| wake up and smell the coffee | Why You Should Care About Sustainable & Fair Trade Coffee, and 5 Coffee Companies Doing It Better


Like any normal, red-blooded human being, I really dig a good cup of coffee.

And besides smelling amazing, being super tasty, and just helping me generally function in life, coffee has other “science” backed benefits, too.

  • Coffee may lower your risk of death (#winning). I mean, this is somewhat obvious considering the note about helping me to function above, but according to a 2012 study, coffee appeared to lengthen the lifespan of individuals with certain chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. And get this, the more coffee participants drank, we’re talking 3+ cups a day (done and done), the lower the risk of death, regardless of whether the coffee was caffeinated or decaf (but really, what’s the point?).
  • Coffee makes your brain smile. A 2009 study found that coffee drinkers were more likely to resist development of dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life.
  • Coffee also makes your reproductive system smile (no, not in that way). According to a 2011 study, men consuming at least six or  more cups a day reduced their prostate cancer by 20%. And for the ladies, another study found that women who drank more than four cups a day had a 25% lower risk of endometrial cancer.
  • Coffee helps ward off other types of cancer, too. According to a study in the journal Cancer Research, drinking coffee may help you ward off the most diagnosed form of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma. And another recent study found that individuals who drank four or more cups of coffee a day had a 50% lower risk of death from oral cancers in a 25-year time frame.
  • Coffee helps reduce stress. I may be grasping here, but according to a 2008 study done on rats, just the smell of coffee helped to reduce stress associated with loss of sleep. And not to compare myself to a rat, but I totally get that.
  • Coffee can help lower your risk of diabetes. A 2012 study found that a compound in coffee helped block a substance in the body (human islet amyloid polypeptide — nope, didn’t make that up) that may play a role in the development of Type 2 diabetes.

So in sum, we should all be drinking copious amounts of coffee.


That being said, coffee does come with its issues. Coffee today is the world’s most commonly traded commodity after crude oil. But our coffee culture comes with a price for both the environment and the farmers.

One of the biggest issues for the environment is how it’s grown, and according to a study published in a 2014 issue of BioScience, the world’s coffee farms are now more harmful to the environment than ever. Traditionally, coffee was grown under a shaded canopy of trees that provided a valuable habitat for indigenous animals and insects. The canopy also prevented topsoil erosion and removed the need for chemical fertilizers. Unfortunately, to keep up with the global surge in demand farmers have turned to “sun cultivation,” which the coffee is grown in plantations with no forested canopy and fertilizers now a necessity. The report in BioScience estimated that the percentage of global coffee farms that used traditional shade-growing methods went from 43% in 1996 to 24% in 2010, and 41% of all coffee farmland contained no trees at all in 2010.

And while the sun cultivation strategy helps increase yields significantly, it pretty much wrecks havoc on the land. “You lose an incredible amount of topsoil, you contaminate waterways and you make yourself much more vulnerable to changes in weather,” said co-author of the study, Robert Rice, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Birds Center.

And because farmers are clearing out their land for these more efficient plantations, production is also contributing to deforestation — so much in fact that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently pointed that 37 out of the 50 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates are coffee producers.

And farmers are getting a pretty bad deal, too. Unfortunately, on average third world coffee farmers receive only 10% of the eventual retail price. Because they usually live in remote locations and don’t have access to credit, they have very little negotiating power and are vulnerable to middlemen who pay them a fraction of the value for their coffee. They’re also super susceptible to price volatitily.


So, what’s a coffee loving person/fiend to do? There are a few things you can look for to make sure your coffee is better:


  • USDA Certified Organic — To be sold as organic in the U.S. imported coffee must meet a number of standards including that the coffee was grown on land that wasn’t exposed to synthetic pesticides or other prohibited substances for 3 years prior; a sufficient buffer exists between the organic coffee and the closest conventional crop; and a sustainable crop rotation plan is in place to prevent erosion, the depletion of soil nutrients and to naturally control for pests.
  • Fair Trade — By buying fair trade coffee, you are ensuring that the farmers who grew that coffee were paid a fair price, as well as ensures acceptable working conditions, the absence of child labor and ecologically responsible farming. Certified by a few organizations —Fair Trade USA in North America, Germany-based Fair Trade International and the Fair Trade Federation — fair trade is a sustainability-inspired market movement aimed at improving the financial health and profitability of small producers and farm owners. The coffee has been given a base price set by the international Fair Trade Labeling Organization. Fair trade also cuts out the middleman, which gives the farmers’ cooperatives the chance to deal directly with retailers. The extra proceeds received by the farmers go towards investment in social and business development for their communities — like scholarship programs, healthcare services and quality improvement training. Fair trade is one of the most widely applied sustainable systems in the coffee marketplace, representing approximately 27% of the overall market share, but it’s not perfect. While a vast majority of Fair Trade Certified co-ops grow their coffee organically (85% to be exact), it is not a requirement, and neither Fair Trade or Organic certifications specifically require shade cover or biodiversity.
  • Rainforest Alliance — If you’re looking for coffee that is produced with more concern for the environment, look to Rainforest Alliance. With Rainforest Alliance, there is no guaranteed price for growers, rather the organization aims to “conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land use practices, business practices and consumer behaviour growers need to achieve a standard set by the Sustainable Agricultural Network (SAN) and adhere to a set of ten guiding principles.”  The SAN forbids deforestation — a farm cannot be certified if there is evidence of deforestations after 2005, and farms participate in reforestation programs, developing both shade grown coffee and foresting non-productive areas of their farms.
  • Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird-Friendly Certification — The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) gives this certification to farmers in order to promote shade-grown organic coffee plantations that can play a key role in the conservation of both the environment and migratory birds that find shelter in these forest-like plantations. Bird-friendly certification requires at least 11 species of canopy trees per hectare and the main canopy must be at least 40 feet tall. In addition, the coffee must be organic certified, and the production area must have at least 40% foliage cover.

All that said, I will also say that these certifications aren’t always perfect. The certification process can be pricey for small farmers. And, let’s be real, certifications don’t necessarily equate to tasty coffee. But they are good guidelines.

See below for some of my favorite coffee companies that are doing it better.

Equator Coffee was the first U.S. coffee roaster to become a certified B Corp. They made it their mission to create a positive impact — from their farmers’ communities to their local cafes and everywhere in between.


One Village Coffee is an organic, fair trade, certified B Corp that allows you to order online and brew at home. P.S. They also offer subscriptions (weekly, bi-weekly and monthly) to really make life easier.


Kicking Horse Coffee offers organic, fair trade and sustainable blends with great names (and taste) that are also pretty readily available at your local grocery store (or mine, at least).


Equal Exchange started with the mission to build long-term trade partnerships that were economically just and environmentally sound; to foster mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers; and to demonstrate the contribution of worker co-ops (yea, they’re worker owned) and Fair Trade to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world. Added bonus, you can buy in bulk, saving both money and unnecessary packaging.


Thanksgiving Coffee Company offers fair trade, organic coffee beans sourced from all over the world. The certified B Corp also has a line of Cause Coffees, in which they have developed blends in partnership with non-profit organizations, raising over $500,000 for their patners to date.


Are you as much of a coffee lover as me? What is your favorite coffee company?



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