are not the same mission. We try work in collaboration, we try to figure out ways that we can connect on issues-we have, I think, very similar values, [but] many different organizations have different ways of doing things. Like Trans Fair, since they are working closely with companies, they do not want to be seen as an activist organization. They sort of rely on Global Exchange to be the activists so Trans Fair can be free to step back and say 'we are above that,'-or, not above that, but they do something different, they work with companies. Everybody has their own role, we try to figure out those roles, whenever we are talking, whenever we give a presentation or slide show to any sort of group-a faith based group, a university, a company-we always talk about how those issues connect, we would never talk about just shade coffee. We would talk mostly about shade coffee, biodiversity, and birds, but we would also talk about how pesticide use effects workers, the coffee crisis, and that we really think that in order for coffee to be sustainable, it needs to be both socially and environmentally sustainable."

Do you have to alter your campaign goals when you work with other organizations in order to fit in with their campaigns?

"I think that some organizations do that more than others. We tend to be flexible, not that we change our goals, I mean, we have our strategy, we have our goals, but maybe the way we that we would go about reaching those goals would be a little different. [Maybe] we would collaborate on an event instead of doing our own event, or we would contact a company together, so that two different organizations were not contacting the same company. But, as far as [changing our] goals, we would not. Our end goal is to increase the sales of shade grown coffee, so we are not going to change that goal to increase the sales of Fair Trade coffee unless, in the end, that really meant that more habitat was being protected. Which could be the case, but I do not think there is enough research or information about that right now for us to know. We do know that maybe it is a better message for consumers, to say that this coffee is better for your health, or it is better for farmers, versus better for birds. [Some] people care maybe a little more about farmers than they do about birds, and in that case we would change the way that we were going about reaching our [goal]. Our mission is to increase the sales of shade grown coffee and protect habitat. Anything that is going to be the best way to protect habitat, we would do that."

How about a group like the Organic Consumers Association, a group that has a strong campaign against Starbucks but whose main goal is to get rBGH milk out of Starbucks stores, how does their campaign fit into yours?

"We do not work closely with them. In the past, they have had, from our perspective I think, some misinformation. They would send out e-mails saying, 'all Fair Trade coffee is shade grown and organic, all organic is Fair Trade.' It was very confused. They [also] had our logo on their website saying, 'Starbucks kills birds'-that kind of thing. We have different tactics. I do not think we are as well organized as Trans Fair is, but we have a similar need to have good relationships with companies. We are trying to work on the more positive end, with companies to support their efforts to [sell] shade coffee. We would not, with our logo, be saying, 'Starbucks kills birds.' Not because we work closely with Starbucks, but because when you are working with companies, if you 'company bash' Starbucks, in as sense, you are hitting all of those companies, and they do not appreciate it. They do not want to be part of a campaign that is going to be negative."

So what about organizations that do bash on companies, do you see them as hurting the movement, hurting your ability to achieve your goals?

"I cannot say, as far as Global Exchange, they have had some good strategies. As far as OCA, I see them as more negative and less respective in their tactics-as far as I have heard, but again, this is all sort of hearsay, what I hear from other people. People who I have worked closely with have not really appreciated what OCA has done. I do not really know [much about OCA personally]. We have chosen not to work closely with them because they do not really do anything with shade grown coffee. They do Bovine Grown Hormones and they do Fair Trade Coffee, but they do not do anything with promoting organic and shade grown coffee."

Do you think they would be better off if they did all kinds of sustainable coffee?

"I do not know, it seems to me to be a little more closely aligned with what their mission is, but I do not know. They have chosen a strategy and they are going for that. I do not know that I could say what would be the best strategy. I feel like, in the coffee industry, you definitely need people who are pushing on companies at the same time as you need people who are supporting companies. Starbucks [for example], we can support them all we want but if they get to a point like right now, [a point where] they only have shade grown coffee part of the year, [then] we are in a position where we cannot all of a sudden start a campaign against Starbucks and piss them off. [We cannot] because we have worked closely with them; but, if there was an organization like OCA that was putting pressure on them-but in more of a reasonable way, a more effective sort of campaign so we could work with them, sort of how Global Exchange and Tran Fair work-I think that would be very effective. But, the way that they are doing it now, I am not really sure how the OCA fits into the whole scheme of things. It is confusing to me."

Do you try to reward companies that comply with your demands?

"Well, we do not have demands. We try to support companies that have shade grown coffee by creating promotional materials for them, sampling their coffees-we do lots of events where we try to get out there and reach the consumer more than anything else. We work with companies but we are really trying to reach the end consumer. [The coffee companies] are supported by the fact that their sales are being increased, but a lot of it depends on how much effort they put into it-how much money and time they put into it. We have a lot of companies that are members of our campaign but do not necessarily do a whole lot, and then we have other companies that are very invested in [our campaign]. They want to get the issue out there and they want to increase their sales. That kind of system seems to work well."

Let us say that Starbucks decided to convert 50% of their line to fair trade. Would you try to get some of the other groups to back off?

"Well, if there coffees still were not Fair Trade I do not see why Global Exchange or Trans Fair should stop pressuring Starbucks because they are selling shade coffee. It is sort of a different issue. Yes, they are protecting habitat, but if they are paying their workers five cents a pound then… But, if for some reason we were targeting Starbucks and if fifty percent of their coffee was shade grown, then I am sure that we would target some other company. But, I do not think it is that well coordinated at this point [to get other organizations to back of because we do], it is not like we are all coordinating."

Obviously, the Shade Coffee Campaign is just a part of what the Seattle Audubon Society does. How much of the Seattle Audubon Society's efforts, on a day-to-day basis, are devoted to this campaign?

"Not very much. The Seattle Audubon has six or seven staff members, hundreds of volunteers-I am a contract staff member. It is one of the biggest and oldest environmental organizations in Seattle. They do educational programs and they have at least two full time conservation staff that work on all sorts of political conservation issues, including migratory birds. Shade coffee is a part of the conservation goals of the Seattle Audubon Society. We put thousands of volunteer hours into it, but as far as staff time, I am the only staff person that works on it-actually there is somebody else that works on it a little bit of the time now-but certainly a lot of volunteer hours and a lot of people have been involved in it."

Is it one of Seattle Audubon's main projects?

"No, it is part of one of the main programs: Education and Conservation."

Would you say that the Seattle Audubon Society is on the periphery of the sustainable coffee movement or at its core?

"I think that, although we are very small, we only have one staff person, and our campaign has been very volunteer run, that everybody knows about our campaign, most organizations that are working on sustainable coffee issues know that we exist. We are in contact with them regularly. But, again, we are a very small campaign with not very much funding-especially not right now. We are not in league with Conservation International, which is a huge international environmental organization with millions of dollars but at the same time, we are well known. I think a lot of it is because nobody else is doing the grassroots consumer side of shade grown coffee. Other folks are doing work on the certification end and the technical side, like the Rainforest Alliance or Smithsonian, whereas we are trying to push the issue to consumers. The Songbird Foundation does that as well, and they have one staff person [Kim Winters]. Those two organizations are working on it, but there is nobody else really working on that. I do not know how much consumer oriented stuff Conservation International does."

13) What does the Songbird foundation do? How is its work different from yours?

"Danny O'Keefe, the founder [of the Songbird Foundation], is a musician and is very well connected in the musicians' arena. He is connected with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, and all these famous people-and what he really wanted to do was to use his musical connections to raise awareness about songbirds, coffee, and these issues, and that is not what the Seattle Audubon does. We are more grassroots focused [than the Songbird Foundation]. Working with companies is sort of a new thing for the Seattle Audubon. We are definitely more grassroots focused. [Whereas] Danny really wants to do paid media-radio ads, billboards, and bus signs; they are doing a PSA to be aired on television, a video, and big flashy concerts. They are flashier. We are sort of more of the content [of the movement]; we do science, reviews of the science out there on shade coffee, or grassroots organizing, that kind of thing. But, people confuse us a lot, nobody knows what we do or what they do, and we are in the same office. Sometimes we [have to] try to figure out who is supposed to be doing what."

So, you do a lot of work together?

"Yes, certainly, like when they have a big concert we connect them with our member companies. We provide more of the content for the work they do."

So, you see your two organizations as complimenting each other and falling into specific niches?

"Yes, but I think we have to work to figure that out a lot of the time. We have to make sure that we are not duplicating efforts. We also have many of the same funding sources."

Do you think that there is a lot of unnecessary duplication of efforts out there in the sustainable coffee movement?

Yes and no…

…Kim Winters came into the room and we became sidetracked. I commented that while shopping at QFC the other day, I was unable to find a bag of coffee that said, 'shade coffee, organic coffee, and Fair Trade coffee'. I asked if major grocery stores carried such a coffee:

"Yes, Seattle's best makes one but I am not sure if they carry it everywhere…

…So, duplication of efforts: I think there is still so much work that needs to be done that you could have many more organizations involved and still not be doing enough. [However,] in some ways, like when Trans Fair was here last year, they were calling up probably the same companies we were to try to get them to carry Fair Trade coffee when we were trying to get them to carry shade grown coffee. We tried to coordinate it but it can be hard to when organizations have different missions. They are trying, on the ground in coffee [producing] countries, to try to fix some of those problems so that Fair Trade certified coffee is also organic and shade grown certified. Then you would not have to be promoting all three of them at the same time. But, right now, as you said, it is hard to find coffee that is all three. They are promoting one thing while we are promoting another thing."

Are there any plans within the sustainable coffee movement to come up with a catchall logo that represents shade, organic, and Fair Trade coffee all at once?

"Well there is certainly a lot of talk about it, and plenty of people who think that that would be the best idea for the consumer."

It seems as though right now consumers have to choose what they are passionate about-the shade or the Fair Trade.

"Right, but that is sort of how it is out there in the real world too. What are you promoting? If you are promoting both of them, then you have to find the right company-the company doing that. I think that [developing a catchall logo] would be great in terms of achieving our goals, but I just do not think that, on the technical side of things, they are there yet. If we did that, we would have one coffee that we would sell."

Do you think it would make it harder for you to achieve your goals if you had such a label?

"I think it would be great, but in terms of achieving our goals, I just do not think that, on the technical side of things, [coffee producers] are there yet. If we did that, we would have maybe one coffee that we would sell. I think it is a matter of trying to get folks working together to be able to source coffee that is environmentally friendly and socially friendly, and there is not necessarily that much of it out there right now that has been certified as all three. You can find a lot of coffee that has not been certified, where a company claims that it is shade grown, claims that it is organic, and claims that they pay fair wages. Most companies would probably tell you that, but as far as certified coffee, it would be, right now, too hard to actually promote because there would not be enough of it to promote. A document was created by a lot of organizations about guidelines for the conservation of coffee-the conservation principles for coffee production-those are the source and guidelines that Starbucks uses now. So, a lot of organizations are trying to use this document to further the work that they do. [However], I know that Trans Fair does not really like that document because it does not include everything that they would want it to include. It is really difficult to come up with one set of standards that everyone thinks is fair and reasonable, and that would work in the world. It is just going to take time and people to keep pushing on that for it to happen."

You told me that you were leaving soon, that you would not be here much longer? Is somebody going to replace you?

"No, we used to get our funding from the Summit Foundation, [but] for the past year and a half or so, they have had some real economic problems and have lost a lot of their money so they were not able to fund coffee projects this year. Several people actually working in shade coffee have lost their jobs or left. I am going to be leaving to go do environmental education for the summer at Discovery Park and then I am going to figure out what I am going to do after that, I do not really know. This is going to turn into a volunteer-run campaign again until we can get more funding."

So somebody will keep pushing on the campaign, but probably not as strongly?

Yes, I hope so. People who were involved have had to become less involved so we will just see where it goes. I do not want to say that it will be less supported than it was, because who knows.

So these foundations a really important then?

Yes, the summit foundation was coordinating a lot of these efforts too. They really helped bring a lot of these organizations together.

Are most groups like yours funded by foundations?

"I do not know. I know some groups like the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center get some money from coffee companies. Like Trans Fair does, a percentage of the coffee [revenue generated by certified coffee] goes back to their organization to help fund whatever work they are doing. They also rely partially on foundations. The Songbird Foundation relies on foundations as well, I am sure a lot of them do. I do not know where else you would get your money, there is no 'source of income' so you are relying on individuals and foundation grants and that kind of thing, unless you are a certifier."

How do you go about getting grants?

"Well, the Summit Foundation actually came to us and asked us to apply because that was one of their goals, to increase bio-diversity. They were looking at [sustainable] coffee, how it was increasing bio-diversity, who was involved in these projects, and how to help those organizations, so they came to us and asked us to apply. But from now on we will have to seek out funding ourselves, look at different funding organizations, and try to see if their goals fit with our goals and write proposals. [We will] probably make an appeal to the coffee companies that we work with and try to ask them for some funding to keep doing the work that we are doing. Individuals, members of the Seattle Audubon that are interested and want to help this campaign keep going as well. But it is a good question."

I found out recently that only half of the coffee grown as Fair Trade is actually sold at Fair Trade prices. Is that true, and is that the focus of a large part of your work?

"Yes, I have been to several coops that are Fair Trade coops…"

So you have actually gone down to Latin America?

Yes, I have stayed in Guatemala for four months studying Spanish and then, last summer, I was in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I had an individual grant that I applied for that let me go down there [separately, not as part of my work with the Seattle Audubon]. It was to make connections, see what shade growing was actually like, take photos, and get some materials. I talked to a lot of the coops and they have a lot of coffee that could be sold as Fair Trade certified, but they can only sell ten to thirty percent of it at Fair Trade prices. The rest of it they just sell at normal market prices. There is certainly a greater capacity for Fair Trade and we would obviously support that. We have been talking to Trans Fair about going to FLO, the Fair Trade labeling organization, to get them to make sure that all their coffee is shade grown.

Which is the harder sell, shade or Fair Trade?

"I do not know, I think it really depends on the person, I think people are more interested in buying what affects them personally. With companies, Trans Fair does a better job of selling it, they are better at marketing it, but also, since they are a certifier, they charge the company a ten-cent premium. The Smithsonian, who is also a certifier, charges twenty-five cents, so I am sure that would be a much harder sell than the ten cents that Trans Fair charges. But there are a lot of companies, if you just sell them on the shade grown idea and not certification, it is much easier, I think they will do whatever is easiest really. Trans Fair has a high bar I guess, they are probably more difficult to sell but at the same time they do a better job of pushing it."

…The interview ended here, although we talked for a little while longer discussing, among other things, the nature my research and her plans for the near future. She gave me some samples of sustainable coffees; I thanked her, and began making my way back to campus.