Coffee: Organic, Fair Trade, and Grown in the Shade

Bird Friendly Label

The US consumes 20% of the coffee produced worldwide. With many drinking it daily, and the majority drinking it at least occasionally, it has become a $50 billion industry. Millions of people depend upon coffee for their livelihoods, but many rainforest ecosystems also depend upon us to purchase coffee that has been grown in a sustainable way.

Originally grown under rainforest canopies, coffee has since been cultivated in open fields to increase yields. This method, while producing more coffee, resulted in a great deal of deforestation and is more prone to pest problems. The animal species living in the shady coffee-growing ecosystem kept many pest problems at bay and required few additions to the healthy soil. With open sun growing, however, plants that were once home to numerous bird species and other animals are now home to very few, and require a great deal of pesticides and fertilizers to grow. Full sun plantations support around 90% less biodiversity than their shaded counterparts.

Several organizations exist to ensure that coffee that has been grown in more natural conditions is labelled as such. TransFair USA's Fair Trade certification includes a ban on some of the most dangerous pesticides, including DDT, and requires use of integrated pest management, which includes growing coffee under shade canopies. More than three-quarters of Fair Trade certified coffee is also certified organic.

USDA Certified Organic coffee must be grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on land that has been clean of them for at least three years. The farm must use a sustainable crop rotation system to prevent erosion and the depletion of soil nutrients, and control for pests.

The Rainforest Alliance also certifies coffee, covering environmental protection, workers' rights, and local community interests. Some pesticides are allowed in certain cases, but those prohibited by the EPA, EU, and a few others are always prohibited.

Bird Friendly labels may be found on organic coffees that also meet strict criteria devised by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. This label indicates coffee growing practices that are safe for migratory birds, many of which move south to coffee growing areas from the United States during our cold winters. If we cease to protect these areas, many of our own bird species will die off, in addition to those who live permanently in rainforest ecosystems.

Just as many products use labels like "natural," coffees may label themselves as "shade-grown" without any proof that this is true. Be wary of labels aside from those mentioned above, as they may be inaccurate.

Without leaving Lakewood, there are plenty of sustainable coffee choices available. Caribou Coffee, for example, set a goal that 50% of their coffees would be Rainforest Alliance Certified by the end of this year and has already surpassed that goal. Phoenix Coffee sells both Organic Fair Trade and Rainforest certified varieties; and Starbucks offers several Fair Trade and Organic options. In stores, Newman's Own Organics offers a line of organic coffees in partnership with Green Mountain Coffee, including a French Roast, a decaf, a Vanilla Caramel flavored coffee, and several others. Unfortunately, some of the largest coffee producers found in grocery stores have not agreed to use organic or shade-grown coffee, but many have. A list of fair trade products, including coffee companies that can be listed by state, is available at, and you can check the labels next time you shop.

Many companies also offer coffee through mail-order programs or online retailers, like Amazon. Grounds for Change, a coffee roasting business headquartered in the Pacific Northwest, offers not only Fair Trade, Shade Grown, and Organic coffees, but has also gone so far as to obtain a Carbon Free label for its business, which includes organic farming, non-mechanized harvesting, and sun drying, among many other criteria. Some blends are presented in partnership with environmental organizations, such as the Audubon Society, Save Our Wild Salmon, and Earth Ministry.  They are also a member of 1% For The Planet (1% of their profits goes to environmental causes). Learn more or order products at

In addition to purchasing sustainably harvested coffees, there are many other ways to make your coffee drinking more earth-friendly. Brewing coffee at home will save the resources from paper or foam cups, plastic stirrers, and cream and sugar packets, as will using a reusable mug when you do purchase coffee on the go. Not only will you be reducing waste, but many companies offer a discount for refilling a mug, so you will save money. Consider using a reusable coffee filter, or at least the non-bleached paper variety. You could also switch to a French press for a paperless method, as it doesn't require a filter. And, when you're done making coffee, compost your coffee grounds or sprinkle them around your garden to further reduce waste (and even help out your soil).




Read More on Conservation Corner
Volume 4, Issue 22, Posted 3:36 PM, 10.18.2008