I’ve known coffee since I was a baby. My family is a family of coffee drinkers, and my grandfather was known to dip the tip of his index finger in his milk coffee and let baby me taste it. It sounds terrible now, but it was common practice back then, though my horrified mother tried to avoid turning me into a coffee addict as I grew up. We had coffee in the mornings and tea in the afternoons. I love tea, too, but coffee became akin to oxygen for me. When I turned into an adult, I left my family far behind in the coffee love, and became a full-fledged coffee connoisseur in my own right. I turned into a bit of a coffee snob, turning my nose up at folks in the office who heated their coffee in the microwave. (Hello, people, that’s how you make coffee-flavored hot water that’s black and bland, not how you make good, authentic coffee.)
So, anyway, two things then happened.
First, I found out about the abuses in the coffee industry.
The insane global demand for coffee doesn’t come without the ugly side: forced labor and slavery. There are about 250 million child slaves working to produce coffee and cocoa, according to the International Labor Organization. Not only are the workers treated very badly and for very little pay, but they are also forced to endure work conditions that no one should have to – including exposure to harmful chemicals and pesticides.
Second, I found out about animal abuse in the dairy industry.
This was simpler part as far as coffee was concerned, because, to me, coffee actually tastes better black. I stopped using milk in my coffee, and also stopped adding sugar (cos black coffee with sugar is basically yuck).
I still occasionally wondered if my coffee brand was vegan like I believed it was, and whether it was from an ethical source. I wondered if all the coffee filters I was discarding could be minimized or avoided altogether. I wondered if perhaps I was harming the planet with my caffeine indulgence. I wondered: Should I ~ gasp! ~ give up coffee?
The Search for Ethical Coffee
I decided enough was enough – that coffee was too close to my heart to live with such uncertainties. I was going to find out how to make a rich, delicious, full-bodied brew of zero-waste, ethical coffee. It should be possible, right?
Good news! Yes, it is possible. And, guys, I believe that when you want to do something, you should do it well. So, here’s the grand guide to drinking ethical coffee – using fairtrade beans (Part 1) brewed without waste (Part 2). I hope you find it useful.
PART 1: Ethical Coffee (Organic, Fair-Trade)
What are the ethical issues with the coffee industry?
Environmental Damage: Rapidly increasing demand for coffee, along with intense competition, has led to increased coffee mono-cropping and sun cultivation methods. Because of this, 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America have been cleared to make way for coffee farming, and this deforestation is on the rise in coffee-growing countries (Source: WWF). Incidentally, 37 of the 50 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates are also major coffee producers.
Exploitation of farm workers: Coffee production has involved unfavorable labor practices with low wages, long hours, no benefits, and child labor. Coffee producers in coffee-producing countries receive only about 10% of the coffee product’s retail price.
Waste creation: Coffee consumption involves millions of disposable cups being tossed out every day. Read about Starbucks and the plastic pollution problem.
What is ethical coffee?
Ethical coffee is coffee that is produced and consumed without the issues listed above. It is coffee produced with consideration for the health of the environment and wildlife, and the wellbeing of the farm workers and others in the supply chain.
Is there a difference between fair-trade and organic coffee? And what is “shade-grown”?
Ok, so some of these terms have well-defined meanings, while others don’t.
Organic: The term ‘organic’ is strictly regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. Certified organic coffee sold in the U.S. must be produced under standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program. The ‘organic’ seal means that it was grown using at least 95% organic fertilizers and without the use of chemical pesticides that can be harmful to farmers, wildlife and the environment. The label also indicates that the soil quality is being protected.
Fair trade: This means the coffee beans have been sourced directly from small-scale farmers, who were paid a fair price for their produce. Fairtrade International sets a minimum price to be paid directly to small-scale coffee producers, to provide stability among the highly volatile global coffee price fluctuations.
Fair Trade Certified: The coffee is from larger farms and plantations that meet certain standards, such as safe working conditions. The farms must also pay workers the local minimum wage at least, and implement a plan to increase that to a living wage over time.
Shade-grown: Originally, coffee grew in the shade of much taller canopy trees. Fast-forward to many centuries later, and coffee is now mostly grown in farms, where farmers try to mimic the original shade conditions to get better yield. Shade grown coffee is supposed to maintain a healthier environment, with less pollution and soil erosion. There’s also the sun-grown coffee category, which most of the popular coffee varieties being to, and which doesn’t really make an effort to create coffee plants’ native environment. So you see why the shade-grown variety is popular among environmentalists.
There’s no separate certification for shade-grown coffee. If you want authentic shade-grown coffee, though, you could look into the bird-friendly habitat certification.
Bird-Friendly Habitat: The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has defined this as a farm that not only produces organic coffee, but also protects the environmental biodiversity, and the natural habitats of birds and other local wildlife. This is the only reliable “shade-grown” certification currently, and only the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center awards this certification.
Rainforest Alliance-certified: This is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, to farms that meet certain environmental and social standards. Since the certification is awarded based on a score for meeting a minimum number of requirements, this isn’t the most robust of certifications.
What are the ethical coffee certifications I need to look for?
There’s a good guide here.
Is my coffee vegan?
Coffee is a bean, plucked from a plant. So, it’s vegan. But the ridiculous civet coffee, also known as kopi luwark, derived from civet poop, is not vegan (because sometimes civets in cages are force-fed the cherries).
(Also, what the hell is wrong with people?:
Can I grow my own coffee at home?
Here’s an amazingly detailed video on growing coffee in containers at home:
The drawback is that it takes about three to four years before you can harvest the fruit. Which is okay if you’re a regular gardener and understand that good things take time and require patience.
I think I’ll just buy my coffee for now! Do you have a handy list of ethical coffee brands?
Of course. These are coffee companies that source their coffee from countries in North America (Mexico), South America (Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru), Asia (Sumatra, Timor Leste) and Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya). Here is the list:
The Grand List of 25* Ethical Coffee Brands (Fair-trade + Organic)
*Updated in October 2020
4. Café Campesino | USA
5. Café Mam | USA | Family-owned business
7. Conscious Coffees | USA | Certified B Corp.
9. DOMA | USA
11. Grounds for Change | USA
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13. Higher Ground Roasters | USA
16. Peace Coffee | USA
17. Percol | UK
18. Pura Vida Coffee | USA
19. Rise Up Coffee Roasters | USA
20. Salt Spring Coffee | Canada | Certified B Corp.
22. The Roasterie | USA |
23. Traidcraft | UK
24. Union Hand-Roasted Coffee | UK | Direct trade
A final point: The best way to buy coffee is to buy based on quality. Quality of the seller, of the producer, and of the coffee itself. No compromises.
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