By Emma Grace Fairchild:
Most of us absolutely love coffee. Whether it is a necessity to start the day or a crucial part of our social life, different roasts and drinks – all coming from the humble coffee bean – keep millions of people across the world going. The prevalence of coffee culture in most of the world amounts to a huge bean growing industry; however, the enormity of the coffee industry often impacts the environment, workers and communities in a negative way. So, if you prefer a cup from your favorite chain coffee shop or a local, independent coffee roaster, there are some terms and ideas that can help you navigate all of the options in order to choose a responsible coffee you can feel good about drinking.
Buzzwords like “fair trade” and “organic” pop up in coffee shops everywhere, but they do not always explain how the majority of coffee in the world is produced. There are three common terms we hear around coffee – organic, fair trade and rainforest alliance certified. If it is organic, it was grown without conventional fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides; however, it is still grown as a monoculture crop, in huge swaths of land where native forest has been cut down, and does not indicate how the workers are treated. On the other hand, fair trade certified means there is a responsible relationship between the farm and its laborers, but does not mean it is grown in an environmentally friendly manner. The Rainforest Alliance uses a third party certification guaranteeing that the coffee is produced with environmentally and socially responsible farming methods. This certification is a comprehensive and respectable approach to securing a guilt free cup, but be aware that a brand of coffee may use only a small percentage of certified beans. Companies like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonalds have all marketed themselves as serving responsible coffee, but the fraction of product that has any redeeming factor is small. It appears that some major companies do only the bare minimum of what they think a consumer needs in order to feel better about the product.
Coffee beans are typically grown using a typical monoculture farming method. In other words, coffee plantations grow only coffee in tropical areas which are often clear-cut rainforests. This method of farming leads to many problems such as loss of habitat of numerous species, including many birds and primates; the degradation of topsoil; and poisoning of water tables from heavy fertilizer and pesticide use. Also, conventional coffee farms often pay local laborers very low wages, and offer no benefits or protections for the side effects of hard physical labor of harvesting coffee.
Luckily, there are other ways to grow coffee, ways that responsibly support the environment (and the people who live there)! Coffee can be grown under the canopy of the rainforest and still produce successful and flavorful yields, a manner referred to as “shade grown.” This technique truly is a holistic way of farming that supports the environment instead of destroys it, and it typically uses organic practices as well. Supporting shade grown coffee farms allows birds, insects, primates and other animals to live in their natural habitat, water reservoirs and rivers to be kept clean of chemical pollutants, and topsoil to be protected. Workers’ rights, health and safety are often also protected in situations where coffee is grown in a holistic and respectful manner.
To summarize, there are plenty of opportunities to still enjoy your daily cup (or two or three) and support environmentally friendly practices. The perfect trifecta of a sustainable cup of coffee is a shade grown, organic and fair trade bean that is roasted to your preference! Try Audubon Society brand coffee, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center approved businesses; or ask your local coffee roaster if they can source responsibly grown beans for your town!
It’s not surprising to read about the negatives concerning the coffee industry. Such massive amounts are required to feed demand, that there are almost certain to be social and environmental drawbacks.
Yes, so many things done on such a huge scale are at risk for having equally big problems. Thank you for your comment!
Thank you for your article, its great to help consumers understand what their choices are in coffee and to show the difference that they can make by choosing an ethically sourced and environmentally grown coffee.
I thought you might be interested to know more about the environmental elements of Fairtrade as the standards do cover that as well. We recently launched a video to showcase the environmental benefits of Fairtrade, hearing directly from the farmers themselves. You can see the video here –
If you are interested, we have some brochures that show the impact of Fairtrade in all 3 areas – economic, social and environmental which I can send you. If you would like that please let me know your address.
Kate Lewis – Coffee Product Manager
Hey there Kate,
Thanks for taking the time to read the article and sharing this information, and I stand corrected on the full coverage of a fair trade certification! I appreciate the update and I’m sure the readers do as well. The videos are great, I like hearing things from the people behind the scenes producing sustainable products, and the approach to dealing with the La Roya fungus is really cool! Thanks again for your comments, keep up the good work!