Sustainable Coffee: What You Need to Know.

Photo by nate_lawson | flickr.com

Photo by nate_lawson | flickr.com

Today, the sustainability of coffee products is a more relevant topic than ever, as climate change threatens to significantly affect existing yields in future years, and a world of brands try to market their product as the most organic, the most ethical or the most socially and environmentally sustainable. How do we distinguish the viral fanaticism of ‘buzz words’ from the legitimate efforts in this sea of open-market madness?

Traditionally, the reality of production and distribution of coffee makes it nearly incompatible with true sustainability: the commodity, able to grow in only select tropical and sub-tropical climates, is globally in demand and requires vast amounts of land and water to grow. Moreover, currently no biodegradable packaging options exist that maintain the integrity and freshness of the coffee bean. The carbon footprint of transportation from the field to our cups is undeniable, and production is often high-yield and low-cost, with little concern for the social and economic impact of land exploitation. Currently, one of the central debates centers on consumer’s willingness to pay more for specialty coffees, and the marketing involved behind such practices.

In today’s rapidly evolving coffee market, novelty coffee producers market their ‘sustainable’ coffees on 3 main fronts: fair-trade, organic and shade-grown, or bird-friendly coffees. Traditionally, coffee was customarily grown in shaded areas. In the 1970’s, as coffee emerged as one of the world’s premier commodities and demand skyrocketed beyond supply, coffee began to be grown in full-sun areas. This allowed cherries containing the beans to ripen more rapidly, take up less land and thereby produce greater yield.  This quantum leap of sorts did not come without its consequences: extensive clear-cutting and fertilizer use ensued, causing soil erosion and habitat loss. Today, shade-grown varieties seek to maintain the biodiversity of a region and preserve important ecological niches, such as that of migratory birds, which make shade-grown areas their habitat. In this role, the birds act as natural fertilizers by protecting the coffee plantations. The most reputable certification of such coffees bears the seal of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre (SMBC).

In the socioeconomic realm, fair trade coffees seek to establish and maintain long-term relationships with growers and their communities, paying them fair wages and funding social programs in exchange for responsible and high-quality product. Much controversy currently surrounds fair-trade coffees however, revealing the abuses by some roasters and distributors that market their products as fair trade – with no particular gain to the growers or communities. Moreover, many claim that fair-trade relationships harm non-fair trade farmers, which are at a stark disadvantage in the competitive market. Currently, 4 main organizations are in place to help moderate such inequalities and certify fair-trade coffees: Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), Network of European Worldshops and European Fair Trade Association (EFTA). Within this fair trade system, farmers receive higher premiums for growing certified organic coffees. Therefore, they are very often driven to obtain organic certification, and the labels of fair-trade and organic go largely hand in hand. Such organic practices ensure the health of both the local community and coffee drinkers, and protect the delicate water supply that is needed for the long-term sustainability of the crop. Nations’ respective regulatory bodies regulate these coffees; in Canada, this is the role of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

Here at home, the bombardment is constant. Though certifications and labels are helpful, often times they do not tell the whole story. We must remember that we are the ultimate regulators. Therefore, developing awareness and a healthy curiosity of how the products we buy may or may not tip the scale of global sustainability is paramount. 

Manuel Arias