Between the Labels: What your coffee bean packaging really means

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It's hard not to be an informed consumer sometimes. Nearly every package in the supermarket touts two or three (or a dozen) labels on what makes this product the ideal choice for you, your community, the environment, etc.

Take eggs for example: there's free-range, organic, commercial, grain-fed, grass-fed, antibiotic free — the list of conscience-pricking labels can sometimes take up most of the carton! Because I live in a more rural area, I have it pretty easy: I can find out which local farmers have the best farming practices and the best eggs and support them at the farmers market (or since our kids are in the same grade, at the random preschool pick-up).

Unfortunately there are no coffee farming offspring in my daughter's preschool (or even on this part of the continent) so coffee cannot be a similarly nonchalant experience. With that in mind, I set out to investigate the three big labels in coffee and find out what they really mean. Read on for the truth between (or behind) the labels...

Organic

To have an organic label, beans must be produced au natural. That is, the grower can't use any chemical substances in growing the coffee beans. Obviously, this is awesome for the environment as organic fertilizers return vital nutrients to the earth during the growing process for the next go-round. Unfortunately, the cost and availability of these organic fertilizers can sometimes prohibit farmers from seeking organic certification (sometimes the cost of certification itself acts as a deterrent as well).

Look for this seal if you want USDA-certified organic coffee. 

Look for this seal if you want USDA-certified organic coffee. 

One of the USDA's standards for organic certification is that a farmer can't have used a chemical substance on the cropland for three years prior to the organic crop's harvest. Exceptions can be made though, so some USDA-certified organic coffee might still have some traces of chemical residue.

So summing up, the organic label tells you how the coffee's grown, but nothing about who grew it or what chemicals were used on the land before the farmer switched to organic farming. Organic can be a great choice, but it shouldn't be taken as a blanket statement for This is the bestest, healthiest coffee ever!  For more information, you should check out this Organic Coffee entry on Wikipedia.

Fair Trade 

Fair Trade coffee seemed to become a big thing when I first started college (most likely it was around long before then but I only noticed because that's when I started drinking coffee)

Basically, fair trade means the the bean growers are being paid viable and supporting wages for their work and beans.  The majority of what we know as fair trade standards (I.e., sustainable wages for producers and sustainable farming practices) primarily came from the 2001 and 2007 renegotiations of the International Coffee Agreement (nerd alert!).

Look for this little guy when you want to purchase fair trade coffee.

Look for this little guy when you want to purchase fair trade coffee.

To be certified and labeled as Fair Trade, coffee packers must pay Fairtrade International (FLO) for the right to use their logo, which then marks the coffee as meeting fair trade criteria. Producers aren't just buying a label, though, they're also agreeing to be audited by FLO-CERT, a for-profit business owned by Fairtrade International.

Just like the organic label, fair trade benefits and certification process are also widely debated, with some saying that it actually hurts more small farmers than it helps. If you want to venture into the pro's and con's for yourself, a good place to start is Wikipedia's exhaustively cited fair trade debate page. 

So summing up: with Fair Trade you are definitely paying for coffee that has passed the certification process by FLO-CERT. That can be a great choice, but it may not be your only choice or even the best choice for coffee farmers. Fair Trade has done a great job raising awareness of the situation coffee farmers face in many parts of the world, and the certification process is one way to ensure a modicum of fairness to farmers who work hard to grow our beans, but it's important to remember that other coffees that may not carry the label may still pay farmers well (sometimes more than Fair Trade pricing, depending on quality and economic factors like the C Market).

Shade Grown

Guess what?  Shade grown coffee is grown in the shade (of trees)!  I'm sure that utterly surprised you.

Way back when coffee plants were being hustled over to the Western Hemisphere, the farmers realized that the plants were burning in the sun and therefore needed a foliage canopy to protect them.  Since then (and with the help of science) sun-resistant coffee plants have been developed.  While these sun resistant super-plants can often produce more coffee than their shade-grown cousins, they encourage farmers to cut down trees in delicate tropical landscapes, which is not usually considered the best way to take care of the planet...

Look, a label! Look for the frog if you want shade-grown coffee...

Look, a label! Look for the frog if you want shade-grown coffee...

As you can imagine, there are a lot of environmental benefits to shade-grown coffee.  Coffee plantations with shade canopies usually foster complex and diverse ecosystems within their little (or not so little) world.  You can read about the benefits as well as the types of shade (yes! there are types of shade) in this Wikipedia article

Shade grown coffee is usually identified as Rainforest Alliance Certified, although sometimes fancy coffee roasters will simply note that the coffee is shade-grown somewhere else on the label. The Rainforest Alliance (who provides the frog label certification) is a non-profit global organization with teeth: it has developed meaningful criteria and applies them independently

As with the other two labels in this post, though, the frog label isn't the only way to determine if your coffee was grown sustainably. Some farmers may not be able to afford certification and some roasters may write what they know about a farm and it's growing practices directly on the label.

So, decisions, decisions...

So what type of coffee should you buy?  Well, yummy coffee for starters. Beyond that, it's really your choice — the labels can help but there's no magic label bullet for the most sustainable, eco-friendly and socially just coffee. If you have a local roaster or a well-informed barista, you may want to ask them for their thoughts and help picking a coffee (you'll probably get an earful!). If you don't, then make the best choice you can and remember that whatever coffee you choose it will be coffee that's been grown with a lot of very very hard work.

So brew it well. Because all labels aside, it's always sad when good coffee brews bad.