World’s Most Sustainable Coffee?

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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Scott Cooney, Principal of and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.