Drink sustainable coffee!

by ‐ Tags: green living

Coffee.  It’s just another part of your daily routine. Right? Wrong! Have you ever thought of the vast impact your coffee habits have on the environment and on the local economy?

Let’s say you drink a cup of coffee a day, for 365 days a year. How many coffee beans is that? How much land and water does it take to grow your coffee beans? Where do you even start to figure out if the coffee you drink is sustainably produced?

There are lots of different ways to determine if your coffee is sustainably produced.   For instance, the botanical variety provides good clues as to how the coffee is grown. There are two species of coffee used commercially: Coffea arabica (arabica coffee) and Coffea canephora (robusta coffee).  Arabica coffee is a much higher quality bean, so look for coffees that are 100% arabica. Another quick and easy way to tell is the price.  If it’s cheap, it’s probably not sustainable! Cheaper coffee means lower wages for the farmers, which means poverty for that region. Learn more about the impacts of cheap coffee here.  But what about those eco-labels you’ve seen on your coffee? What do those mean? And do they have the impact that the certification agencies claim?

The quick answer to your questions is that it varies.  Some of the certifications are focused on environmental standards, while others focus on the social and economic impacts of coffee production.  With some quick reading, you can have a better understanding of what certifications to look for in the store or at the coffee shop, and what certifications you may want to avoid. And to learn more about whether these certifications are as beneficial as they seem, you'll just have to read to the bottom. In the meantime, here's a quick overview of the top 5 coffee certifications.


Concerned about the habitat of birds and other tree dwelling species?  Then you should look for this certification, which has very specific standards that focuses on shade grown coffee.  Developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the certification requires that:


Rainforest Alliance

The Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable agriculture program certifies, among other crops, coffee! Several factors contribute to this certification, such as environmental issues, labor conditions, and community relations. Crops must meet a certain minimum number of criteria to qualify for the certification.  However, there is no required criteria for shade management or for being organic.



Overseen by the USDA, certified organic coffee cannot have been grown on land using prohibited substances for at least three years.  Other requirements include buffers that exist between crops grown organically and crops grown non-organically, soil erosion prevention plans, biological pest management, and many more.


Fair Trade

Governed mainly by the Fairtrade Labelling Oragnizations International (FLO), Fair Trade focuses on the smaller coffee producers, providing independent small producers and estates a means to compete in a market dominated by large coffee producers.  The certification is only available to democratically-organized cooperatives of small producers.  While it does not focus on shade grown or organic coffee, if you are most concerned with the economic conditions of the coffee growers, this is the certification for you.

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UTZ Certified

Focusing on transparency in the supply chain, this certification requires a host of various environmental mandates.  However, the standards are not as specific as those mandated in other certifications.  Learn more about this certification here.


But do these certifications really have the environmental impacts that the certification agencies claim?

Several studies have been done regarding the impacts of eco-labels.  The results from these studies tend to be mixed, with some finding that eco-labels do have an impact, but others finding no significant improvements.  A study from 2010 reviewed the methods and results of these studies, and found that of the 37 relevant studies, only 6 studies found that the certification had positive environmental or socioeconomic benefits.  Of the 6 studies that focused on coffee, two studies found that the certification had a positive socioeconomic impact, while one found a positive environmental impact.  This certainly doesn't mean that you shouldn't rely partially on certifications to influence your consumer purchasing, but you should be congnizant of the other factors that should go into your decision of what you will drink to wake up in the morning.