Grounds for Change: Fair-trade and organic coffees provide a socially conscious cup

Something is always brewing in the coffee world. It’s no longer enough to walk into your local coffee house and coolly order a tall latte, extra shot, skinny, no foam. It’s impressive if you can name a preference for beans from a specific region, but even that doesn’t let you off the hook. Now social and environmental terms have entered the lexicon of coffee drinkers, and some customers are beginning to recognize and demand coffee that is “fair-trade,” “organic” and “shade-grown.”

Fair-trade and organic labels

Fair-trade coffee refers to a movement designed to rectify one of the biggest inequities in the coffee industry. Coffee is the most traded commodity in the world after oil, and it’s vital to the economies of countries as diverse as Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Honduras. However, the coffee market is volatile, and in 2002 coffee prices on the world market slid to an all-time low of 45 cents per pound, far below the cost of production. Despite this, retail coffee prices remained high, which meant that coffee growers lost profits while coffee brokers became richer. Organized fair-trade efforts aim to eliminate the middleman by allowing farmers to access the international market directly and negotiate its ups and downs. And as interest in high-quality coffee has grown, so has curiosity about the social and environmental impact of the beans.

Indeed, the coffee trade has seen the kind of transformation in customer awareness and demand that swept through the wine, beer, cigar and olive oil industries in the last decade. “It’s very much like wine in that the more educated people become, the more they are willing to spend for quality,” said Eric Schaefer, roaster for Northwest Coffee. “When the trend first took off, coffee sellers were putting a fancy label on poor beans, and people bought it. Now customers are learning to taste the different qualities, and they are asking questions about where this coffee comes from.”

Although the average consumer has not caught up yet, powerful environmental and social groups have affected a change in mass-market coffee purveyors. Large national roasters such as Starbuck’s and mid-sized local roasters such as Ronnoco and Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co., which offers 18 fair-trade coffees (plus four that are shade-grown), are marketing socially conscious coffee. Even some McDonald’s are offering a version of fair-trade coffee. “It’s all about education,” said Schaefer. “We don’t get a lot of people walking in asking for fair-trade. But once they learn what this means, not only do they want it, they expect it.”

“It’s different with organic coffee,” explained Rick Milton, owner of Northwest Coffee. “Demand for organic coffee was already strong, but the recent surge of interest in fair-trade coffee has triggered even greater growth in the organic coffee market. Fair trade and organic often go hand in hand in the coffee world.”

James Fox, co-owner of Hartford Coffee Co. in St. Louis, agreed. “Many small farmers can’t afford pesticides and fertilizers for their beans anyway, so they are organic growers by default,” he said. “With a little bit of education, they can learn to incorporate environmentally proactive practices, and they’re seeing that this yields a higher price on their beans.”

Coffee may be certified organic without being fair-trade, and vice versa. Organic certification focuses on production, not price or labor specifications. Organic coffee is produced under strict guidelines that prohibit the use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and all genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the primary certifier of organic products sold in this country, but the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center certifies that coffee is both shade-grown and organic.

Other sustainable labels

Fair-trade and organic are just two criteria that are lumped together into the category of “ethical” or “sustainable” coffee. Sustainable coffee aims for beans that are grown and processed under environmentally and socially tenable conditions. There are two primary organizations that certify sustainable coffee, TransFair USA and the Rainforest Alliance. TransFair encourages organic production from its growers, and to bear the label, coffee must be grown by farm cooperatives that receive a fair minimum price. To use the TransFair label, a buyer must pay a fair price and be willing to pay up to 60 percent of the purchase in advance.

The Rainforest Alliance has a full range of certification requirements that include integrated pest and disease management, soil and water conservation, fair labor practices and good community relations. Kuva Coffee, a local distributor that sells at farmers’ markets and through restaurants, relies on beans certified by the Rainforest alliance.

“The Rainforest Alliance criteria go to the heart of sustainability,” said Tim Drescher, president of Kuva Coffee. “The alliance covers all the parameters of social and environmental sustainability. They are also able to work with individual farmers as well as cooperatives, which lets them represent farmers that might otherwise fall through the cracks.”

Ronnoco Coffee Co. has its Earth and Sky blend, which is its Rainforest Alliance-certified roast. “It’s a growing segment of the business but a small one,” said Robert Carpenter, Ronnoco’s coffee buyer. “We’re promoting it as we promote all our products.”

Another sustainability concern in coffee production is whether the beans are shade-grown. Although coffee grows naturally in the shade, full-sun cultivation allows for denser planting and easier harvesting of the beans, and many farmers clear their land of trees in order to produce a larger crop. This comes at the expense, however, of habitat for songbirds, insects and smaller flora, and the impact is astounding: There are more than 90 percent fewer migratory bird species found on full-sun coffee plantations as compared to traditional shade-grown farms.

Rainforest Alliance certification includes criteria that address shade-tree farm practices. The SMBC also provides shade-grown certification, although under much stricter criteria. Its Bird Friendly label addresses the biophysical aspects of shade production, applying the criteria to large estate farms and cooperatively run organizations. It also requires that the beans bearing the Bird Friendly label are certified organic.

It’s important to note that coffee roasters may use fair-trade organic beans without being certified. Mississippi Mud is one such case. Christopher Ruess, owner and roaster, said that the process is arduous and expensive. “I can’t use the label until I’m officially certified. The beans I use were purchased under fair-trade practices, however.”

Northwest Coffee, with shops in both Clayton and the Central West End, is also close to being certified as a fair-trade organic microroaster. “At this point,” said Milton, “we are meeting all the requirements for fair-trade certification through TransFair USA. It takes quite a while to finish jumping through the hoops, and until that time, we won’t label our beans as such.”

Customer response

Milton and Ruess both encouraged customers to ask which beans are fair-trade and organic if they aren’t sure.

“In fact,” said Milton, “it’s helpful for me to hear from my customers if they are concerned about fair trade. I’m becoming certified because I believe in this sustainable business approach – and I think that down the line, businesses will have no choice but to go sustainable. But I can’t yet tell how much it matters to my customers.”

According to Fox, all of these careful practices ultimately add up to quality. “All of the coffee at Hartford Coffee is fair-trade certified and organic,” he said. “Ethical practices are central to my idea of what coffee should be about. It’s as much my job to educate my customers as it is to make good coffee. My experience is that people do care, if they know what their choices mean. But before we get that far, the coffee must be good.”

Fox went on to explain that customers will pay more for fair-trade and organic coffee because the quality of the coffee makes it worth it. “More money has been invested on the production side of these beans,” he said. “There is more oversight of the growing conditions, the harvesting and the processing.” And, as Drescher said, “Quality is influenced by everything. It’s more than the flavor in the cup. It’s the soil, the air and the water.”

For Matt Herren, owner and roaster for Goshen Coffee in Edwardsville, it’s about the preservation of a way of life. “The loss of [family] farms has all kinds of environmental, economic and social implications,” said Herren. “One objective of fair trade is to preserve the family farm, a goal which is still possible in many of the coffee-growing regions of the world. It’s so important, because once that land is lost to commercial agribusiness, it never gets returned.”

Who knew that there was so much to your wake-up brew? With more and more socially and environmentally conscious choices out there, whatever your commitments and tastes are, it can all be your cup of joe.