The Challenge of Finding Ethically Produced Coffee


These days, it’s hard to walk into a coffee shop or grocery store anywhere in the world without seeing tons of organic and fair trade coffee that goes well with a manual espresso machine. But, what do those labels really mean? Most importantly, what can we do to ensure that the organic and/or fair-trade coffee we’re buying follows ethical production standards? Let’s go ahead and see if we can’t answer those questions.

The Problem with Organic

When we buy something that’s certified organic, it needs to meet only one requirement for that certification. It must be grown without pesticides. While that’s a fantastic attribute, it’s not the only thing that the organic farming movement set out to accomplish.

Organically produced items were designed to provide consumers with food that was produced the way nature intended it to be. But, these items were also designed to promote sustainable farming practices and fair trade. That way, the consumer gets what they want, while also caring for our farmers and our planet.

Unfortunately, since the requirements for organic labeling aren’t very stringent, this has paved the way for massive food producers and retailers like Kraft, Walmart, Sara Lee, etc. to get in on the action. The result: We don’t really know what we’re getting any more. We also don’t know if the practices these companies have put in place benefit our farmers or our planet.

The Problem with Fair Trade

The premise of fair trade coffee is simple: Consumers pay more for the guarantee that the pot of fresh brew is high quality, produced ethically, and provides the coffee farmers with a bigger piece of the pie. After all, coffee is the second largest commodity that we trade in behind oil, and we need to ensure we’re doing our part of creating a fair market for these coffee farmers.

Sadly, even the grandest of plans can have unintended repercussions. Sometimes, fair trade practices don’t do enough to address the needs of the poorest coffee farmers and field laborers. While fair trade practices have shown measurable improvement in the conditions for many poor coffee farmers, they don’t necessarily look after low-paid workers on a coffee farm, such as migrant laborers.

There’s also a concern for the quality of the product because of the limited demand for fair trade certified coffee. A farmer won’t be able to sell all his fair trade produced coffee to a fair-trade buyer. What he cannot sell to a fair-trade buyer, he will sell on the open market for whatever price he can. As a result, it’s not uncommon for coffee farmers to sell their lower quality coffee as fair trade because any higher quality coffee he has produced can be sold for a higher price on the open market.

How You Can Find Ethically Produced Coffee

These days, there’s several different certifications for coffee production. Some of these certifications carry much more weight than fair trade certified or organic coffee. As a result, you’ll know that you’re purchasing organic coffee that was ethically produced and traded. Look for coffee that is Bird-Friendly-Certified. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute gives this certification to coffee producers who are producing ethically grown, organic coffee that everyone, from the consumer to the coffee growers themselves can feel good about.