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September 2000
Before You Take Your Next Sip...

By Rachel Cernansky


Ever wonder where your coffee comes from? It’s not as perky a tale as you might think. Read up on the real story behind the beans.

According to Co-op America (, a non-profit socially responsible consumer organization: "Coffee is grown in more than 80 countries on over 26 million acres worldwide. It is the second most valuable item of international trade—second only to oil. Americans drink an average of 450 million cups of coffee every day."

Within the conventional coffee market, numerous problems are overlooked as coffee buyers on every level, from roaster to consumer, search for the cheapest price they can find. But low costs for the consumer translate into lower wages for the grower. Coffee pickers, among them children, work long hours for low wages, receive no health care or benefits, and are exposed to toxic chemicals in the fields. Educational opportunities and labor regulations are also severely lacking. In search of the best deal, consumers buying directly from wholesalers instead of cooperatives encourage the exploitation of workers.

The environmental effects of typical coffee growing present an entire set of problems all their own. "Technification" of coffee growing involves cutting down or thinning valuable shade trees for higher-yield coffee varieties that require lots of sun. This destroys wildlife habitats and often calls for more pesticides and chemicals. Deforestation of tropical mountainsides results in habitat destruction, diminishing biological diversity, erosion and water pollution.

You can help prevent such problems from escalating and improve present conditions by keeping in mind a few things when buying your beans. First, look for organic, bird-friendly or shade grown coffee. Shade grown means that the coffee is grown under a canopy of trees as opposed to clear cut fields, thereby preserving forests, allowing for birds and other wildlife to remain in their natural habitat, and eliminating the need for toxic chemicals. It enables farmers to preserve the soil and live sustainably off their land, as they are sustaining plants that not only protect the coffee itself, but can be utilized to produce other cash crops. Second, be on the look-out for coffee from a farmers’ or fair trade cooperative. Fair trade insures that farmers are provided a solid income, not just the "market value" of the bean itself. Coffee growers who supply the majority of the coffee market are forced to clear their lands in what are often false hopes of greater production. They are exploited and are not paid enough to live above poverty level. Fair trade prevents this and provides farmers with an opportunity to utilize their land in a more efficient, sustainable, and environmentally-friendly manner. Companies can of course arrange for fair trading with their own suppliers, however, TransFair USA—a non-profit monitoring organization—officially certifies that participating traders are following fair trade guidelines (see

A note to decaf drinkers: there are several processes that remove the caffeine from the bean, the most common of which uses chemicals that can be harmful to your health as well as to the environment. The Swiss water process, however, is chemical-free and therefore poses neither health risks nor environmental toxicity. A new process that utilizes liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) is being introduced by some companies; it is certified organic, and claims to be environmentally-friendly, while also retaining more of the flavor.

With the help of Co-op America we did some research into companies that offer organic, shade grown, and fairly traded coffee. You’ll be pleasantly surprised that their average price per pound is comparable with (if not cheaper than!) beans found at your local store; and they deliver right to your door. So, while enjoying your morning cup, you can be assured that you’ve chosen a coffee that’s as cruelty-free as you can get.

Cafe Campesino (229) 924-2468; 302 W. Lamar St., Americus, GA 31709;
Source for sustainably grown, fairly traded, completely organic coffee. Concerned with issues surrounding fair trade and working to maintain the relationship between the retail roaster and the small farmer. They focus on supporting the lives of the growers, not exploiting them. Decaf: Swiss water process. Available via Internet, mail order. Average price, $9.95 per pound. Also visit: for a network of other cooperative roasting companies.

Equal Exchange (781) 830-0303; 251 Revere St., Canton, MA 02021;
A worker owned cooperative that buys directly from coffee producers, often from co-ops and other democratically run groups. Apparently the only U.S. coffee buyer that conforms to the code of the International Federation of Alternative Traders. One hundred percent fair trade, and 80 percent of their coffee is organic, all of which is shade-grown. The non-organic varieties, however, are not guaranteed shade-grown. Decaf: liquid CO2 process. Available by Internet, mail order, and at various spots in NYC by the cup and by the pound. Average price, $8-9 per pound.

Thanksgiving Coffee Co. (800) 648-6491; P.O. Box 1918, Fort Bragg, CA 95437;
The company’s intention is to "create strategic philanthropic alliances" and return money to the communities in which the coffee was grown. They sell a large assortment of coffee varieties, including organic, shade grown, and fair trade. They are quite pro-active in the environmental and social justice movements. Visit their website for ordering information and to learn about their activism.

Headwaters International (888) 324-7872; 2105 First Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55404;
Fair-trade company that sells a line of organic coffee and buys only shade-grown coffee. Supports farmers’ cooperatives and helps producers gain more control over their natural resources. Decaf: Swiss-water process. Available by Internet, mail order, and for local Minneapolis residents, orders are delivered on bicycle. Average price, $9.50 per pound.

And What About Starbucks?

In a recent press release, Starbucks, the coffee industry’s corporate giant, stated: "From its earliest days, a central tenet of Starbucks business culture has been to contribute positively to our communities and our environment." Hearing this, one might think that Starbucks would have been the first company to shift to shade-grown—maybe even organic—coffee using fair trade practices. Yet it took mounds of pressure from concerned citizens before the company finally took notice. In April 1998, Starbucks published their Framework for Action, outlining the company’s intention to improve the conditions of the workers who grow the coffee, and of the environment in which it is grown. Last year they began promoting a limited edition of organic Mexican coffee—the single offering in their newly established ‘sustainable coffee category.’ This category was developed in response to a new goal: to have at least one coffee that is either organic, shade-grown, or fair trade available throughout the year.

Why Starbucks cannot have all three available at one time or why they don’t purchase all their coffee through fair trade, shade-grown practices is a mystery. A public relations associate was unable to answer my questions, and could not explain why the Mexican coffee is "limited" and who limits it. In addition, when asked how much of their product comes from sustainable resources (since they claim to make an effort to sell these in at least part of their coffee line), information was not disclosed—due to "competitive reasons."

For a company whose "guiding principles" include "contributing positively to our communities and environment," why does Starbucks wait until threatened by a loss of conscientious consumers before taking actions that would be in step with their own guiding principles? —R.C.


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