Is Your Coffee Green?

Appeared in Orange Coast Voice newspaper January 2008, page 11.

Is Your Coffee Green?
How to find your eco-responsible coffee shop

by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

Not the winner: Starbucks does not report percentage of coffee grown without synthetic chemicals.

Not the winner: Starbucks does not report percentage of coffee grown without synthetic chemicals.

It takes 12 coffee trees to support a 2-cup-a-day coffee habit, according to the Sightline Institute, a non-profit research center in Seattle. And not all coffee is created equal from an environmental standpoint.

People who frequent specialty coffee stores seek a perfect brew served up in a connoisseur’s ambiance. If you are one of them, but also care how eco-friendly your cup of java is, you might want to know how different establishments stack up environmentally. A little background on how coffee is grown and labeled is essential.

Coffee Talk: The dizzying selection that entices the gourmet coffee drinker is every bit linked to the varying conditions under which coffee is cultivated. Most varieties come from more tropical areas of Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia; some are grown in hot, moist conditions and others at cooler elevations that generally produce the finest beans.

Traditionally, coffee has been grown under the shade of a multilayered, native forest of fruit and hardwood trees whose canopies provide a rich habitat for multitudes of bird and other animal and insect species. Because the complexity of this natural habitat is virtually self-sustaining when the ecosystem is healthy, shade-coffee inherently preserves biodiversity.

To make way for higher-yield, full-sun-grown varieties of beans, introduced in the 1970s, many coffee farmers sawed down their local shade trees, decimating bird and other wildlife populations along with native forests. The unintended consequences have been soil depletion plus the proliferation of insect pests previously kept in check by birds and other insect eaters. Growers have resorted to liberal application of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, all which can kill off friendly insects and cause real pests to flourish. Human health can be more directly affect by synthetic fertilizers, which can contaminate groundwater used for drinking.

As there is no set standard for what merits the label “shade-grown” coffee, there is potential for abuse; e.g. a grower might make the claim based on a few token trees. In practice, it signifies that someone in the chain of grower, importer, and roaster (i.e. not an independent party) has made the determination.

A “Certified Organic” label means adherence to strict growing standards: at least 95 percent of the coffee must be grown in soil free of synthetic chemicals for at least three years; and crop rotation and other sustainable growing practices must be followed. If it is 100 percent organic, the label will say so. Inspection is carried out independently, by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) or the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA). According to World Bank estimates, less than one percent of coffee today is Certified Organic.

However, not all coffee that meets organic standards is labeled as such, generally because smaller farms cannot afford the inspection fee. As a consumer, it’s helpful to know that most coffee grown without synthetic chemicals is also shade-grown since it’s generally harder to control pests naturally when coffee is grown in the sun.

A “Bird Friendly” label is nearly synonymous with organic and shade-grown. It is the stamp of approval of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which requires farming without synthetic chemicals and under a variety of native shade trees. Their biologists identified over 90 percent fewer bird species (both native and migrating types) in sun versus shade coffee plantations in Mexico and Columbia.

Coffee farmers can earn the “Rainforest Alliance” certification seal if they meet a host of strictly enforced standards “for protecting wildlife, wild lands, workers’ rights and local communities.” How much forest canopy must be preserved is spelled out in detail, so coffee drinkers looking for shade-grown can be confident they are getting the real deal. Crops are not necessarily organic, although agrochemical use is strictly limited and well monitored.

A “UTZ Certified” coffee comes with the guarantee from an independent foundation confirms that the producer has maintained transparency and traceability in the application of any agrochemicals and that substances banned in the U.S. or E.U. have not been used.

Orange County’s Big Three: In Orange County, the biggest specialty chains are Starbucks, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

At Starbucks, the standard menu lists two shade-grown and two Certified Organic coffees. One in-store tea is Certified Organic.

Starbucks relies largely on its own guidelines to ensure that the environment is protected. Under the company’s so-called Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices, some agrochemical use is permitted, although the most toxic sprays (dubbed “dirty dozen”) are not allowed. In 2006, Starbucks purchased 53 percent of its coffees from C.A.F.E.-approved suppliers. Starbucks does  not report, however, on the percentage of their coffees that are grown without synthetic chemicals or under a shade canopy, per company spokesperson Elise Chisholm.

Peet’s generally carries one variety each of a coffee and tea that is Certified Organic. An additional coffee is UTZ Certified. No coffee variety is specifically Rainforest Alliance, although beans with this certification do contribute to some of the blends. And, according to spokesperson Erica Hess, “Peet’s coffee as a general rule is shade-grown.”

Unlike Starbucks and Peet’s, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is privately-owned. Its stores stock a single 100 percent Certified Organic coffee but no Certified Organic tea. However, company spokesperson Michele LaMont claims that all the coffees are grown “free of synthetic chemicals” and “most are grown with the help of shade.” The Coffee Bean sets and monitors its social and environmental policies internally.

And the Eco Crown Goes to… None of the above. Instead, it is shared by two independently owned establishments, The Lost Bean Organic Coffee & Tea on Newport Boulevard in Tustin and K’ean Coffee on Westcliff Drive in Newport Beach. These two have gone the extra mile to do right by the environment.

As the name implies, all the coffees and teas at The Lost Bean are Certified Organic, as is the milk and some of the pastries. Over 90 percent of the coffee beans are shade-grown, and seven percent are Rainforest Alliance certified.

Though more expensive, the plastic cups for cold beverages (and clamshells used for carryout foods) are made from a corn-based resin (polylactic acid) and are certified compostable (the major chains still use cheaper, petroleum-based cold cups).

The cutlery is biodegradable, made from 100 percent potato starch rather than non-biodegradable polystyrene. Low energy, compact fluorescent bulbs provide lighting. Trash gets sorted by hand on site so that everything possible, even paper towels, is recycled. Furthermore, 100 percent of  the store’s electricity use is offset by the purchase of renewable energy credits.

The Lost Beans’ owners Zeke Covarrubias and Bodie Berg are guided by the philosophy that “you don’t sell coffee at the expense of fragile ecosystems or the health of people who grow or drink it.” And their plans for their second store are to go even further-use countertops made from compressed paper, introduce zero electricity light fixtures that use rerouted sunlight, and install solar roofing.

At K’ean Coffee, a similar philosophy is expressed throughout the store. The owner Martin Diedrich (founder & previous owner of Diedrich Coffee Co.) grew up on a family-owned coffee farm in Central America and has nothing less than an encyclopedic knowledge of how to run a sustainable business, from soil to cup. Depending on the season, 40 to 70 percent of his coffees are Certified Organic and Fair Trade. A few carry Bird Friendly certification, and he is particularly excited to offer a couple that are Rainforest Alliance certified since he was involved in that organization’s genesis. Twelve of his 17 teas are Certified Organic and one is Fair Trade. Organic milk is available, but does cost extra.

Diedrich is proud to sell his coffee in biodegradable paper bags (lined with a corn-based resin), something of a store exclusive and a reflection that the beans are literally roasted on site daily. Similarly, all cold drinks are served in cornbased cups. The woodwork at K’ean is made from recycled teak. Diedrich personally drives truckloads of used plastic milk jugs, cardboard boxes, and newspapers to be recycled three times a week. A particularly homey touch intended to reduce use of throwaway hot cups-regulars who bring in a personal mug from home will find it washed and ready at their next visit!

You might expect that the added costs of such super green practices are passed on to customers. Not so. For a 12-oz brew, compare the $1.55 charged at The Lost Bean and $1.60 at K´ean to the $1.60 at Starbucks and Peet’s and $1.70 at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

The coffee store ritual is for many one of life’s purest, even essential pleasures. But if your concerns extend beyond taste to also lightening your eco footprint, the next time you pop in for a “fix” bring your own mug, digest a few coffee bag labels, and don’t be shy about telling the  management you want your roast as green as possible.

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