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World’s Most Sustainable Coffee?

Scott Cooney | Tuesday May 12th, 2009 | 10 Comments

Pop quiz: What are the 2 most commonly traded commodities on the planet? If you guessed bananas and wheat, you’re wayyy off. But who would guess bananas and wheat? Maybe if you just finished eating Shredded Wheat with chopped bananas you might have it on the brain, but odds are if you just did finish breakfast, you enjoyed it with a cup of the world’s #2 most traded.
Coffee, after petroleum (#1), is the second most traded commodity in the world. Of course, the name itself is very misleading. A commodity, according to my Econ textbook, is “something for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across markets. It is the same no matter who produces it…” Examples given are petroleum, iron ore, copper, as well as agricultural products such as corn, soy, wheat, ethanol, and yes, coffee.

Any coffee aficianado will tell you that coffee is anything but a commodity. Can anyone truly say there’s no difference between Folger’s and a local artisan roaster’s rich blends?

And of course, there’s the sustainability aspect. Coffee has been one of the darlings of the sustainability movement. It’s fairly easy and inexpensive to switch from a conventional coffee to a truly sustainable one, and gives our conscience something to feel good about with every delicious sip. For coffee to be sustainable, it can achieve a variety of certifications. Organic, Fair Trade, and Shade-Grown, coffees are available in most any city in the world. Some coffees go even further.

So what is the most sustainable coffee on the planet?


shadecoffeefarm.jpgThe coffee grown on the farm pictured here is certified shade grown. The forest canopy is left largely intact, meaning terrific habitat for migrating animals, especially birds, plus extra nutrients for the soil, resistance to desertification, more pollinators, natural predators of agricultural pests, carbon sequestration, and a variety of other environmental and human health benefits. It also means lower coffee productivity in the short term. To make up the difference, many shade coffee farms have turned to ecotourism, especially courting birders, to help preserve their land. The Smithsonian has a bird-friendly certification it lends to sustainable coffees that many people trust.
Organic and Fair Trade certifications round out the triple in “triple-certified” coffee.

So, what is the world’s most sustainable coffee? Chime in in the comments section below with your suggestions and I will follow up this article with a continuing conversation about the world’s most truly sustainable coffee. There will not be one answer, of course, but perhaps our enlightened Triple Pundit community can come up with a top five.

To start the conversation, let’s consider my two personal favorites: Larry’s Beans and Caffe Ibis.

Larry’s Beans has made great strides not just in their coffee, but also in their operations, garnering them tremendous attention in the blogosphere. They were one of the first roasters to go 100% triple certified, but more recently, went to veggie oil for local deliveries, started distributing biodiesel at their roasting facility, compostable packaging, and did a green overhaul on the facility to boot, adding, among other things, lots more natural lighting to cut their electricity bills and make their workers happy.

Caffe Ibis is a personal favorite as well. In addition to being 100% triple-certified, Caffe Ibis uses a Swiss-water decaffeination process. The process eliminates the need to use chemicals to extract caffeine from the beans. But what really stands out about Caffe Ibis is its commitment to women. Abuse and disenfranchisement of women still occurs at an alarming rate (41% abuse in some areas, which is likely underreported as well), especially in poor, rural settings. To combat this and create markets for products that are exclusively made by women (and pay a living wage), Caffe Ibis helped launch Cafe Feminino. It not only helps employ women in good jobs, it also helps them advance in society. As Randy Wirth, the co-owner of Caffe Ibis (with wife Sally), told me at a Bioneers Conference, men in rural areas were very motivated to go to their municipal government to put their wives’ names on property deeds in order to qualify for membership in Cafe Feminino so that they might earn more money as a family. Respect. Hope. In a steaming hot cup of delicious coffee.
Let’s continue the conversation! What’s the most sustainable coffee you know of? Tell us why!
Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and hopes that someday, the green economy will simply be referred to as…the economy.

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▼▼▼      10 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Anonymous

    I think it’s funny how many ways there are to measure coffee’s sustainability. Off the top of my head:
    1) “Fair” pay for workers (whatever that means)
    2) Organic – no pesticides
    3) Shade Grown
    4) Political status of the country it comes from
    5) Bought from your local vs Starbucks
    6) Does the company or farm practice active stewardship of the land?
    7) does the company treat customers/employees nicely?
    8) Give 10cents back for reusable cup?
    I guess people who care about this stuff drink a lot of coffee. Heck, I’ve got a cup of Alterra Fair trade right here.

  • Jen Boynton

    I have a sinking suspicion that the coffee trade is still not great to support, no matter how many certifications your brew has.
    In the grand scheme of things, it’s certainly better than my air travel habit, but, as you point out, the industry is fraught with potential for human and environmental degradation, and these certifications are only as good as the enforcers. I look forward to reading more analysis (over my Peet’s fair trade, of course).

  • Paul Jacobs

    There are considerations beyond the farm, of course, but it is hard to eliminate the obvious first step in sustainability. Buying a cup of Folgers from a locally owned coffee shop that uses wind power and gives you a mug discount for bringing your own cup is still buying a cup of Folgers.

  • Peggy

    Most sustainable coffee I know is Ruta Maya out of Austin, TX. Their Ruta Maya Organic Coffee is triple-certified and was named one of the top ten coffee bars in the United States by Food & Wine Magazine.
    And, no, I do not work with or for them.

  • Scott Cooney

    Awesome, Peggy, thanks for the info!

  • http://www.muddydogcoffee.com Jim

    At the risk of self-promoting, I’ll mention my own company, Muddy Dog Roasting Company in Morrisville, NC. Certifications, and even the coffees themselves, are not the entire story. We do buy ethical, sustainable coffees (e.g., Fair Trade Certified, Rainforest Alliance, etc), including a semi-forest Ethiopian I source directly where 40% of the profits are returned to growers (yet not Fair Trade Certified, beginning to understand?). We roast on one of the most eco-friendly roasting machines in the world, with zero emissions out the stack and 94% less energy consumption than conventional roasters. We bag in biodegradable, compostable bags. If you are in Central North Carolina, come by our roastery for a tour and some cupping!

  • http://www.ecoverdecoffee.com Denine

    I am the Marketing Administrator for Ecoverde Coffee‚Ñ¢, a new line of sustainable Coffees from a Buffalo, NY company, McCullagh Coffee.

    The new line is 100% Rainforest Alliance‚Ñ¢ Certified Coffee, packaged in 3rd party certified, 100% carbon neutral packaging. This packaging is 100% biodegradable and compostable. The package can be composted in both home-based and industrial composting operations. The packaging meets both European and American Composting standards (EN13432:2000 and ASTM D6400)

    Currently this coffee is available for institutions requiring cases of coffee per month.

  • http://coffeeofthemonthclub.net/ Coffee Club

    I'm suppose to answer the 1st question on this article but as far as I read it the author answer his own question.

  • rodericrinehart

    I wonder what the future of coffee (as well as tea and chocolate) is in a post-petroleum or Peak Oil world. Humans will not be extinct, but “gas” at 10X the price will effect every person and force us to be local in almost all aspects. However, ancient societies traded spices and other goods across thousands of miles well before oil, cars, semis, rail, and planes – so it can be done. But can it be done on our scale?

  • rodericrinehart

    I wonder what the future of coffee (as well as tea and chocolate) is in a post-petroleum or Peak Oil world. Humans will not be extinct, but “gas” at 10X the price will effect every person and force us to be local in almost all aspects. However, ancient societies traded spices and other goods across thousands of miles well before oil, cars, semis, rail, and planes – so it can be done. But can it be done on our scale?

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