The Green Plate: 10 Steps Toward Being a Conscious Coffee Consumer

Our daily Joe is an affordable luxury for most of us, a daily necessity for many, and an obsession to some. In case you didn’t know, coffee is now in its third wave.

That means it’s now commonplace to hear coffee geeks in the hipster coffee bars that dot the coasts talk at length about the differences between Latin American and African coffees. It means that coffee descriptors now sound like wine adjectives. It means coffees are described as fruity, chocolatey, sweet, juicy, and bold, with flavors of honeysuckle, black currant and pear.

If you haven’t heard, the cognoscenti have deemed the dark roast that was in fashion in the 90s to be passé. If you now don’t profess to prefer a lighter roast, you’re not in the know. The reason: a lighter roast shows off each coffee’s unique characteristics.

All this obsessing about quality is good news for coffee drinkers, and, to a lesser extent, coffee farmers. Though today’s third-wave roasters are doing a wonderful job of elevating coffee from its status as a commodity crop, and paying higher prices to coffee farmers for truly great coffee, it’s good to remember that almost all coffee is produced in developing countries, while almost all consumption occurs in the industrialized world. And the way the trade is stacked, the numbers don’t pan out so well for the farmers.

We might not think twice about paying $3 or more per cup of high-end, directly traded coffee, but coffee farmers typically only see about 12 cents of that $3. (Much less per cup of typical mini-mart coffee in a Styrofoam cup). Sure the cost of living is lower in developing countries, but not that low. Consider that in Ethiopia (widely acknowledged to be the birthplace of coffee) farmers earn less then 50 cents a day. In years of low coffee prices, the coffee farmers don’t even receive enough to cover the cost of production, forcing many off their land.

So what can you do to make sure your daily pleasure doesn’t cause daily pain for some small farmer in Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Panama, Indonesia, or Guatemala? Learn to be more conscious of the coffee you drink and take at least some of the steps below. What’s good for farmers is better for the environment too. Farmers who know they have a viable future on their land are more likely to take good care of it by farming sustainably.

1. For a hard-hitting look at how the coffee industry exploits coffee farmers watch the award-winning documentary Black Gold.

2. Support farmer-owned coffee as the current best model for making sure farmers get a fair price.

3. The next best model for farmers is Direct Trade. This model gives farmers more for their beans and gives you the added value of traceability and a story behind the coffee.

4. Stuck at Starbucks? Go with one of the Fair Trade Certified™ offerings. At least Fair Trade guarantees farmers a minimum price plus premiums to invest in community projects.

5. As concerned about the environment as you are farmers? Go Triple Certified and save people, trees and birds in one fell swoop.

6. Know your roaster and its practices. Many go above and beyond buying quality coffee to do more for the environment or the people who grow the coffee. A few examples: Peace Coffee makes deliveries by bicycle (in Minnesota no less). Equator Coffees & Teas built new worker housing and installed clean-burning cookstoves for the workers who live on their farm in Panama. Ritual Roasters helped a producer build its own coffee mill.

7. Bring your own damn cup.

8. Lose the disposable filters. Use a French press and compost the coffee grounds.

9. Be aware that coffee, like any crop, is seasonal. Your coffee will be fresher and you’ll understand more about the farming process, and, by extension, the farmers.

10. Share your new-found knowledge with others, but don’t be a coffee snob. It’s tiresome.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Shannon Clark

*Full disclosure: I work as a communications consultant with HavenBMedia for two of the companies mentioned or referred to in this piece: Equator Coffees & Teas, and Pachamama Coffee Co-op, which produces Traceable Coffee (item 2 on the list).

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.