Sometimes at night, as I’m getting ready for bed, brushing my teeth and washing my face, I get this little stir of excitement in my stomach, because I know that I’ll fall asleep, and the first thing I’ll get to do when I wake up in the morning is have a big steaming cup of blessed coffee.
No, I’m not exaggerating. I love coffee, and the ritual of it is so embedded in my life that I can’t imagine doing without it. I come from a family of major coffee drinkers. Since I’ve been alive (and presumably long before that), my parents’ daily routine has been roughly thus: they wake up in the morning and begin their coffee intake, which is steady until about 5pm when they switch to wine. (As an aside, they are in their 60s and look freaking amazing, but I digress.)
However, all this inconvenient thinking about my impact on the planet (gah!) has unavoidably led me to consider coffee. And I must say, the research I’ve done doesn’t leave me feeling great about my love affair with the sweet dark nectar that is my daily cup of joe.
WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT COFFEE PRODUCTION?
In broad terms, there are two issues with coffee production. First, there is the carbon footprint of coffee, which I addressed in this earlier post, and the environmental impact of widespread coffee production and the use of pesticides.
Second, there is the human rights element of coffee. Unfortunately, coffee growers are typically paid only about 2% of the retail price of coffee, and in many parts of the world, child labor is common. On many plantations, workers who are indebted to the plantation owners are forced into labor in order to pay off their debts.
The dorms where workers sleep are often not fit to purpose, and families are crowded together in close quarters without mattresses or toilets. Because workers are paid by yield, when prices are low they must work longer hours to make their wage. For the same reason, they often press their children into service, often preventing them from being able to go to school.
WHAT IF I BUY ORGANIC COFFEE?
That’s a great place to start. Coffee is one of the most chemical-laden crops out there, so buying organic is a good way to ensure that you’re not ingesting harmful pesticides, and that the people who grew the beans didn’t put themselves in harm’s way by spraying dangerous chemicals on the crops (which happens in a lot of places, and often the workers don’t have adequate training or protective clothing). There are still other factors to consider, though, such as whether your coffee was grown in shade or full sun, whether it was wet or dry processed, how the workers were treated and paid, and whether there was child labor involved.
THE PACKAGE SAYS FAIR TRADE. DOESN'T THAT MEAN IT WAS ETHICALLY GROWN?
Maybe. The Fair Trade Labeling Organization Internatonal (FLO) sets price standards for coffee growers, so that they’re not subject to the market fluctuations of coffee, meaning they’ll get paid a baseline price for their coffee no matter what. However, they’re required to pay for their Fair Trade certification to be able to get this price, which sometimes offsets the price benefits of being certified Fair Trade. For this reason, the very poorest growers are unable benefit from Fair Trade certification. Moreover, there is little conclusive evidence that the standards set forth by the FLO have any positive impact on the laborers, or that they provide any improvement for the poorest growers in areas like health and education. Fair trade is also not a guarantee that the coffee is organic.
WAIT, WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT SUN VS. SHADE? DOES THAT REALLY MATTER?
Actually, yes. Coffee naturally grows in the shade of other trees and is part of a very bio-diverse ecosystem. However, yields of shade-grown coffee are often low, so some farmers will plant their coffee in full sun in order to increase the yield. Unfortunately, this practice depletes soil, and shortens the overall lifespan of the coffee plant to about 15 years, which means the farmers will eventually have to move the crops to new soil. Sometimes they even raze forest land to make room for their full-sun coffee crops, which is detrimental to the environment and to the bio-diverse ecosystems I just mentioned. Shade grown coffee is more expensive, but it helps to protect these precious forests.
WELL, THIS SEEMS FREAKING HOPELESS. IS THERE ANY WAY TO KNOW MY COFFEE IS ETHICALLY GROWN?
Yes, there are a few coffee distributors who have wonderful transparency to their entire supply chain. However, one important way we can all help is to treat coffee more like a luxury than a commodity. The widespread consumption of coffee is what drives more coffee production, and in turn drives coffee prices down. Since farmers sometimes only see 2% of the retail price of coffee, the lower the market price, the less they get. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty and poor conditions for farmers.
If we buy coffee less often, and vote with our dollars for companies that are supporting their farmers with a living wage, safe environment, and beneficial social programs, we can help to ensure that they prosper. The best way to do this? Be curious. Ask questions. If you’re spending your money on a product, you have a right to know if people were exploited in its making. Foodispower.org gives a good list of ethical coffee sources. The three that I like the best are:
These three seem to have the most transparency about their growing and processing, how their farmers are paid, and how they are improving the lives of their laborers through social programs and benefits. You can also buy bulk bags from all three suppliers, though sadly, none of them appear to be compostable packaging. Sometimes we must choose between a little plastic and the knowledge that our food comes from ethical sources. Here again, the argument for drinking less coffee will also help us to use less plastic, especially if we buy in bulk!