Any grower that wants to sell coffee labeled as organic has to follow protocol set by the National Organic Program and the United States Department of Agriculture regarding fertilizer and pesticide use and land management practices. After harvest, the beans must be processed in a certified facility before shipment. And unless the roaster is also certified, the coffee is not supposed to be labeled organic.
How Meaningful Is It? No one thinks pesticides are good for them. But if your roaster isn’t certified, your coffee isn’t truly organic. If you drink decaf, it might be worth buying. Most coffee is decaffeinated using toxic solvents, but organically decaffeinated coffee is processed with water or carbon dioxide.
If a label mentions “fair trade,” it doesn’t mean anything. If a label has a “Fair Trade Federation” logo on it, that means the coffee company is a member of that association, not that the coffee itself was produced using international fair trade standards. If the label says “Fair Trade Certified™,” it means the coffee has been certified by TransFair USA, the only group that certifies fair-trade products in the U.S.
The agency’s standards require the coffee to have been grown by small-scale producers that are “democratically organized” as co-ops or unions. The farmers receive a guaranteed minimum price that varies depending on the coffee and country, with an extra premium for organic beans. They are supposed to adhere to fair labor practices and sustainable agricultural practices.
How Meaningful Is It? Somewhat. There’s a lot of debate as to whether fair trade is as fair as it claims to be. For instance, a 2006 Financial Times story documented fair trade farms in Peru paying seasonal workers less than that country’s legal minimum wage. Critics also question whether the minimum price is high enough. Still, FTC coffee is likely to be at least slightly more ethical than conventional beans.
In real terms, “direct trade” means roasters buy the beans directly from a specific farm, as opposed to via an importer. But the two largest companies that promote it, Intelligentsia and Counter Culture, claim direct trade goes above and beyond FTC.
Both companies do pay at least 19 to 25 percent above the FTC price for coffee, but their claims on top of that are vague. Intelligentsia, for example, says the grower must be committed to “healthy environmental practices” and “sustainable social practices.” No specifics are offered; they say their coffee buyer travels to every farm to check out the conditions. Counter Culture says it works to “encourage ecologically responsible cultivation methods” and “assess social practices and working conditions.” While Counter Culture has partnered with an outside company for third-party certification, the four points that are certified are not specifically environmental or labor-related.
How Meaningful Is It? It’s likely to be more ethically produced than regular coffee, but when it comes down to it, you’re still taking a company that’s trying to sell you something at its word.
Shade-Grown/Rainforest Alliance/Bird Friendly®
Coffee is a shrub. In the wild, it grows in the shade in forests, much like rhododendron here. Plants that have been modified to tolerate sun have much higher yields but require clear-cut farmland—bad for rainforests, bad for birds. Anyone working towards sustainable coffee farms encourages shade-grown practices, but the phrase itself doesn’t mean anything on a label. However, Rainforest Alliance and Bird-Friendly certified coffee both require 40 percent of a farm to have shade cover with varying plant diversity. Bird-Friendly certification requires the farms to be organic. Rainforest Alliance certification does not, but does claim to promote workers’ rights.
How Meaningful Is It? Bird-Friendly coffee is some of the most environmentally friendly coffee available but isn’t widely distributed. Coffee can carry the Rainforest Alliance label but have as little as 30 percent certified beans; look for 100 percent Rainforest Alliance beans.