Coffee drinkers alike will agree that this morning beverage is one of the greatest innovations of all time. I am tempted to write about the wonders of coffee… how the smell of a first brew wafts into the room with the power to revive, how the relief of the first sip clears away the morning fog…
…but that would make me appear an addict.
So the question is raised:
can we make a small, positive change by choosing a different label for our cup of Joe?
If we do a little background research and keep our eyes open in the supermarket, then the answer is yes. I have a couple of suggestions down below, but ethicalcoffee.net and consideringcoffee.com have great, well-researched articles on the various certifications you can find on a bag of coffee. NPR also published a story on the differences behind these certifications.
Here are some ways to turn your coffee addiction green (click words highlighted in green for web links):
1. Buy Fair Trade Certified coffee.
Fair Trade USA is a non-profit organization that assures its farmers and artisans are paid equitable wages for their products. The organization also puts an emphasis on both agricultural and community sustainability. Though there are a variety of fair trade certified items out there, coffee is among the easiest to find. You may be surprised to know that companies such as Green Mountain Coffee, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Donuts sell fair trade coffee- however, it is important to note exactly which fair trade products they sell. Fair trade does not certify an entire coffee label but rather a particular blend. If you order a regular or flavored cup of coffee at Dunkin’, for example, you’re not getting fair trade- only their espresso is fair trade certified. Next time you pull into one of their “drive-thrus”, think about getting a latté or cappuccino.
A list of all fair-trade certified coffees can be found on the fair trade website by scrolling down to “Companies and Products”.
2. Buy Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee
The Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit organization that aims at protecting biodiversity while meeting the needs of a farming community to sustain their long-term success. Like Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance certifies a wide variety of products beyond coffee; that being said, their coffee is as easy to find as Fair Trade. Keep in mind that Rainforest Alliance “allow[s] those using at least 30 percent Rainforest Alliance Certified content to put the seal on packaging”. Their website notes that even 30% can make a significant impact on farmers and their communities, but labels such as Caribou Coffee carry 100% Rainforest Alliance certified coffee blends.
If you “Shop the Frog” online you can search for Rainforest Alliance certified products available in your state.
3. Buy coffee bought through Direct Trade
“Direct Trade” is best-known to be advocated by Geoff Watts, the director of Intelligentsia Coffee. Roasting companies such as Counter Culture Coffee and Stumptown Coffee are also famous for using direct trade practices. The idea is for the roaster and the farmer to meet one-on-one, creating a personal relationship based on respect, equity, and a concern for the environment. A notable aspect of direct trade is that farmers are paid at least 25% more for their coffee than dictated by Fair Trade. Intelligentsia gives a more thorough explanation on how direct trade works on their website.
4. Buy Organic coffee
Coffee beans raised under organic conditions have obvious benefits for the environment and the greater community- less pesticides to handle, consume, and adversely affect soil quality. The difficulty consumers often have to grapple with is the fact that many farmers cannot- or do not- become USDA Organic certified. It is an expensive task that some cannot afford, and meeting certification requirements can be a lengthy, difficult process for small-scale farmers. You can, however, be assured that USDA Organic certification requirements are rather stringent. A company I personally find extremely trustworthy is Newman’s Own Organics.
5. Buy Bird Friendly Certified Coffee
Many would consider Bird Friendly coffee the “golden label”. Personally it is a label I have rarely seen or heard of, but the Smithsonian National Zoological Park website has a list of FAQs on this certification. In a nutshell, Bird Friendly coffee is organically shade-grown in forests that support a healthy bird habitat (various coffee blogs and websites claim that shade-grown coffee has a higher quality flavor than sun-grown coffee). With organic certification as a preliminary requirement, Bird Friendly coffee is infamous for its triple threat of protecting both the biotic and abiotic community as well as its farmers. Care2 lists six convincing reasons why Bird Friendly coffee is the way to go.
You can enter a search for Bird Friendly Certified coffees in your area through the Smithsonian website.
After looking at all of these labels we must keep in mind that certification is a difficult process that calls for time, money, and opportunity. When purchasing coffee we must be wary of the back-story. What are the limitations to each certification? Have there been recent changes to certification standards? Are farmers and the environment truly being met with respect? Sadly it is difficult to know the answer when we are so removed from the countries that produce coffee beans.
It is important to note that small independent roasters often hold to highly ethical standards without gaining certification while big-brand names only include one or two Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance certified blends for marketing purposes. Do not be afraid to ask a farmers market merchant about his company’s buying and selling practices. As the environmental movement and an increased awareness of social justice are on the rise, staying informed is the best way to make responsible decisions as a consumer.