TreeHugger is ten years old this August. We're taking a look back at some of the changes that have happened in the green movement over the decade.
It used to be straightforward. Ten years ago, TreeHugger had a simple recommendation: Buy Fair Trade coffee. But the coffee industry is vast, the corporations involved are huge, the quantities of coffee needed to keep us all in caffeine keep growing. So it got complicated.
What is Fairtrade?
It all started in the Netherlands in 1988, and in 1997 the Fairtrade Labelling Organization (FLO) was founded in Bonn, Germany.
Our mission is to connect disadvantaged producers and consumers, promote fairer trading conditions and empower producers to combat poverty, strengthen their position and take more control over their lives.
With Fair Trade Coffee, the system was designed to give the small farmer a boost. The system promoted cooperatives, which have to meet "a variety of criteria that focus on a range of areas including labour standards, sustainable farming, governance, and democratic participation."
But all those farmers in cooperatives didn't grow enough coffee to feed the beast, so in 2012 Fair Trade USA split away from the international movement. They explained:
Beginning in coffee, we are adapting Fair Trade standards for both workers on large farms and independent small holders. Through this more inclusive model, Fair Trade USA can reach over 4 million farm workers who are currently excluded from the system.
A lot of people were not happy about this move; the whole point of Fair Trade was to help the small farmer, not the large farms. but hey, cooperatives sound socialist, almost like unions, and you can't have that in America today. Big corporate farms are people too.
The international Fair Trade Organization started yet another label, Fairtrade America, to give people the option of supporting the original concept. It's run out of Canada, which stayed in the International system. That is a pretty subtle distinction that no doubt will get totally lost, but both labels are better than no label at all.
If that wasn't all confusing enough, there is now Direct Trade.
Other labels to look for:
There are subsets, alternatives and sometimes confusing labels on coffee to be considered:
The Rainforest Alliance is upfront in stating that they worry less about economics and more about the farming. I was a guest of the Rainforest Alliance in Ecuador a few years ago and was impressed. They certify all kinds of farms.
Rather than emphasizing how products are traded, Rainforest Alliance certification -- awarded to farms that meet the comprehensive standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) -- focuses on how farms are managed. The SAN standards encompass all aspects of sustainability (social, environmental and economic) and empower farmers with the knowledge and skills to negotiate for themselves in the global marketplace. Farmers engaged in the Rainforest Alliance Certified program learn to grow smart, increasing their bottom line today, and conserving the fertile soils and natural resources on which their children will depend tomorrow.
Developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, bird friendly farmers " play a key role in the conservation of our global environment and of migratory birds that find sanctuary in their forest-like environments."
According to Coffecology,
Shade-grown coffees are grown in jungle environments. The coffee bushes are grown under a shade canopy is made up of a variety of trees and there are often companion plantings of tropical fruit trees. This means the plantations can support great local and migrating bird populations. Beyond the benefit that shade can provide to migratory birds, shade grown coffee has a much richer flavour. The shade has a similar effect on coffee as growing it at high altitudes. Both of these factors slow down the growth of the coffee cherry which results in the production of more sugars and natural chemicals responsible for the better taste.
Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.
There is even a label for coffee grown by women, Café Femenino.
Women coffee producers make up 30 percent of the 25 million coffee growers that are responsible for producing 75 percent of the world's coffee. Harsh gender inequality, poverty and abuse are rampant in these coffee production regions. Most women coffee producers have no rights, no income and are abandoned by their husbands.
The non-profit " is making a huge difference not only in the level of poverty, but also in elevating the value of women in these remote communities. It is reducing abuse levels, and it is calling attention to our industry as well as the coffee community itself, to the plight of women in coffee communities."
What should you buy?
The cost of really good coffee is not a big deal when you calculate it by the cup; even the very best bean will cost less than a crappy Keurig or Nespresso pod. it's one area where you can afford to go a bit wild.
As an example of how far you can go, I get my coffee in returnable mason jars, roasted weekly by Coffeecology in Hamilton, Ontario. It's organic, shade grown, Fair Trade and driven to Toronto in a Prius, and then delivered by Laurie Featherstone on her cargo bike. It feels good and tastes better. I am sure there are similar operations in other cities; leave a note in comments if you know of any.