A Guide to Ethical Coffee

What Is Organic, Shade-Grown, Fair Trade Coffee?

Many of us can’t live without a morning coffee, relying on the caffeine intake to get us through our day but have you ever thought of where your coffee comes from? There are many environmental ills associated with traditional coffee agricultural methods used around the world. Thankfully, many organizations are now working on the problems associated with conventional coffee growing and raising awareness among consumers to ensure ethical coffee is demanded and available.


Traditional coffee issues

Let’s start by tackling the two main problems with growing and producing coffee conventionally: labor and trade standards and environmental sustainability.


Unfair labor practices

One of the most prevalent concerns about conventional coffee is the often unfair practices used to produce coffee beans around the world. The two basic problems are child labor and the inability of producers to control the prices they get for their agricultural products.

  • Child slavery -  According to the US State Department, 15,000 children aged 9 to 12 were working as enslaved laborers in plantations that grow coffee, chocolate, and cotton.[1] But it’s not just slaves – many children must work on family farms rather than going to school. And since the working conditions can often be hazardous, handling toxic agricultural chemicals, heavy machinery, and long hours, making these jobs unsuitable for children.
  • Unfair pricing -  Because world coffee prices are often controlled by large multinational corporations, coffee farmers are frequently unable to control how much they receive for their beans. Prices for coffee beans fluctuate and are often well below production costs.

Environmentally unsustainable farming practices


Using today’s big farm agricultural methods comes at a high price. Although some farmers are able to increase the productivity of their coffee farms (at least in the short term) by using chemicals pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers, these additions pollute their soil and water and make the farmers themselves ill, feeding into the problem of poverty.

An even bigger concern is the deforestation that comes with the expansion of coffee farms around the world. Not only is this detrimental to the local environment, deforestation is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, making it a serious and preventable problem.


The basics of buying ethical coffee

If you’re looking for ways to get past these two common coffee ills, then read on to learn how to buy eco-friendly, ethical coffee:

Look for fair trade coffee beans and grounds

If you want to ensure your purchasing dollar benefits the producers who make your coffee beans directly, then look for fair trade certified coffees which come with the following worker advantages:

  • Access to credit
  • Community development projects
  • Cultural preservation
  • Direct trade
  • Economic empowerment
  • Education
  • Guaranteed pricing
  • Safe labor conditions

Seek out certified organic, shade-grown coffees

Growing coffee without the use of synthetic chemicals and without clearing forests to make way for plantations is much better for the planet and local farmers as well. The benefits of growing this way are enormous:

  • Preserves habitat for wildlife
  • Leaves forests in place as carbon sequestration systems
  • Eliminates the use of toxic chemicals
  • Minimizes the health hazards to farmers
  • Promotes biologically healthy soils
  • Prevents erosion and topsoil loss

Ethical, organic and fair trade coffee certifications

When you first begin to examine all of the different options available for ethical coffee, you may find the landscape a bit confusing. But here is a quick guide to the most popular ethical coffee certifications to make the better brew selection process a little easier:


Certified organic coffee

  • Certifying Agencies: Organic Trade Association (OTA) in the US, Canada, EU, Russia and Japan.
  • Purpose: To promote agricultural methods that work in harmony with the earth, reduce the use of synthetic chemicals use, support biodiversity, and build soil health. Usually applies to both the farmers and producers of the beans.
  • Chain of Custody: Works with all sectors except handlers and retailers who do not process the beans in any way.
  • Third-Party Verifications: OTA requires annual inspections.
  • Benefits to Farmers: Farmers usually benefit by receiving a portion of the additional premiums paid by the consumer. They also have the benefit of using fewer chemicals on their land, which is healthier for them and more sustainable long-term.
  • Cost to You: On average, increases per pound price by $0.255.


Fair trade certified coffee

  • Certifying Agencies: FLO International
  • Purpose: This organization aims to provide systems that promote fair prices, direct trade, community development, and environmental stewardship by working directly with farming families.
  • Chain of Custody: Coffee is traceable from roaster to producer.
  • Third-Party Verifications: Annually-trained, third-party inspection agents perform annual inspections.
  • Benefits to Farmers: Farmers are guaranteed a minimum price per pound.
  • Cost to You: This coffee is priced at a minimum of $1.25/pound, plus $0.10 for a social premium and $0.20 if it is also certified organic.


Rainforest alliance certified coffee

  • Certifying Agencies: Rainforest Alliance (sold in 44 countries, 6 continents).
  • Purpose: Similar to Fair Trade Certification, the Rainforest Alliance works on the issues of biodiversity conservation, community development, human/worker’s rights, and better agricultural methods.
  • Chain of Custody: Coffee is traceable from roaster to producer.
  • Third-Party Verifications: A Rainforest Alliance team of auditors consisting of agronomists, sociologists, biologists and others perform at least annual inspections. All sales are accompanied by mandatory transaction certificates.
  • Benefits to Farmers: Farmers have somewhat more power to negotiate a fair price for their goods.
  • Cost to You: Farmers manage their own prices, making average increases difficult to estimate.


Smithsonian bird friendly certified coffee

  • Certifying Agencies: Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in the US, Canada, Japan and Netherlands.
  • Purpose: With a focus on neo-tropical migratory bird populations, this organization researches and educates shade-grown coffee, which benefits bird populations and other organisms.
  • Chain of Custody: Coffee is traceable form roaster to producer.
  • Third-Party Verifications: Inspections are done every three years in conjunction with and by USDA-accredited auditors.
  • Benefits to Farmers: Farmers on average can charge $0.05-0.10 more per pound than what they receive for certified organic beans. They also have the benefit of garnering long-term arrangements.
  • Cost to You: Adds $0.05-0.10 per pound of coffee.


How to get your local coffee shop to support ethical coffee

It’s one thing to buy organic, fair trade coffee from your local grocery store, but if you pick up premade coffee from a local coffee shop, your choices may be quite limited. If your favorite hang-out still isn’t on the fair trade, organic coffee bandwagon, encourage them to hop on by becoming an advocate for more environmentally friendly, ethical coffees. Here are some suggested initiatives:

  • Speaking to the manager and baristas, telling them of your preference for ethical coffee
  • Phoning management of the coffee shop to express your wishes
  • Writing letters to large coffee shop chains to express your concern for farmers and the planet

If you want to learn more about specific food certifications then check out ecolife’s article “Certified Food Labels.” Also our "Fair Trade" definition will provide you with a deeper understanding of what the term means and why it is important. 



1.  The Chocolate Industry: Poverty Behind the Sweetness. (2009, November 10). Retrieved January 13, 2011, from Global Exchange: http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/fairtrade/cocoa/background.html

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