I’ll readily admit that I drink at least a cup of coffee a day (okay, two cups). I’m not alone in my caffeine addiction — there are roughly 70 million cups of coffee drunk worldwide everyday. Coffee is one of the most prevalent beverages across the globe, and its status as a product reflects that. It’s the world’s second most tradable commodity, behind oil.
But what does the huge and increasing demand for coffee mean for those who grow it and for the lands where it’s grown? If you’re buying sun grown coffee, which comprises much of the coffee we see in stores in the U.S., you really are ruining the earth with each cup you drink. Sun grown coffee is grown on plantations, rather than the traditional method where coffee beans sprout up under the canopy of trees. Plantations increase efficiency in the short term, but in the long term they cause deforestation and habitat loss, soil erosion, and the increased use of chemical fertilizers.
Coffee is also grown most widely in developing or third world countries across Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. While coffee helps stimulate the economy in many of these countries, the production of coffee often results in only minuscule wages paid to workers and the loss of rainforest habitat.
I had always assumed that buying fair-trade coffee solved most of the ethical issues of drinking it. The proliferation of coffee labeled “fair-trade” aims to make a difference for workers on coffee farms and plantations. In order to get the fair-trade label, coffee producers must prove that they operate honestly, democratically, and that they treat workers fairly. In spite of this, there are significant issues not included in the list of requirements for the fair-trade label. The coffee itself doesn’t necessarily have to be of high quality, and more importantly, the certification doesn’t encompass the regulation of environmental issues.
So there’s another certification option to include in your search for coffee that isn’t destroying the earth. The Rainforest Alliance certification emphasizes environmental sustainability, asking that coffee farms under its label stay forested, which maintains wildlife habitats and helps decrease erosion. Coffee plants grown in the shade of trees produce fewer beans, yet people say the beans generally taste better (a lot better, in my opinion). The amount of coffee under the Rainforest Alliance label is growing, boosted by the decisions of several high profile companies, including McDonald’s USA, to source their espresso from certified farms.
Coffee shops are often made fun of as the haunts of rich hipsters. But we’re entering a new age of coffee; one where hopefully ethically sourced and sustainable coffee can be available to all for a reasonable price. For now, I’d argue it’s worth trying to budget your change in order to have your daily brew labeled fair-trade and Rainforest Alliance certified. The rainforest, coffee farm workers, and your taste buds will thank you.