How to choose environmentally friendly & responsibly grown coffee

How to choose environmentally friendly & responsibly grown coffee

Coffee is the third most consumed beverage in the world behind only tea and water. With the growing need to keep consumers satisfied, there also comes great pressure on the ecosystems supporting the coffee industry. A few tips and tricks when shopping for your cup of joe can have a large impact on both the human communities and the ecosystems that provide this popular drink.

Shade grown coffee

A movement on the rise is the push for shade grown. Coffee grown in full sun means fields are clear-cut to make way for crops. Shade grown coffee differs greatly – some might say from the ground up. Instead of open fields, coffee plants are placed in full or partial shade under the canopy of existing trees, meaning the crop grows without the need for clear cutting precious rainforests.

By leaving the trees intact, not only are they able to continue absorbing carbon and releasing oxygen, but the reduction in habitat destruction protects a variety of wildlife. The natural habitat remains unharmed, continuing its role of supporting biodiversity. Less destruction also means the ecosystem is more stable and can better buffer against outside influences such as soil erosion or temperature shifts due to climate change.

Even the bees are happier! Pollinators prefer stable environments, where plants are rarely cut down. Other crops such as fruit and nut trees benefit from the bees and produce more fruit too, providing more economic benefits. When farmers work together and follow this practice, their plots become wildlife corridors for animals to move safely between protected sanctuaries.

How to find environment friendly & ethically grown coffee

Making eco-friendly choices when choosing coffee begins with understanding the variety of labels already found on product packaging. Here is a quick explanation of the labels that have the most rigorous environmental standards.


The UTZ organization sits at the forefront of sustainability, setting the standards for coffee, tea, cocoa and hazelnuts.

  • UTZ has separate certification standards for farmers, companies and individual products.
  • There are rigorous studies supported by UTZ to ensure best practices with the environment, suppliers and farmers all in mind.
  • Some interesting (and positive!) unintended side effects of the program are:
    • Reinforcement of women’s groups
    • Better working conditions create a more secure work force
    • Improved solidarity within the farming community
    • Reduction in corruption due to transparency
    • More investments in the community’s infrastructure

The UTZ organization recently merged with the Rainforest Alliance to streamline the process to eco-friendly certification in the United States.

Rainforest Alliance

The Rainforest Alliance’s mission is to “conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods,” and to earn this iconic frog label a product must include:

  • The use of alternatives instead of chemicals and pesticides.
  • Planting and harvesting practices that involve erosion control and avoid deforestation.
  • Water use is restricted and must have ecosystem management in mind.
  • Farm management includes strategies to improve the livelihoods of its workers and the local economy.

Bird Friendly

The purpose behind the Bird Friendly label is to create a seamless habitable space between the farmland and the natural forest.

  • The certification criteria developed by scientists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center is the most stringent on the market.
  • It specifies guidelines for everything from plant diversity to the minimum height for the tree canopy.
  • To carry the Bird Friendly label, the product must also be certified as organic (more on that later).

These labels below confirm the company has made significant efforts to reduce negative environmental impacts and may also address the human socio-economic practices of the farm.

USDA Organic

To be certified organic in the US, farming practices must comply with USDA Organic regulations.

  • Similar to the Rainforest Alliance requirements, farms must show their land management plan includes methods for avoiding soil erosion.
  • Farms must skip the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. They must also show that no pesticides were used for at least three years prior – meaning the path to organic certification is a process that involves dedication and time.

Fair Trade (also Fair Trade USA and Fair for Life)

The Fair Trade and USDA Organic labels are vital when considering the practices of international coffee growers where the rights of laborers are not protected.

  • Fair Trade is dedicated to ensuring workers on coffee farms are paid fairly.
  • Discrimination, forced labor and child labor are all prohibited.
  • Earning a higher price provides farms with an alternative to price leveraging from large coffee buyers.

When coffee is certified as both Fair Trade and Organic, producers receive a premium price boost for every pound. This has a significant impact on both the local economy and environment.

Shade grown coffee vs. unshaded coffee

Be aware that shade-grown products are not all the same. The best version utilizes native trees to provide cover over the coffee most of the day. Using naturally existing trees keeps the plants diverse, which is perfect for animal species. Other shade-grown methods involve non-native trees such as those used for timber. This reduces both plant and animal diversity on the farm, and does not provide as much shade.

When a forest is clear cut to grow coffee or other cash crops there is a loss of migratory and tropical bird and animal habitat. There is also a greater risk of flooding and land slides for the people who live near the coffee farms due to soil erosion. Growing coffee in the shade allows people, birds, plants and animals to thrive.

Don’t forget the tea

Tea still holds on tight to the second spot when it comes to worldwide consumption. Many people prefer tea over coffee, especially as a drink in the evenings or when they want to relax. By following the same guidelines as above, it is easy to switch your tea to something more sustainable.