Dear Umbra,

I am a seriously indulgent coffee drinker. Lately, there have been a ton of “green” coffee shops popping up. I like to support local coffee shops, and I want to believe that they are “shade-grown, fair-trade, organic,” but I’ve wondered if they are being honest. How do I know if they are legit?

Claudia Gutierrez
San Diego, Calif.

Dearest Claudia,

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Shade-grown, fair-trade, and organic are certifications, not just buzzwords. All three resulted from our wanting a way to ascertain, when buying coffee, that our addiction supported sustainable agriculture and fair labor standards, rather than displaced workers toiling in serfdom on devastated land. You can determine legit-dom by doing a little sleuthing: check for labels — coffee meeting all three standards is called “triple certified” — and ask if the roaster itself has been certified.

Sip, sip, hooray!

Here’s what to look for: Fair-trade certification indicates producers and workers who receive a fair price for their goods, and a production process that considers social, economic, and environmental factors. It requires annual inspections, fees, and filings to be sure producers continue meeting the standards. At present, it is controlled by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, which is made up of national organizations; the U.S. arm, TransFair USA, uses a (hopefully familiar) label on certified products. The fair-trade movement is an excellent hope for sustainable development worldwide, and definitely worth supporting.

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Organic certification is a similar process, but focuses on production, not price or labor specifications. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements provides an umbrella organization and voluntary agreement on organic basics. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies organic producers and processors, and some private and state entities do as well. There is a (hopefully familiar) label in this case as well, and also no shortage of controversy.

While organic and fair-trade are organized and widespread eco-labels, shade-grown certification is a bit less formalized at this point. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the Rainforest Alliance both offer third-party labels that verify the maintenance of diverse forest and bird habitat on coffee plantations. From what I’ve seen, shade-grown is not a make-or-break certification for addicts, in part because it is least prevalent and least specific.

It might be worth a spin around the links I’ve provided, to better understand what you’re hoping and paying for with eco-labels. Otherwise, follow my recommendation that Fair Trade is the first label to look for and demand at your brewery. Then, begin your sleuthing.


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