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Everyday Environmentalist

Buy Sustainable Coffee

"Coffee trees grown in the shade of larger tropical forests help provide valuable habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife and endangered species."

, former associate director of digital marketing for The Nature Conservancy

By Jonathon D. Colman

First things first — I am a coffee snob:

  • I'm the ornery fellow who argues with the baristas about the difference in organic certifications and the definition of Fair Trade.
  • I'm the annoying buddy who snoops around your kitchen to check out your coffee setup (but I call it a "rig") when you dare to invite me over.
  • And I'm the pesky chum who tsk-tsk-tsks when I see my colleagues drinking mass-marketed instant coffee. Come on, people: We need a decent source of caffeine if we’re going to save the planet!

Life is too short to drink bad coffee. And life is also too precious to drink unsustainable coffee — grown using pesticides and harvested by people around the world who aren’t paid a fair, living wage for their work.

Go Green (Beans)

How should you drink better coffee — better for the planet, its people and your taste buds?

First, look for coffee beans that are organically grown. Usually this means that coffee is produced without using artificial pesticides or herbicides. This ensures that pollution from wastewater and fertilizers is minimized and soil erosion is decreased because native forests are kept intact.

Also seek out coffee beans that are Fair Trade Certified — this is your sign that the harvesters work under humane conditions and are paid fairly for their efforts.

How is buying Fair Trade Certified™ coffee eco-friendly? Because there’s a proven link between poverty alleviation and conservation in coffee farming communities. When growers are paid fairly, they don’t have an incentive to cut down forests to grow more coffee.

The Birds and the Beans

Purchasing coffee marked "shade grown" is also good for the planet.

Coffee trees grown in the shade of larger tropical forests help provide valuable habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife and endangered species. Coffee farms engaged in shade growing can support approximately 150 individual species of migratory birds, providing them with shelter and sustenance for their long journeys.

And growing more trees in the shade at coffee plantations helps ensure that there is greater biodiversity in species and less monoculture — which protects coffee crops from pests and invasive species while reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides.

Better yet for any budding coffee snobs, shade-grown coffee beans ripen more slowly, providing a deeper, more luxurious flavor.

Unfortunately, not all shade-grown coffee is equal. There are many varieties of shade-grown coffee and no official, internationally agreed-upon system in place for certification, meaning that some shade-grown coffee can be a bit “shady” in practice.

To find the shade-grown coffee that is best for the environment, look for beans that were grown in “rustic” shade cover — this means that the coffee trees were cultivated in 70 percent–100 percent shade cover, providing the maximum benefit possible for birds and other animal species.

Don’t forget: No matter what label or certification is used, you can always contact your favorite coffee company and ask them to prove their support to people and nature.

A Cup of Climate Change

Finally, to be the most eco-friendly, you should find the source of coffee beans that is closest to where you live and where the beans were originally grown.

Buying coffee as local as you can will cut down on carbon emissions from transportation and distribution. Catholic Relief Services provides an interactive map of Fair Trade coffee roasters in the United States.

Coffee snobs-in-training who also keep an eye on their carbon footprint will be on the lookout for carbon-neutral coffee. Why? Because global climate change presents a very large problem for coffee growers. Coffee is a fragile plant requiring a specific climate in which to thrive; even a slight change of temperature or rain can decrease coffee yields, quality or even threaten an entire country’s crop.

And, when large, native forests are cut down to provide more area for sun-grown coffee, this deforestation causes carbon emissions and destroys natural carbon sinks decreasing our ability to stop climate change.

In the end, nothing's better than waking up and knowing that your daily cup of coffee fights climate change, provides habitat for birds, helps people all over the world earn a decent wage, and wasn’t produced using harmful chemicals…

Except maybe for actually drinking it! So go on and be a coffee snob. You'll thank me in the morning.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent those of The Nature Conservancy.

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