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How to Find a Friendly Cup of Coffee: Nitty-gritty

By Samantha Larson

Q: I can't live without my morning coffee, and though I want to do the right thing for the environment, the eco-friendly coffees cost significantly more than regular old Joe. Is there any real benefit to buying eco-friendly coffee? Which is the best:  organic, shade grown, fair trade or bird friendly? And is there a budget-friendly source for eco-friendly coffee?

Asked by William Check, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Buying the right coffees can make a difference. But how to know what the right coffee is? As noted in the question, there’s certainly a plethora of labels out there, so it can be difficult to determine which one really is the best, or what to look for in a sustainable coffee.
Here’s the breakdown of what those labels actually mean:

Organic: The main criteria for organic certification are that farmers not use most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers for at least three years. Potential benefits include less environmental contamination, and fewer farm accidents with toxic chemicals.


Fair trade: The driving force behind fair trade certification is not environmental sustainability, but greater social equity. Producers are paid more for their product, in exchange for ensuring good working conditions and better living wages. The fair trade label is only available to cooperatives of small producers, not to individually owned farms. It has no explicit requirements for shade-grown or organic certifications; though such environmental benefits are often a side effect of smaller-scale production.

Shade-grown: While coffee is traditionally grown in the shady forest understory, many coffee plantations now grow coffee under sunnier conditions in order to produce faster, higher yields. This leads to deforestation and a loss in biodiversity. The shade-grown label implies that the coffee was grown in the traditional way. However, there is no set definition of this—the coffee brands that market a shade-grown label have, for the most part, independently decided what that label actually means. Coffee is grown under the whole range of conditions, from traditional forest understory to full sun. The more closely the farm resembles a forest, the more sustainable it is. There are five typical shade categories that coffee is grown in:

  1. Rustic—traditional coffee agroforestry, where shade covers 70-100 percent of the land.
  2. Traditional polyculture—coffee is grown under both native and planted trees with 60-90 percent shade cover.
  3. Commercial polyculture—more trees are removed to make more room for coffee plants; shade is mostly provided by timber and fruit trees and covers 30-60 percent of the land.
  4. Shaded monoculture—coffee is grown under only a few, heavily pruned trees. Shade covers 10-30 percent of the ground.
  5. Full sun—complete lack of tree canopy and no shade cover.
shade chart
The five categories of shade in which coffee is grown. From “Biodiversity Conservation in Traditional Coffee Systems of Mexico.” 1999. Conservation Biology 13:11-21

Unfortunately, because there is no actual certification process for coffee that is marketed just as “shade-grown,” the brands that carry that label will require more investigation into what they individually mean by it.

Bird-Friendly: This certification was developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC). The idea is that more sustainable agroforestry methods of coffee production provide a safe haven for threatened rainforest birds, include the many species that migrate to North America and Europe during the summer. It is the most stringent in its requirements. It is the only true “shade-grown” certification, requiring a minimum of 40 percent shade cover and eleven species of trees. Bird-friendly coffee must also be certified organic.

As it has the strongest eco-standard, buying coffee with the “Bird-friendly” label is the simplest way to ensure that your money is going to the right places. Bird-friendly coffees are available at Whole Foods and some other specialty grocery stores, or you can order online from this list of distributors. Some of these distributors, such as Birds and Beans, actually sell beans that are cheaper than what you would pay for some of the packaged blends at specialty coffee chains such as Peet’s Coffee & Tea or Starbucks.

Still, Bird-friendly coffee is not exactly widely available. When I checked at Whole Foods—apparently the only chain grocery store that sells coffee with the bird-friendly certification—only one of its 11 available brands carried the label. There were, however, plenty of other certified coffees on the shelf, with a lot of overlap in the certifications between them: seven of the brands they sold were labeled as organic, five as 100 percent arabica beans, and four as fair trade. Interestingly, none were explicitly marketed as shade grown.

But keep in mind that the certification doesn’t always say it all. The certification process itself can be quite expensive, with producers typically paying the price. So some small-scale, sustainable farmers decide to bypass the process, even though they would qualify. According to Julie Craves, our sustainable coffee expert, “All of these certifications cost the farmers to obtain—not only in fees, but added labor and inputs.” That expense is only worth it if they can obtain a better price for their coffee.

The certifications can seem pointless and are certainly confusing, but Craves says, “[The most important] thing people need to know is to not buy the big [cheaper] brands in the grocery stores.” Certifications can provide a useful shortcut to knowing that your coffee is more sustainable. But if certified coffee is not available to you, there are some other broad-brush indicators of more sustainable coffees:

  • Type of Bean—As discussed in the essential answer, the least sustainable type of coffee production is typically of robusta beans (Coffea canephora), while traditional arabica beans (Coffea arabica) are generally more sustainable. Arabica coffee also tastes better, and is the bean of choice of many specialty roasters. Robusta coffee is a harsher, bitterer variety, with a higher caffeine content than arabica coffee. It is typically used in cheaper coffees or as a filler in blends. It grows better in the sun than arabica and thus tends to have higher yields.  Blends typically don’t advertise that they contain robusta coffee, so look for coffees labeled 100% arabica—it’ll taste a lot better, too.
  • Price—Unfortunately the final indicator of a sustainable coffee is indeed price. Cheap coffee, by and large, is detrimental to both the environment and to coffee farmers. But keep in mind, as Craves says, “even coffee grown to the highest certifications is only ‘expensive’ in relation to the unrealistically cheap coffee we are used to.” If you really want to save money on coffee, brew it at home instead of ordering it at a coffee shop. You can make about 20 awesome cups of coffee from a pound of sustainable beans. Even if it costs 12 dollars a pound, you’ll be paying maybe 60 cents a cup. You’ll never beat that at a café—and you’ll enjoy your savings all the more knowing that your coffee fix isn’t hurting people or the planet.

SAMANTHA LARSON, '11, is a graduate student in Earth Systems.


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