A Guide to Buying Ethical Coffee

How to make sense of the beans that promote sustainable agriculture and humane worker rights

Coffee in Bag

This article originally appeared on ModernFarmer.com.

New studies show that, despite the skyrocketing price of coffee in the past few decades and the seemingly impressive rise in coffee drinkers who seriously care about their drink, coffee farmers are not seeing much benefit. Coffee, as a luxury good, has the potential to make huge changes in the way farmers are treated and paid. But how do you know if you're supporting good coffee or contributing to the problem?

“People are more aware of sustainability issues with coffee because, you know, this isn’t food,” says Kim Elena Ionescu, the director of sustainability for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and a former coffee buyer for renowned North Carolina-based roaster Counter Culture Coffee. “It’s non-nutritive, not something you need for survival. This is something that we consume for pleasure.” Because of its status as a sort of luxury or specialty item, unlike, say, eggs, coffee consumers have the ability to demand more from their coffee producers than simply low prices.

And that’s important, because coffee farmers are among the worst-treated in the world. Largely coming from developing nations in Central America, Latin America, Africa and Asia, coffee farmers are faced with legendarily hard work, low prices and a crop that’s subject to rampant price pressures as well as various forms of blight and disease.

There are some forces working to make things better for coffee farmers, and some of those are quantified with various labels, slogans and certifications. But it can be hard to figure out what to trust and what to look for; some nice-sounding phrases turn out to be legally meaningless, and some really great certifications are saddled with terrible names that undersell their value. Ionescu led us through how to buy coffee in a way that ensures, to the best of your ability, that farmers are being paid and treated fairly.

This isn’t a perfect guide; coffee, like any other product grown in a developing country and destined for a developed country, has a long ways to go before the various certifications and regulations really provide good working conditions and wages to the producers. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying. It’s not every product that allows you to act ethically every single morning.

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The Price Difference

Coffee price is absurdly variable: A mass-market coffee like Folgers or Maxwell House can cost about $5 per pound, while ultra-rare coffees, like Black Ivory Coffee (made from coffee that’s passed through the intestinal system of elephants) can run up to hundreds of dollars per pound. More common “expensive” coffees, roasted by companies like Counter Culture, Stumptown and Blue Bottle, often cost around $20-$29 per pound.

It would be easy to assume that more expensive coffees would pass some of that premium on over to the farmers, but that’s not always the case. “You can’t necessarily assume that a high price means good working conditions, or that by paying a high price you’re paying for environmental sustainability, unless that is explicit,” says Ionescu. “I think you can make the assumption that if your coffee is cheap, the environmental and working conditions are probably not good.”

In other words, you have to dig a little deeper than just the price tag. You want to make sure it’s the farmers who are paid well, not the retailer or roaster.

The Fancy Labels

Higher-end coffee tends to be slathered with slogans, logos and banners claiming all sorts of things about the conditions of the farm and the relationship between the farmer and seller. Sometimes there will be photos of happy coffee farmers, or long narratives about how much the CEO of your local coffee roaster cares about his Honduran farms.

Proceed with caution.

There are a few legitimate badges that can appear on coffee packaging, which we’ll get to in a minute. But literally everything else is marketing, and has no legal, regulatory muscle to back it up. This can include some very popular labels!

For one: Direct trade. Theoretically, this refers to a cutting out of middlemen, and reveals that the roaster has a personal relationship with the farmer, therefore allowing the farmer to take a larger cut of the profits. In reality? This phrase has absolutely no legal meaning. Anyone can say it. That doesn’t mean that the companies that do use the phrase are lying or misleading, but even in the best-case scenario, the lack of a formal legal definition means that the customer really has no idea what information to glean from the phrase. “The words ‘direct trade’ are not regulated at all,” says Ionescu. “So each company can define that term differently, and there’s no body that determines what is and is not direct trade.”

Another: Shade grown. This one actually is a useful theoretical definition: It means that the coffee plantation is set up with various large, shady trees forming a canopy over the shrub-like coffee plants. It’s a great idea; it retains the natural multi-level character of the environment, which allows for farmers to grow coffee without uprooting every other plant and animal in the area. It also helps retain moisture so farmers use less water, and keeps the soil in place to prevent erosion. Shade-grown coffee is great! It should all be shade grown! But that phrase is, again, not a legally binding one; anyone can say it, to mean anything or nothing at all. Luckily there are actual labels that will let you know if your coffee fulfills the shade-grown requirements, but if all your coffee says is “shade grown”? Nope. Means nothing.

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The Real Labels

First off, the biggie: Organic. People often assume that “organic” is simply a marketing term, but in fact it’s a marketing term with various legal definitions. Items carrying the USDA Organic seal are verified by government-accredited inspectors and require that the farm in question use no synthetic pesticides, have a plan to prevent excess erosion (a real problem with coffee plants) and are spaced far enough from non-organic plants that non-organic fertilizers and pesticides won’t “accidentally” float over.

Another important one: Fair Trade Certified. This is a very tricky one because it’s only the complete phrase, “Fair Trade Certified,” that carries weight; “fair trade,” alone, without a label from an organization like Fairtrade International or Fair Trade USA, means nothing. But Fair Trade Certified coffee is a good one, though kind of complicated because it’s split up into two similarly named groups. Fairtrade International is made up exclusively of cooperatives of small producers. Fair Trade USA, a splinter group, is open to both cooperatives and single farms (meaning either large estates or small farmers who are not organized into co-ops). But both require a minimum price per pound to the farmer ($1.40 for non-organic, $1.70 for organic, plus a $0.20 cent community-development premium for each). If the market price is below that mark, Fair Trade Certified growers are ensured to get higher-than market rates. “Fair Trade Certified kind of grew up in coffee and spread to other products,” says Ionescu; you can find fair-trade sugar and many other products these days.

Then there are the labels which have legitimate meanings but are confusing in their execution.

Rainforest Alliance Certified is an okay certification, provided by an NGO of the same name. Its focus is ecological, requiring some shade, some clean water rubrics, some attempts to not destroy the environment. It also is a pretty decent protection against the exploitation of child labor. The problem is that, while Rainforest Alliance is absolutely a real certification with real requirements, those certifications aren’t … very strict. For one thing, sometimes only 30 percent of the coffee in a package needs to have passed muster for the package to be legally labeled Certified, which is pretty messed up. (The packaging does have to state that only 30 percent of the coffee is certified, and companies are required to scale up over time, but still.) For another, it doesn’t require a minimum purchasing price for coffee, nor does it actually do anything at all to ensure more equitable wages for farmers. It’s been widely criticized, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

UTZ Certified, certainly a lesser-known certification, is not specific to coffee, but is sometimes applied. (It’s also common in chocolate.) UTZ is agriculture-focused, working specifically on habitat preservation, water use, pesticide use and soil erosion prevention. But it’s attracted criticism for being too general, and for not requiring the use of shade trees.

The last big one is one of the best, and probably the least known: Bird-Friendly Certified. This certification comes from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and requires extremely strict adherence to the guidelines of shade-grown coffee—it even mandates a canopy height. Bird-Friendly Certified coffee is also, by requirement, organic, meaning you get kind of a two-for-one. The name of the certification isn’t great; something like “direct trade” sounds an awful lot more powerful and important than “bird friendly.” But this certification is hugely important. If you see the green and brown Bird-Friendly logo on your coffee? You’re getting some good stuff.

Ionescu notes that these certifications aren’t everything. “Just having a certification doesn’t guarantee that the farm is sustainable,” she says. “It could be organic certified but the farmer might not make much money, or the coffee quality might not be good.” And there’s basically no way for a consumer to casually learn reliable information about a coffee supply chain; companies have a firm incentive (in the form of dollars) to present themselves as the pinnacle of green-friendly, labor-friendly producers and the dearth of third-party verification can make it hard to trust any of that.

But this is one instance where looking for a label can legitimately make a difference. It’s worth trying.

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