Cuppa Joe, Mud, Dirt, Cupped Lightning, Robot Fuel - this magical elixir has inspired countless poets, scientists, and philosophers.
And it’s delicious!
But there is a ‘dark side’ to the coffee business…
Poor wages for coffee farmers.
Unfair treatment of women. Clearing natural forest to exclusively grow coffee trees. And excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers that damage the environment.
Did you know that coffee could soon become an endangered plant species (3)?
Worrying, right? The next cup could be your last!
Oh, er… and um, that would be a shame for the coffee species too, of course.
Like with all big businesses, pennies are pinched to maximize margins - often at the expense of local workers and the local environment.
Fortunately, some socially conscious coffee companies are changing the game and the industry is turning over a new leaf.
Socially / Environmentally Considerate Coffee Companies
We all want to support ethical and sustainable businesses, but just what exactly does that mean in the coffee world.
Here we break down four key aspects to the social and environmental responsibility of a coffee company.
1. Shade Grown: Larry’s Coffee Company
Meet Larry. Larry’s job title is ‘Maestro’, which seems perfectly fitting as he conducts a well orchestrated operation of sourcing and roasting beans in a sustainable way.
Headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, Larry’s Coffee Company ethically sources certified organic coffee from fair trade cooperatives all over the world.
In fact, they sport so many eco responsible certifications that they can barely fit them all on the coffee bag: USDA Certified Organic, Certified B-Corp, Certified Fair Trade, Fair Trade Proof, Shade Grown Friendly to Birds, Cooperative Coffees, CRS Fair Trade, and Kosher Pareve.
Many of us have heard about Fair Trade and Organic, so let’s shed some light on what Shade Grown really means.
Coffee plants naturally grow within the shade of a forest canopy. Often however, a forest is cleared to grow coffee as a monoculture.
This makes the trees grow faster under intense sunlight, but unfortunately increases carbon emissions through deforestation, degrades soil health, causes erosion, and destroys habitats for birds and other wildlife species.
Additionally, trees grown under direct sunlight tend to require more chemicals to remain healthy.
With coffee farms covering more than an estimated 27 million acres (4), we’re talking lots of land and potentially lots of chemicals.
So Shade Grown is healthy for every part of the ecosystem.
Okay, okay… But is their coffee any good?
You bet your bean it is! You don’t last 25 years like Larry’s without cooking up a mean roast!
And they keep it fresh, by continually partnering with new coffee farmers to keep offering a new range of microlot coffees (5).
Love it Larry. Keep up the music, Maestro!
2. Women’s Empowerment: City Girl Coffee Co
Who is she? She’s the sassy new coffee company on the block, and she means business.
What kind of business? Women’s equality and empowerment, with an organic flavor.
Gender inequality, unequal distribution of income, social and even physical abuse take place in many countries where coffee is grown. Even though women may work the land equally or even more than men, they will often receive unequal equal pay and treatment, and certainly not be allowed to make important decisions.
Unfortunately gender discrimination affects millions of women around the world.
This provides an amazing opportunity for brands like City Girl Coffee Co. to support millions of women in the coffee supply chain. And for regular folks like us to support socially responsible brands like City Girl.
The company itself is founded and for the most part staffed by women. They’ve partnered with Cafe Femenino Foundation and the International Women’s Coffee Alliance to further their mission of “Bringing Equality and Awareness to Women of the Coffee Industry.”
City Girl Coffee Co. puts their money where their mouth is. They give a portion of every sale to support women-centered organizations within the coffee’s country of origin.
Even better- it’s certified by the WBENC (The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council), which is a certification that validates a business is at least 51 percent owned, controlled, operated and managed by a woman or women.
3. Organic: Java Planet Organic Coffee
“Best coffee on the planet and the best coffee for the planet!”
Now that’s a bold claim. Nevertheless, Java Planet backs it up by ensuring all their coffee is certified as organic. Further, they confirm that at least 90 % of the coffee is sourced as Fair Trade.
This small family business in Tampa, Florida started with the mission “to educate people about the importance of buying and consuming organic products.”
And they’ve been walking the talk for ten years and counting!
These days it’s all the rage to be organic. Organic this, organic that - but what does it really mean?
What is Organic Coffee?
Simply put, organic coffee is grown without the addition of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
But that sounds terrible! Why would we want to use nasty chemicals like on our precious coffee beans?
The full story of this goes back to the move away from coffee growing naturally within a forest canopy, to being monocropped in direct sunlight.
This ‘technified agriculture’ started in the 1970’s, destroying millions of acres of natural habitat, and driving out many native species.
Most noticeable has been the extinction of many species of songbirds in Central America. Where once there was an orchestra in the tree-tops, the coffee plantations are now silent.
‘Industrial coffee’ is a disaster, not only for human health but for the entire environment.
Organic coffee is the healthy option for all of us, whether we’re selfish or altruistic in our motivation.
4. Fair Trade: Pachamama Coffee
Fair Trade coffee means that everyone involved from the bean to the cup is compensated in just way. Typically, the weakest link in this supply-chain is the farmer, who can barely scrape by- despite toiling in the sun.
So really, what could be more fair than a coffee company owned entirely by the farmers?!
Pachamama is a cooperative of small-scale farmers from Peru to Mexico in which the farmers run the show. The entire project germinated from the seed of an idea, when Raúl del Aguila in Peru asked, "Why can’t farmers roast and sell their own coffee?”.
From this humble beginning in 2006, the cooperative has branched off throughout the Americas, as well as joining with farmers in the homeland of coffee, Ethiopia.
It’s impressive to realize that Pachamama is now made up of more than 140,000 small-scale farmers. By pooling their resources, Pachamama is able to provide stable pricing and services that give hope to family farmers around the world.
They use only organic methods of fertilization and pest control. In the words of the company themselves, “Small is good.”
And you guessed it - since the farmers own 100 % of the business, they keep 100 % of its profits! Now that’s Fair Trade!
Now you could imagine that 140,000 farmers all trying to coordinate a massive operation could be a logistical nightmare but there’s no problem. Since most of their beans are sold to North America, they simply send all the green beans to California. There, they are roasted daily and distributed across the United States. Easy beansy!
Can I still drink my coffee and feel good about it?
With all this talk of deforestation, gender discrimination, and use of pesticides, the whole coffee biz could easily give one a bitter taste in the mouth. But it’s really not all gloom and doom. That’s why we’ve highlighted four coffee companies that stand out for their socially and environmentally responsible practices.
And these are only four of many…
In the end, there are four key characteristics to look for when choosing your beans.
You want Organic, Fair Trade, and Shade Grown beans that Treat Women Fairly. And fortunately, an ethically conscious coffee company will usually provide some combination of these.
Sure, we’ve highlighted four awesome coffee companies but more important is to know what to look for in a coffee biz.
But here are two key takeaways from this.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the gender inequality all-too-often encountered in coffee-growing countries is under-appreciated and not-often acknowledged- even by socially-aware coffee companies.
So it’s powerful to support those brands that emphasize women’s empowerment.
And secondly, if you find beans that Shade Grown, the chances are they haven’t needed pesticide or fertilizer to grow, and they’re embedded in a natural forest environment without any clear-felling or monocropping.
Shade Grown is under-appreciated. It may not sound as sexy as Organic, but it might mean even more as it indicates the coffee beans were really grown in a natural setting.
Making Coffee Taste Even Better
It’s hard to believe that coffee could taste any better than it already does.
But by supporting amazing businesses like Larry’s Coffee Company, City Girl Coffee Co, Java Planet Organic Coffee, and Pachamama Coffee, you can enjoy your morning joe and be left with a sweet after taste, knowing your supporting socially and environmentally sustainable enterprises.
You really can make the world a better place one cup at a time.