Time for a coffee break, but figuring out the maze of ethical labelling on shelves can leave you spinning. Here's a quick guide to decoding all that mumbo-jumbo that comes with your brew (and, no, I'm not talkin' any of that grande half-caf, no-whip BS).
No nasty chemicals have been used to grow or process these beans, and special attention is paid to maintaining soil fertility and biodiversity. Traditional canopy cover keeps your coffee cool and happy in the shade. As bucolic as all of that sounds, there are no criteria for protecting workers or promising them a fair wage despite how labour-intensive coffee farming can be. (You try pulling weeds by hand.) Best in combo with the fair trade label.
CERTIFIED FAIR TRADE
Grown by small-scale farmers who are better paid than their counterparts and are part of indy democratic co-ops. Ecologically sensitive practices should be in place, but the coffee won't be organic unless the label says so. The fair trade system isn't perfect, and policing half a million farmers around the world to make sure they're living up to the standards is certainly difficult. Plus, growers only make a fraction of the $10 to ?$18 a bag you might pay in the store. Still, at least you know your java is funding access to health care, education and low- or no-interest loans. Best to look for fair trade beans from small vendors like Merchants of Green Coffee instead of big daddy gouger Starbucks.
Planted the traditional way, under the forest canopy where it's moist and cool. Sun-grown coffee may have higher yields, but it requires way more synthetic fertilizers and attracts fewer birds (a natural pest control), leading to more pesticide use.
Shade-grown and certified organic from Latin America. (The criteria were developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center of the National Zoo in Washington, DC). Every time you buy a bag, 25 cents goes to the Smithsonian's research and conservation programs.
Not organic, but family farmers use integrated pest management techniques to reduce pesticide use. Other sustainable practices include growing coffee in the shade and planting native plants in buffer zones along rivers and streams. Workers should also be paid fairly and be given access to clean drinking water.
Don't assume the word "green" has anything to do with the environment. This just tells you the coffee hasn't yet been roasted. That's not to say it can't be green and fair trade, organic, etc.
Two steps beyond organic. Really, you can't get beans grown any more in sync with the earth than ones grown according to the cycles of the moon and the stars and sprinkled with water in which crystals have marinated. Some seriously holistic java, man.