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Doing Good to the Last Drop

Fair-trade? Organic? Bird-friendly? Sustainable coffee labels demystified.


Story by Shanna Germain

Illustrations by Howell Golson


It used to be specialty coffee lovers only had to choose between their favorite flavors or growing regions. Those days are gone. Now, in addition to marketing special origins and flavor profiles, coffee shops and grocery stores sell a sea of sustainable coffees, often labeled with terms like “fair-trade,” “organic,” “shadegrown” or “bird-friendly”—sometimes all four. But what does it all mean?


These days, the word “sustainability” is tossed around a lot, and the definition can vary wildly depending on who you ask. The Specialty Coffee Association of America defines it as “growth that satisfies the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy their own needs.”


Standing in the grocery store, we generally know what we want: coffee that tastes good. That part is easy. But sifting through the labels and choosing a coffee that also supports what we believe in—that’s the daunting part. Do we want the coffee that ensures growers a living wage? The one that protects migratory songbirds in far-away rainforests? The one that’s free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals? And how do we know which one is which? Here are tips on buying coffee that sustains you, as well as the rest of the world.

The black-and-white fair-trade label is one of the most common sustainability icons in the coffee world. Overseen by the 10-yearold Bonn, Germany-based Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, the certification is designed specifically with coffee growers in mind. Its main goal is to ensure that small farms receive a minimum price of $1.21 to $1.26 per pound for their coffee, and it also provides farmers—many of whom have struggled for years to keep their farms above poverty level—with a future through training, education and a sustainable business model.

“Our goal is to connect consumers and small farmers and create a form of trade that works better for everybody,” says Rodney North, an educator for Equal Exchange, a West Bridgewater, Mass.-based roaster that offers only fair-trade coffees. “For us, that means rewarding small farmers who for many years did not enjoy the fruits of their labor, working with farmers to produce better coffee, and helping consumers find and enjoy a better cup of coffee.”

Often, fair-trade coffees tell the stories of farmers, either printed on bags or in additional literature. Stories like those of Santiago Paz López of Peru, who in 1994 helped start a small Peruvian coffee grower’s cooperative called Cepicafe. Despite three years of hard work, Cepicafe members struggled to sell their coffees at a price that covered production costs. They sold most of their coffee to local coyotes, or middlemen, at the Cmarket price, for as little as 45 cents per pound.

The growers’ luck changed in 1997, when Equal Exchange offered them a fair-trade partnership. Under the fair-trade guidelines, Cepicafe growers now receive the fair-trade minimum of $1.26 per pound for their coffee. Much of the income is being invested in future improvements, including training, basic health services and coffee quality. “I have managed to improve my property, which has allowed me to elevate the levels of production and productivity and improve my economic income,” says co-op president Segundo Guerrero Mondragón, adding that he’s been able to better provide for his family, educate his children and travel. “This has allowed me to have a different vision of life.”

Currently, 2 percent of coffee sold in the U.S. is fair-trade, with almost 44.6 million pounds of fair-trade coffee imported in 2005. That accounts for 4.3 percent of the market share of U.S. specialty coffee, which is sold by more than 350 roasters around the nation.

While there are some limitations to fair-trade certification, such as the fact that it’s designed to help only small coffee farmers as opposed to large estates, and that there are no guidelines for quality in the model, the benefits can have long-term, life-changing impacts for farmers and their families.

One of the oldest sustainability movements, organic certification was implemented for U.S. produce in the 1970s, long before it made its way to coffee in the mid-’80s. Coffees that are certified organic by the Department of Agriculture must be grown, processed and roasted without chemicals, such as synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The idea is that the coffees are safer for human consumption—and for the employees who handle the crops—and better for the environment, contributing to species preservation and the conservation of natural resources, like healthy forests and clean water. It also helps preserve traditional farming methods, notes Mark Inman, founder of Taylor Maid Farms, a Sebastopol, Calif.-based roaster that offers only organiccertified coffee, more than half of it also fair-trade. “Coffee comes from some of the most delicate, biologically diverse areas on the planet,” he says. “The way coffee’s grown has a huge impact on the environment—on insects, birds [and the] human population.”

While organic growing methods can be more expensive, growers can see a direct return of up to 27 cents a pound. Administrative costs (such as certification paperwork) can vary from $700 to $2,300 per year and are often split between co-op members. According to The World Bank, total organic coffee sales in 2005 were 42.5 million pounds, and organic coffee imports are expected to increase by nearly 21 percent for 2007. The study also pointed out that more people recognize organic than any other seal, which might account for the fact that more than half of specialty coffee businesses in the U.S. sell certified-organic coffee.

Shade-Grown and Other Certifications
Shade-grown coffee, also known as “bird-friendly,” is designed to preserve the habitats of migratory birds and other animals. Traditionally, coffee trees were grown under a canopy of larger shade trees, protecting them from too much sun while creating organic mulch and providing a habitat for many species. But in the early ’70s, new high-yield coffee varieties were developed that produced best in direct sunlight, and many farmers stripped their land of shade trees. Thing is, in addition to preserving natural habitats, shade-grown coffee tastes better.

“Shade-grown coffee matures more slowly and there are fewer cherries per coffee bush, so the flavor is more powerful,” says Kelsey Marshall, co-founder of Grounds for Change, a Pacific Northwest roaster that offers fair-trade, organic coffee grown in shaded conditions. While there is no certifying body for shade-grown coffee, growers who stick to traditional methods often advertise with “shade-grown” or “canopy-grown” labels. However, there is a “bird-friendly” certification overseen by the Smithsonian Institution’s Migratory Bird Center.

In addition, the Sustainable Agriculture Network certifies some coffees with its green-and-white Rainforest Alliance seal. This certification program requires that growers meet standards for controlling pollution in South and Central American coffee-growing areas and offering education, medical treatment and decent wages to workers. Since the program was introduced in 1992, thousands of farms and cooperatives have been certified in 12 countries, and more than 70,400 acres of tropical farmland is being managed under the guidelines.

Utz Kapeh, which means “good coffee” in Mayan Quiché, is another label that indicates socially and environmentally conscious coffee production. Founded in 1997 by a group of Guatemalan coffee producers and Dutch roasters, the organization sets standards for labor rights, including growers’ access to health care and education, and minimal use of agrochemicals. Growers also receive a premium for the coffee, with the wholesale price determined together by buyer and producer.

Relationship Coffee

Labels and certifications are designed to help shoppers understand and decipher sustainable issues, but they’re not the only solution. Some coffee roasters and sellers find formal certifications too specific or impersonal, opting instead to forge direct relationships with growers.

The term “relationship coffee” was coined in 2000 by David Griswold, founder of Portland, Ore.-based Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers. “Certifications are great, but what differentiates coffees and makes them more appealing is the relationshipand quality-based business model,” he says. “A relationship means there is a two-way flow of information, where the farmer has as much of a say in the market as coffee buyers and consumers do.” Some buyers travel to South America to visit farmers and invite farmers to visit them; others invest in water-treatment projects or health facilities for growers, or provide farming education and equipment. While there is no tell-tale “relationship-coffee” label, roasters and retailers that buy and sell based on the relationship model usually tell the story of the farmers, either through photos or printed information or through employees.

Dean’s Beans, an Orange, Mass.-based roaster, offers only fair-trade and organic-certified coffees, and owner Dean Cycon strives to makes an even greater difference in the lives of growers through relationships; he travels the world to visit every co-op he buys coffee from. “This puts a human face on the transaction, and it allows me to understand what [farmers] need out of the relationship,” Cycon says. “It also allows growers to meet me and see what kind of person I am. This translates into a deeper personal relationship, and trust. Farmers have said to me over and over, ‘Because of your commitment, we give you the best coffee.’ ”

Since 2003, when Cycon met Tadesse Meskela, general manager of Ethiopia’s Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, and helped him introduce a fair-trade, organic coffee to U.S. consumers, the co-op has started its own credit union, farmers have been able to send their kids to school and buy books and supplies, and several well-building projects are in the works. “The biggest benefit is that we got clean water,” Meskela says. “Because of the relationship, we get higher prices for our coffees and we get the possibility of building schools and health centers.”

Quality First

No matter the certification or story behind a coffee, if it isn’t cultivated and crafted with high-quality standards, it isn’t ultimately sustainable. Growing coffee at proper elevations in ideal conditions and harvesting, processing and transporting that coffee with the utmost care all make for a better-tasting cup. And the quality equation means that the growers who work hard to produce good coffees will get a better return for the effort. “It’s a long-term solution because the farmers who have done so much to get the coffee right should be the ones who can command the best prices for their beans,” North points out.

So in your search for a sustainable coffee, look for a wellcrafted product that tastes amazing and leaves you wanting more. “Don’t support organic for organic’s sake,” Inman says. That’s noble, but ultimately you’re going to be let down. Buy coffee that tastes great, from a really cool shop that seems to care about the issues and then go from there.”

Small Change, Big Change
Whether you purchase a fair-trade, organic or relationship coffee, choosing a sustainable product makes a big difference—without having to spend a lot. The difference between a sustainable and non-sustainable coffee can be as little as 10 cents per pound or as much as $10 or more per pound, but “the fundamental impact on the people and the planet is large,” Marshall says. “If it costs you $1 or $2 more per pound, then the difference by the cup is negligible; it’s a great way to use your money.”

For farmers like Paz López, a $2 difference can be huge. “The impacts are not small,” he says. “Many consumers think nothing can be done, but by consuming products of just commerce, they are contributing to changing the world.”


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