There’s More to Making a Cup of Coffee than You think
Trade certifications and what they mean to industry farmers, the consumer, and the environment
By the time a barista hands you a cup of coffee, it has passed through many hands.
A lot goes into making a good cup of coffee, beginning with the beans. It requires an annual rainfall of 59–118 inches and must be grown in higher altitudes or hilly areas with a have a relative humidity of 70 -90%.
As you might have guessed, coffee is grown in tropical areas.
Before it is a bean, the coffee is called a cherry, which takes seven to nine months to ripen. Farmers and laborers then pick them by hand, and for those quality Arabica beans, they choose only the fully ripened ones.
It is expensive.
And labor intense.
So what about the laborers?
None of them are getting rich, and in fact, many live below the poverty level. Parents pull their children out of school to work on coffee plantations to earn enough to survive.
Smallholder farmers, aka owners, produce eighty percent of the coffee worldwide, and around 125 million workers depend on coffee for their livelihoods. The coffee industry worldwide is second only to oil.
Their ability of farmers to earn a living wage is another reason certifications are essential.
It’s discouraging to think that without them, we are consuming processed coffee grown with harmful chemicals that contribute to deforestation, force wildlife from their homes, mainly songbirds, and that the farmers who grow it are treated and paid poorly.
The world of certifications is complex.
Coffee can be Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Rainforest Certified, Bird-friendly, carbon-neutral, and USDA organic. And these certifications benefit you as well as the grower.
What do all these certifications mean? Do they matter?
I think so, but you decide.
Fair Trade certification is a product certification within the fair trade market. Ideally, its strategy is to create a more even playing field for farmers in developing countries. Producers must comply with a set of standards. In this way, more customers have access to their products.
Standards include labor laws, trade standards, and pricing. Fair Trade is an excellent start to the certification evolution, but not without flaws.
It does not certify the quality of the product, and although coffees are of a specialty variety, they are limited and can vary in taste. Also, farmers do not have the option to choose the buyer who offers the best price or to switch to cooperatives who pay a better one.
Policymakers have criticized fair trade for making the rich richer and keeping the poor, poor by not passing along the premiums paid by consumers to farmers.
Of note, Fair Trade has gone through a few stages in the United States. Initially, it was a part of Fair Trade International, then Fair Trade USA, and is now Fair Trade America.
Moving up the ladder.
Direct Trade eliminates the middle man and organizations that control certifications ( Fair Trade and Bird Friendly) and allows buyers to purchase coffee “directly” from farmers.
Farmers can exert more control over the quality of coffee, social issues, and environmental concerns. The coffees are rare and described as “sublime” tasting. A direct trade gives farmers the power to build a more respectful and intimate relationship with producers and cooperatives in coffee-producing countries.
It does not require growers to be a part of a cooperative, and also pays them 25 percent above the Fairtrade price.
The downside is the consumer needs to know and trust the company’s standards.
Carbon neutral producers claim that they do not add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere through their production and marketing of coffee.
In other words, they do not clear forests, which may lead to water contamination through pesticide and herbicide use, soil erosion, and loss of habitat. It is sent directly to consumers, instead of developing countries, who roast and ship it.
Bird Friendly Coffee hits all the marks.
It is friendly to the environment, the farmers, and consumers. The quality is excellent, and it comes from farms that provide and maintain forest-like habitats for birds.
In addition to being organic, it is the world’s only shade-grown coffee, requiring a minimum of 40 percent shade coverage.
Other certifications allow dilution of the product and require only 30 percent purity to meet the standard of quality. Bird-friendly coffees promise 100 percent.
And biologists agree that a shade coffee plantation has almost as much biodiversity as an untouched forest.
Bird-friendly farmers receive incentives for being environmentally conscientious such as higher market prices, so that they can charge more. They are also given timber and fruit trees that provide them with additional income.
Organic coffee has no synthetic substances such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and 95 percent of the beans are grown in organic conditions. There are also no synthetic ingredients or additives.
Although the organic standard does not address labor standards, it improves the health of workers by eliminating pesticides and herbicides. Inspectors adhere strictly to certification standards and also charge a fee.
The Rainforest Alliance’s mission is to conserve biodiversity. Their standards are intended to protect the environment and the rights of workers. Although these standards may produce high-quality coffee, it is not their focus.
It has a single standard, the most crucial being that farms are required to maintain 40 percent canopy coverage, and 12 native species of tree per hectare (a metric unit equal to 100 acres) of cultivated land.
The Rainforest Alliance partners with the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) to set these environmental and labor standards.
Labor standards include a minimum wage and maximum workweeks. Companies cannot hire children under 15, and those under 18 must have parental permission.
The work cannot prevent them from attending school, and they cannot operate machinery in dangerous locations. Farms must provide training and protective equipment when working with pesticides or other hazardous materials.
In 2018, the Rainforest Alliance and UTZ merged to create a single, global certification standard. The merger will simplify certification for farmers and expand advocacy and conservation.
What’s a consumer to do?
There’s no shortage of coffee shops and coffee brands. It’s up to us as consumers to check for certifications. Some of the well-known chains have joined the ethical and environmental coffee bandwagon.
My favorite, Peet’s, has a line of direct trade coffees.
If you prefer to brew your own, consider buying the gold standard: Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly Coffee. It is grown on family farms in Latin America under a canopy of trees.
All certifications are geared toward social and environmentally responsible processing, though some are better than others. The quality varies, with the direct trade having more variety and consistency.
The coffee you decide to buy does have an impact on the lives of farmers and their families, so do a little of your research and see how your ‘cup of joe’ can make a difference.
The choice is yours.
Marilyn is a writer, spiritual medium, reiki practitioner and well-preserved grandma. She lives by the ocean with two friendly but destructive cats and travels regularly on the country’s oldest transit system. She loves connecting with her fellow scribes and readers on Medium. If you want to comment or read more of her writing click here.