Community & Current Events

Buying coffee: a question of ethics?

Buying coffee: a question of ethics?

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Buying coffee: a question of ethics?

America's favorite hot beverage presents more ethical choices than many people know. Beyond the usual agricultural considerations, like organic versus nonorganic and domestic versus imported (yes, the United States does produce coffee beans, in Hawaii), come other issues of environmental impact, exploitative labor practices, and sustainable use of resources at home. Even sweetening and lightening a cup of joe involve choices that have real impact on the environment and our fellow human beings.

Like having to choose between buying local or buying organic, shopping for coffee often forces us to prioritize our concerns. Are we more worried about habitual destruction and loss of biodiversity in South American rain forests than we are about pesticide runoff in Asia? Does addressing near-slavery working conditions in one place tale priority over stemming the tide of deforestation elsewhere? These are all issues connected to the global trade in coffee. The good news is that you can make a difference in more than one area with a single choice.

Sustainable coffees include three main approaches: organic coffee, Fair Trade coffee, and shade-grown coffee. All of these coffees are produced in ways that mitigate problems, both in the environment and in the livelihood of the most vulnerable workers in the industry, that conventional production systems cause. Shoppers can find labels indicating which of these approaches was applied to production on packages of coffee in most outlets. Organic coffee is the most widely available, followed by Fair Trade, and then shade-grown (sometimes called "shade coffee").

Because organic coffee is produced with methods that preserve the soil and prohibit use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, its production helps preserve a clean environment for workers and indigenous peoples. Fair Trade coffee is purchased directly from cooperatives of small farmers that are guaranteed a minimum contract price, with some of the profits being invested in education and health care for those grower communities. In return, they are encouraged, trained, and usually expected to grow the coffee using sustainable, ecofriendly practices. Shade-grown coffee is grown in shaded forest settings that are good for biodiversity and birds. Such settings preserve quality of life for native peoples, and help ensure that their livelihoods won't be exploited out of existence.

Some brands are twice blessed: They produce organic coffee that is also Fair Trade certified and/or shade grown. Soleil Levant coffee, from Switzerland-based La Semeuse, is organic coffee grown according to Fair Trade standards in Colombia, Peru, and Indonesia. It's available from in both whole bean and ground forms. Café Mam is a Mexican coffee producer that sells only shade-grown, organic, Fair Trade–certified coffee from Coffees are all triple-certified (organic, Fair Trade, and shade grown) at

Organic coffee
Coffee, the world's second-largest traded food commodity after grain, is also one of the most chemically treated. Many producing countries have few or no regulations on spraying and the use of the most powerful chemicals, including DDT, Diazinon, paraquat, and active ingredients from Agent Orange. I don't believe that total conversion of all conventional farming to organic farming is feasible or desirable, since judicious use of the right pesticides is necessary to keep crop yields high and prevent further encroachment on wild lands. But the unregulated coffee industry is doing great harm to the environment and farmworkers with its excessive use of these chemicals for the sake of profit only. By choosing organic coffee, you're cutting down on the use of these synthetic chemicals in the global environment at a time when their use is out of control.

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Excerpted from The Ethical Gourmet by Jay Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Fair Trade coffee
Economic development is a double-edged sword. On one hand, greater wealth leads to greater consumption, and to a heavier drain on resources. A poor peasant won't be able to afford disposable diapers for her six children, so she'll wash cloth. But, on the other hand, statistics show that greater economic development leads to smaller families. A smaller number of consumers, all enjoying better health care, creature comforts, and education, is a more humane approach to conservation than sustained poverty is.

Currently, most coffee is grown, picked, and processed by subsistence-level workers in bleak conditions. In the 1980s, when coffee experienced a burst of popularity worldwide, Third World governments encouraged their peasantry to invest their lives in coffee production. Many farmers in the poorest parts of Central America, South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia were lured into the industry by the promise of a better life. But when overexpansion led to a glut of coffee beans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they ended up deep in debt, burdened with products that cost them more to produce than they could earn by selling them. The rush to production had also eroded their land and deforested their countryside. They were worse off than they were before coffee came into their lives.

Fair Trade organizations stepped into this devolving situation with a sensible solution: If growers would agree to raise better-quality beans in an environmentally sensitive way, then the organizations would help them start cooperatives, guarantee them a higher set price for the product, and market it to wealthy connoisseurs in developed countries. Branded Fair Trade coffee would provide those consumers with a premium product that was produced in a more environmentally responsible way than the lesser product they'd previously chosen. Win-win. One company dealing only in Fair Trade coffee is Mountain View Coffee Roasters (

Product and sourcing information about Fair Trade products in the United States is listed at, and names of firms and individuals registered with Fair Trade certifying agencies worldwide are at A list of companies whose products are all Fair Trade–certified is at A wider listing of companies that deal in goods that are produced using Fair Trade principles can be found at, though not all are certified.

One issue the Fair Trade movement takes very seriously is child labor. Many of the commodities with which Fair Trade organizations are involved, like coffee, cocoa/chocolate, bananas, and sugar, are often produced through the use of exploitative child labor practices. In the worst cases, this child labor is modern-day slavery. A consumer's decision to purchase a Fair Trade–certified product assures that that purchase price does not support a producer who employs those egregious practices.

Latin American nations are far and away the largest participants in Fair Trade programs. Guatemala leads the way in Fair Trade coffee production, followed by Costa Rica, Mexico, and Colombia. All of Asia produces 15 percent of Fair Trade coffee, and Africa 10 percent. Vietnam, whose farmers plunged into the coffee business with substantial World Bank and government support, has been among the worst stewards of the land, shortsightedly clearing huge swaths of jungle for high-yield, low-quality coffee that quickly saps the land of nutrients. Fair Trade represents a 58 percent increase in wages, but only a 1 percent increase in product price to retailers, according to an October 2001 PricewaterhouseCoopers report. The consumer pays about $1 per pound more.

Shade-grown coffee
Shade-grown coffee represents the smallest segment of the sustainable coffee market, and the one most susceptible to corruption. With so many assertions and claims being touted by producers, roasters, and retailers about sustainability, the need for accountable certifying agencies is great. A study commissioned by The Nature Conservancy, in cooperation with The Summit Foundation and several other concerned groups, found that widespread use of the terms "shade-grown" and "bird-friendly" by firms with only a few trees or trees of all the same species on their farms was watering down the meaning of those terms. This is a problem, even with the existence of two recognized international certifications, Rainforest Alliance's "Eco-OK" for shade grown, and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's "Bird-Friendly" seal.

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Visit the website of TransFair Canada to find out about buying Fair Trade products through Canadian retailers.

Excerpted from The Ethical Gourmet by Jay Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Buying coffee: a question of ethics?