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A Just Cup of Coffee

The type of coffee you buy has a big impact on farmworkers and the environment. Here's how to make that impact a good one.

Like many of us, Bill Harris of Americus, Georgia, once drank coffee-any kind of coffee-without checking the label to see where it was from or under what conditions it was made. But on a 1997 visit to Guatemala, Bill says he made a simple mistake that changed the way he thought about his morning cup.

Harris was building an addition to a farmer’s house with a service group when he covered up a coffee plant. “When I saw how distressed the owner was, I realized how much the farmers there depend on coffee to survive,” he recalls.

Since coffee is a commodity, its market price depends on the availability of the product and its demand in stores. With coffee now being produced across the world, from Vietnam to Uganda, the market is being flooded with coffee, causing prices to drop below the cost of production. What does that mean for the typical coffee farmer? Either produce more coffee to earn a living, or sell the farm.

After talking further with the farmer, Harris realized that large coffee retailers,
looking for the cheapest coffee available, care little about what happens on the plantations. As a result, many coffee farmers work under oppressive conditions while earning less than 30 cents a pound-not enough to meet their basic needs. (Consumers, on the other hand, pay giant retailers over $10 a pound.)

However, there are roasters and retailers who use their products as a vehicle to improve conditions for farmers and the planet. Therefore, the coffee you choose has a huge impact. Here’s how to make it a good one:

Coffee and the Environment

When coffee farmers are in crisis, they’re often vulnerable to the influence of exploitative middlemen, who pressure them to adopt short-term solutions to increase production that harm their environment and health in the long-term, says Scott Codey of TransFair USA, a group working on solutions to the coffee dilemma.

One such harmful yield-increasing practice is sun cultivation, which involves cutting down trees so that coffee plants produce lower quality beans more quickly. In 1997, scientists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute linked falling populations of migratory birds to the disappearance of shade trees that once provided their food and shelter.

Many sun-hardy coffee plants also require more pesticides than the shade-grown kind. “Sun cultivation alone can lead to pollution, deforestation, and the extinction of songbirds,” says Codey.

Fair Trade: A Just Solution

In the early 1990s, several pioneering U.S. coffee companies-including Equal Exchange and Thanksgiving Coffee-helped develop a powerful economic model called fair trade, which allows small farmers to sell directly to buyers rather than to exploitative middlemen. The fair trade system guarantees farmers a minimum price of $1.26 per pound, nearly three times the current market price.

Fair trade farmers work in cooperatives and are guaranteed fair and healthy working conditions, as well as assistance in implementing environmentally sustainable growing practices. “Eighty-five percent of all fair trade coffee sold in the U.S. is certified organic,” says Codey. “And most fair trade coffee is grown under the canopy of shade trees to preserve animal habitat.”

The good news is that many consumers find that fair trade, organic, shade-grown coffee often tastes better than mass-produced beans grown in full sun. In other words, when we take steps to care for farmers, farmers can take extra care in growing the best coffee for consumers.

Expanding Selections

Another advantage to being an eco-minded imbiber is that you’ll enjoy an ever-widening array of sophisticated and tasty beers and wines to try.

Twenty years ago, there were only a couple dozen microbreweries in the US. That number has multiplied to nearly 1,500 in 2001, according to the Institute for Brewing Studies. What this increase in “beer-o-diversity” means is that you, the consumer, have a vastly growing selection of beer styles to suit your own individual tastes. Microbreweries are constantly pioneering new varieties of beer, and they are even saving some endangered beer “species” from total extinction. For example, Anchor Brewing rescued the last remaining “steam beer” (a unique American style of beer) brewery in California several years ago.

The same goes for wine-making as well-the more small vintners in existence, the more varieties of wine you have to choose from. Best of all, whether you buy local beer or wine, you’ll have even more opportunities to support local, eco-minded, community-oriented businesses.

Labels to Look For

When you’re buying coffee, look for these labels to make the best purchase for farmers and the planet:

Fair Trade Certified: The TransFair “Fair Trade Certified” logo indicates that importers paid farmers a living wage of at least $1.26 per pound. TransFair coordinates independent monitors who travel to coffee plantations and ensure that they adhere to Fair Trade principles.

TransFair USA also certifies Fair Trade tea and chocolate. In the future, they plan to certify other products as well.

Certified Organic: Organic coffee farmers avoid the use of toxic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, making their beans healthier for you, the environment, and the farmers.

Shade-Grown or Bird-Friendly: Buying coffee labeled “shade-grown” or “bird-friendly” means the trees on plantations are left intact to hold down topsoil, provide habitat for birds, and keep farmland sustainable for future generations.

Fair Trade Federation: Products, including coffee, that bear the logo of the Fair Trade Federation have made the additional commitment of practicing Fair Trade in all their producer relationships, not just with a select few, which is the common practice of many companies. To find out which companies are FTF members, look for this label, or contact (202)872-5329,

Finding Fair Trade Coffee

Currently, Safeway and Trader Joes are the only national grocery chains to carry fair trade coffee, though you can find it in many health and specialty stores. To find fair trade coffee (and tea) retailers near you, contact Transfair USA: (510)663-5260, Fair trade coffee can also
be purchased via mail order.

The ubiquitous Starbucks is also a retailer of fair trade coffee, and in 2000 began offering take-home bags in its stores. Recently, Starbucks has offered to brew fair trade by the cup at no extra charge-but only if you specifically request that the barista open a take-home bag to brew you a cup.

Codey has requested fair trade coffee at several different Starbucks locations and has found that the policy has not filtered down to all employees. He says, “Sometimes I’ve had to explain my request to the store manager, but it is their policy to brew any bagged coffee the customer requests in a French press.” Now the whole staff of the Starbucks near his office knows how to serve Fair Trade beans when he asks.

Sparking Demand

The more demand we create for fair trade coffee, the more farmers can be brought into the fair trade system. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Challenge yourself to make all of your coffee purchases count for farmers and the environment. If there is fair trade certified coffee in your local grocery store, please try it. If fair trade has not reached your community, ask store managers to carry it.
  • Ask your workplace, place of worship, or civic group to serve fair trade coffee.
  • Buy organic, Fair Trade coffee in bulk quantities to save money and ensure you always have a supply.
  • Save money and enjoy a continuing supply of fair trade coffee every four to six weeks by joining a coffee buyers’ club. Members can choose to have two or three bags of fair trade, organic, shade-grown coffee delivered to their door every four to six weeks, and they can specify whether they want to sample various blends or stick with their favorites for each shipment. Grounds for Sharing offers this arrangement, and they pay a royalty to a charity you choose from a select list when you sign up. (866/766-6328)
  • You can get premium fair trade coffee at about half the price by buying green coffee beans and roasting them yourself. You’ll have to invest in a small coffee roaster, which costs about $100 and will eventually pay for itself. If your household drinks one pound of coffee per week, you’ll save up to $300 a year buying green beans.
    Companies like Seven Bridges Cooperative that sell unroasted coffee and home roasters claim just-roasted coffee tastes fresher. You also have the luxury of choosing a light or dark roast for every cup.

The Changing Business

Bill Harris, after learning from some of the socially responsible companies that came before him, started his own Fair Trade coffee company in 1998, Café Campesino.

“Campesino,” Spanish for “farmer,” is an appropriate name for his business. It reminds us how the choices we make as coffee consumers keep trees standing, chemicals off of our food, and farmers’ wages firmly rooted.

--Nate Albee


Coffee Resources


More green-living articles from the Green American »

Article Summary

Purchase organic, shade-grown, fair trade coffee.

Get better tasting coffee and a sense of satisfaction.

Ensure famrers receive a living wage while also helping the environment.

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