How Eco-Friendly Coffee Makes a Difference

Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee each day, which contributes to the coffee bean’s status as the second most globally traded product after petroleum. Now, a recent report from the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid has found that regular coffee intake can actually prevent heart disease in women. Coffee is a much needed cash crop in many countries with few other exports such as Ethiopia, Guatemala and Papua New Guinea, but the industry has also been plagued by reports of worker abuse and corporate rip offs. Rainforest and other endangered species habitat is often cleared for coffee plantation, making it an environmentally dicey purchase, as well.

So how do we get our morning cup without a side of guilt? How to decipher real world impact from a multitude of coffee labels after the jump.

“Shade-Grown” or “Bird-Friendly”: Promote Optimal Habitat and Help Animals Breed Properly

Coffee beans labeled as shade-grown have been grown on plantations with natural tree canopy above the fields. Instead of clear cutting land for coffee growers, shade plantations use the natural benefits of the endemic forest to improve the coffee yield and protect nature alike. The shade provided by natural tree cover allows orchids, insects, reptiles, small mammals such as bats, and birds (hence the synonymous “bird-friendly”) to live comfortably among the crop trees.

Shade plantations do two things: they increase the amount of viable animal habitat and they prevent habitat fragmentation, which is a common consequence of farmland development. Animals must move freely around large area of habitat to ensure genetic diversity, thus the health of their species. When habitat is split up into fragments – islands of nature amidst agricultural fields – imbreeding and population loss quickly follow. By creating corridors of “safe” land by leaving natural tree cover, shade plantations help foster species migrations.


While there are some certification processes for shade grown coffee farmers, these are expensive and not always options for the farmers in question. This is true for all certification processes, but particularly so for shade farms, which tend to be smaller by their very nature as they must incorporate into forested areas. For more about this incredibly complex issue, see the excellent blog Coffee and Conservation.

  • Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s “Bird Friendly” certification ensures organic growing methods, satisfactory tree canopy height and foliage cover, and significant number of bird species present.
  • Rainforest Alliance‘s certification also ensures a number of eco-friendly farming practices, shade-growing chief among them.

“Organic”: Improve Personal and Worker Health, Help Maintain a Healthy Watershed, and Improve Animal Health

When pesticides and other chemicals are used during the growing process, everyone is hurt. The field workers – often children – are exposed daily to high levels of endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals. These chemicals run off during rainstorms into the local watershed, polluting the drinking water of local residents and making its way into the ocean. When sprinkled on the ground, these chemicals also kill large numbers of wild animals that confuse them for seeds. Just look at the case of carbofuran.


As with all certifications, look for the term “100%.” Legally, a package can claim USDA Organic certification with only 30% organic product, but this is probably not what you had in mind when you tried to purchase non-toxic coffee, particularly given its premium price tag.

  • USDA Organic: the certification process under the regulations of the U.S. government. While we recently discussed troubling loopholes in the USDA guidelines, there is still credibility to this certification.
  • Smithsonian “Bird Friendly” ensures organic growing methods.
  • Aurora Certified Organic: a private certification organization that uses USDA guidelines and which is not to be confused with the maligned Aurora Organic Dairy.Ecocert: this high-quality certifying body is French, but they conduct reviews in over 80 countries outside of the E.U.

There are also many regional organic certifications such as the California Crop Improvement Organization or Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association certified organic labels.

“Fair Trade”: Promote Environmentally Friendly Farming Practices, Support Farmer’s Rights

Fair Trade is an agreement between suppliers and buyers to build an equitable trading network that puts no one at an inherent disadvantage. Very often, buyers will exploit the poverty or ignorance of suppliers to lower prices. Fair trading was built as a way to safeguard against such abuse. It is obvious why this improves human rights, but fair trade also helps safeguard the environment.

When farmers get a fair price for their coffee beans, they need less land to sustain their livelihoods. Less land cleared for coffee plantations means more land left as natural habitat.


Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) makes the International Fairtrade Certification Mark, which is used in over 50 countries and sets the standard for all other certification. Its labels include FLO, FLO-CERT, TransFair and many others. See their many labels here.

While there is a premium to buying environmentally sustainable coffee, it is worth the vast influence that responsible growing produces in terms of environmental health, wildlife conservation, economic equality, human rights and health.


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