From Aditi Sen

coffeeLike millions of people in this country, I need my morning cup of java to become a fully functioning human being.

And as a climate-conscious consumer, I thought I was doing my part for the planet by buying coffee that was labeled organic. It turns out, organic coffee may not necessarily be my best bet from an environmental perspective.

In its natural form, coffee is a shade-loving shrub that grows near the tropics. It has traditionally been cultivated under a diverse canopy of trees, which provides a habitat for a rich array of life including several species of North American migratory birds. The forest canopy also extracts carbon from the atmosphere, protects against soil erosion, and provides natural nutrients to the coffee crop, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

But more and more, these days, our coffee comes from full sun plantations. Trees are replaced by acres of coffee bushes that need to be sustained with large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides. A recent study suggests that the proportion of land used to cultivate shade grown coffee, relative to the total land area of coffee cultivation, has fallen by nearly 20 percent globally since 1996. The destruction of the forest cover under which coffee is grown has ravaged many fragile ecosystems and is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact tropical deforestation is the second leading contributor of carbon emissions globally.

But there’s good news, for coffee addicts like me, who would like to indulge in their addiction, but not at the planet’s expense.

If you are looking to lower the environmental footprint of your coffee, here are three simple tricks:

1. Check the certification labels

Certification gives consumers a clue that the coffee has been grown sustainably. But if you’ve ever been to the coffee aisle and searched for sustainable beans, you’ll know that there’s a bewildering array of coffee labels out there. It’s enough to make your head spin!

Here’s a cheat sheet for making sense of these labels:

Shade-grown.

This is coffee that been grown naturally under a canopy of trees. It is widely considered to be the most environmentally-friendly coffee label on the market. Almost all shade grown coffee is likely to be organic, and to be cultivated by small farmers who practice traditional agriculture.

Today, most stores, coffee shops, and specialty coffee retailers carry some brand of shade-grown coffee. I’ve managed to find a few varieties of reasonably-priced shade-grown coffee at my neighborhood Trader Joe’s.

But there is a slight catch. While the shade grown label appears on many coffees, this designation is not regulated under any certification program. And as such, there’s a high level of variability in terms of what constitutes “shade-grown.”

If you want to be sure that the beans meet strict standards and have been independently verified, a shade grown coffee that is Rainforest Alliance or (better still) Bird-Friendly certified is the way to go.

Rainforest Alliance

Coffee from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms is grown using methods that promote biodiversity, conserve natural resources, and help improve farmers’ livelihoods.  The Rainforest Alliance certification also has specific criteria for shade cover.

Bird-Friendly

Certified by scientists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Bird-Friendly coffee is organic and meets strict requirements for both the amount of shade and the type of forest in which the coffee is grown.

While many conservationists will say that Bird-Friendly is the most rigorous certification available for shade grown coffee, it may be hard to find in your local supermarket or coffee shop. The standard is so stringent that only a small fraction of coffee farms can qualify.

Certified Organic

As with other organic crops, certified organic coffee is grown without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Depending on your grocery store, certified organic coffee can be relatively easy to find, compared to other types of certification labels.

While the certification does not entail any criteria for shade cover, I have found that several varieties of organic coffee also carry the shade grown label.

Fair Trade

Fair Trade labeling helps to ensure that the workers on coffee farms get paid fairly for the work they do. While fair trade label does not automatically indicate that any environmentally friendly practices were followed, it is often used in combination with the organic label.

And I know it’s true: certified, sustainable coffee is just more expensive. Certified coffee will cost you about 10 cents more than non-certified coffee per cup. But in return, you are guaranteed a coffee that has been sustainably grown. And it’s likely to taste a lot better too.

2. Consider buying coffee directly from a specialty coffee roaster retailer

Labels and certifications are not the only solution. Some coffee roasters and sellers such as Grounds for Change, Sustainable Harvest, and Dean’s Beans are creating an alternative business model. They forge direct relationships with coffee growing communities to find beans that are grown and harvested sustainably.

While many would consider specialty coffee to be a high-end product that caters to coffee snobs, I have found that it’s actually not as expensive as it seems. I used to work in an office that ran on caffeine. When we bought in bulk of 5 lbs or more, it cost only about 10 cents more per ounce compared to conventional coffee.

3. Avoid blends from brands like Folgers and Maxwell House which contain a higher percentage of robusta.

Folgers and Maxwell House are the country’s leading coffee brands. But blends from these super market brands contain a higher proportion of cheaper, lower-grade robusta, which is typically grown in full-sun plantations. Smuckers, the makers of Folgers and Dunkin’ Donuts, was criticized by its own shareholders in 2011 for not being transparent about the environmental footprint of its beans

There’s another compelling reason to switch to a sustainable brew. New studies estimate that half the land needed to sustain current levels of coffee production could disappear by 2050 due to climate change induced shifts in temperature and rainfall. Mitigating the climate impacts of coffee would help ensure that we can continue to enjoy our favorite beverage in the decades to come.

Aditi Sen has worked at the intersection of environment, climate and sustainable development issues for almost a decade, with organizations like the World Bank and the Verified Carbon Standard. She is a longtime DC resident, a mom, and a foodie, and blogs about sustainability at thegreeninc.org. Follow her on Twitter: @urbanwonk_mom