Photo: What's the eco-friendliest coffee?

There are significant costs associated with organic certification at the farm and supplier level. (Credit: Nestle via Flickr)

I drink extra hot, low-fat, double-shot lattes in my own mug. For years I've forked-out three bucks and change for my fair trade, organic, bird- and farmer-friendly caffeine fix.

Derek with Canterbury Coffee answers your questions about eco-friendlier java!

What's with conventional coffee?

Conventional coffee plantations are monocultures with large environmental footprints because cleared land is unsustainable without heavy fertilizer and pesticide use. Conventional coffees are "cash crops" — nothing else grows alongside.

Why does eco-friendly coffee cost more?

There are significant costs associated with organic certification at the farm and supplier level. To remain competitive, some of these are passed to the consumer.

Conventional farming produces higher yields with chemical fertilizers. Premiums increase the organic growers' bottom-lines. Farmers can make about the same profit with a lower yield.

For a roaster or supplier, the premium for organic or eco-friendly coffee is approximately 20 to 30 cents extra per pound of green beans.

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How can I identify fair trade coffee?

Look for third party certification such as Transfair (Canada and U.S.) or the World Fair Trade Organization (common in Europe).

Many small coffee companies have developed their own certifications, such as Direct Fair Trade or Direct Trade. But without third party verification, the onus is on consumers to decide if they feel these direct trade companies are walking the walk.

What eco-labels should coffee drinkers look for?

The most important certification is organic. Most organic farms are inherently bird-friendly and have shade cover. Fair trade has to do with fair labour practices like gender equity, working conditions and ensuring a liveable wage for farm workers. It does not touch on farming methods. There are conventional farms that use pesticides and are certified fair-trade.

What does an eco-friendlier coffee plantation look like?

Sustainable plantations are biodiverse. They have food or other crops growing alongside coffee plants. Many have "bird corridors"—long strips of untouched land between fields that allow birds, insects, and other wildlife to safely travel from forest canopies to lower altitudes.

How does eco-friendlier coffee benefit farmers?

Organic farming is healthier for consumers, but the biggest benefit is to farmers because there's no exposure to chemical pesticides used in conventional coffee growing.

Is your morning coffee eco-friendly?

Comment on this blog to win a Canterbury Coffee prize package. Note: the draw has closed but congrats to Ruth of Courtenay, BC!

Lindsay Coulter, Queen of Green

March 12, 2012

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May 07, 2013
11:09 AM

Agree with John — soil recovery could take years, decades, even centuries.. Who knows. With all the poison that the earth absorbs, it’s really hard to estimate.

Jun 25, 2012
2:03 AM

Fair trade coffee refers to coffee purchased directly from growers for more than the market price. It is a fair trade certified product.Fair trade coffee refers to coffee purchased directly from growers for more than the market price. Fair trade coffee is a fair trade certified product. fair trade coffee

May 06, 2012
11:10 PM

We live in Queensland, Australia and grow our own coffee beans. My husband dries, roasts, grinds and then makes the most delicious coffee I have ever tasted. No food miles and the coffee is grown organically (our milk is local biodynamic and in it's natural state!) and there's a lot of love gone into producing it. We also grow plenty of herbs for pots of tea. These are all easy to grow in our climate, but something that most people dont think of. Maybe others who grow their own food could also consider plants like coffee as they are so worth growing.

Apr 19, 2012
8:38 PM

I am a grade 6 kid and I also want to help the environment.

Apr 13, 2012
4:58 AM

We have been enjoying Fair Trade coffee for many, many years now. In the beginning, when it was more expensive, it was our "treat" But now, it's well priced, and here in the Annapolis Valley, of Nova Scotia, we have many brands to choose from. Our favourite is Just Us Fair Trade/Organic. MMm, so delicious!! Their Store/Roasting place is actually here, also:) I urge you to Google Just Us…and explore:) Then, if you are able, come visit us in the Valley…and have a delicious cup of coffee.

Apr 07, 2012
8:47 PM

I've been drinking fair trade for years — and am getting friends and guests hooked on it too! I go through a lot of coffee, but it's worth the money. Tastes like justice instead of tasting like junk. I also preach on it at church — and parish council meetings are at my house now, partly because of the coffee!

Apr 06, 2012
3:26 PM

Great article. You know I buy fairtrade coffee at club price. So it's not even difficult to buy anymore.

Apr 04, 2012
3:53 PM

Very interesting ! I would love to find out what brands and main coffee shops are certified and which ones to avoid! I'm guessing no more Tim Hortons coffee for me !

Apr 04, 2012
5:07 AM

Thanks for helping to keep us informed- I think one of the most important ways we can all contribute to sustainable living is by asking questions, reading labels and making thoughtful choices!

Apr 03, 2012
5:03 PM

Thank for the great information. I can't live without my morning coffee. I will do my best to make sure it is fair trade.

Apr 03, 2012
4:43 PM

Good reminder that there's nothing simple about a good cup of coffee. Appreciate both your column and the feedback of your readers in keeping this issue in the forefront of our shopping consideration.

Apr 03, 2012
3:40 PM

I have successfully and happily converted my boyfriend to only shade-grown, bird-friendly organic coffee from Birds

Apr 03, 2012
2:45 PM

I only buy shade grown, fair trade and organic coffee in that order of preference, because if they have stripped the land to plant then it's not good for anyone.

Apr 03, 2012
9:34 AM

I only ever buy the fair trade organic coffee. I am happy to see that you are informing more of our general public about how important this practice can be. Cheers to the Queen of Green.

Apr 02, 2012
4:06 PM

Well explained in a friendly, consumer friendly manner…thank you Deborah

Mar 29, 2012
12:49 PM

I love that we are now starting to look at all the "little" things we do each day that affect the world in a big way.

Grabbing that cuppa joe is a lot more than just a quick pick me up…..

Mar 29, 2012
12:44 PM

Costco is a great place to get organic and fair trade coffee…they currently sell Saltspring Island Coffee, Ethical Bean and Level Ground for $16-$17 for two pounds. Makes it a little easier to make the right choice :)

Mar 28, 2012
1:30 PM

I drink instant coffee in the morning. Just as I was thinking "where's the fairtrade instant coffee?", I found it! But its only available in a little store that is not easily accessible in winter (I'm in a wheelchair). Maybe I should stock up. Why is it so hard to find?

Mar 24, 2012
2:06 PM

I have been drinking fair trade coffee for years but didn't know about the importance of organic as well, so now I'll check for that as well. .

Mar 21, 2012
8:53 PM

I love organic everything. My mornings begin with a fresh grind of bold organic coffee beans percolated to perfection usually, or occasionally French pressed for a mix it up treat. I also add a splash of organic Avion milk from those old fashion glass milk bottles to complete my cup of joe and get my morning started right.

Mar 21, 2012
4:12 PM

The quality and taste is definately worth the slightly more pricey bean. Taking care of the farmers and the land and the birds is worth it!

Mar 21, 2012
12:35 PM

Thanks for a great article. Through education people can see why it's so important to spend a little on their coffee. Keep up the good work.

Mar 21, 2012
12:17 PM

I love that people are finally voicing concerns about how everyday items are produced. Thank you.

Mar 21, 2012
12:10 PM

Thanks for the insights Lindsay!

I've long been an advocate of creating 'bird corridors' all across North America, and anywhere there's significant agricultural use of land. Imagine if every farmer's field was bordered by regionally appropriate long strips of habitat for birds and other animals.

Mar 21, 2012
11:29 AM

It's too bad there are such substantial additional costs to organic certification.
However, it is necessary to regulate the farmers claiming their products to be organic. This is why it is important to support those that do. Interesting article!

Mar 21, 2012
11:12 AM

Sorry the link in my previous message is not working. Here it is again: Programmable Art

or access it through the main site:


Mar 21, 2012
10:57 AM

I know some more commercial brands are trying to better their practices. Coffee is one of my bad habits (environmentally) because of frugality.

When I take only small steps somewhere, I try to take bigger steps in other places.

Mar 21, 2012
10:55 AM

I drink organic fairtrade coffee… also to be more environmentally friendly — I use a coffee press (no paper filter) and after brewing, I use a strainer to remove it from my press and the coffee grinds are used as fertilizer in my garden :)

Mar 21, 2012
10:55 AM

I tend to buy Jumping Bean or Just Us Coffee, since their fair trade and local (Atlantic Canadian) roasters, I always feel ethically better when getting my caffeine fix. I tend to also buy fair trade organic for my work, as other wise I know someone else would buy "whatever's on sale"

Mar 20, 2012
12:06 PM

I wish I could grow my own coffee. I'd be so bird-friendly …

Mar 18, 2012
9:11 AM

So glad you explain fair trade coffee as well as organic. Daily decisions make big, beautiful changes!

Mar 17, 2012
4:18 PM

I enjoyed reading this article. I think we should all pay more attention to how our food consumption affects the environment, human health, as well as animals and plants in their natural habitats. Most people are not aware of these issues and are either unable or unwilling to pay a premium for fair trade products, but I am hoping with articles like this and other awareness campaigns more and more people see that it is in the interest of all us to move towards more sustainable agricultural practices. Some of my students are exploring these environmental issues and they have created great artwork some of which are posted on this site: Programmable Art

Mar 16, 2012
4:18 PM

Thanks for the wonderful information. I love my coffee and I mostly buy organic coffee but I think I will pay a lot more attention to the labels going forward!

Mar 16, 2012
3:07 PM

It will be a great day when Fair Trade production is the mainstream. Coffee is a daily consumption for SO many people, it ought to be produced in a manner by which the workers at every level are working in a safe and healthy environment, that the environment in which it is produced is as sustainable as possible and that the consumer recieved not only a quality product but one which comes from a truly positive cycle. Here's to hoping we see more people choose for better production of coffee and all consumables!

Mar 16, 2012
12:06 PM

I try to learn one new thing a day and work on inplimenting one eco change as often as I learn something new. So thanks for the facts. :)

Mar 16, 2012
11:14 AM

Yup, my mornin' cuppa is eco-friendly! Always buy organic, fair trade, and local, when possible. Would love to try Canterbury Coffee!

Mar 16, 2012
9:57 AM

What are your thoughts on 'Direct Trade'?

Mar 14, 2012
3:49 PM

according to the label it is but i may have to look further into it to be sure.

Mar 14, 2012
1:29 PM

Paying more for Eco friendly coffee seems a small price to pay (pun intended) to ensure ethical working conditions for thousands!

Mar 14, 2012
1:21 PM

I've never tried Cantebury Coffee but I will make an effort to do so now. Good information in this article. It's nice to support local…

I always joke to my wife that I'm going to work at Cantebury one day because we live close to the Richmond location and I could walk to work:)

Mar 14, 2012
1:17 PM

This is great information…thanks for the clarification regarding 3rd party certifications. You are right, a company can put whatever they want on their label but it doesn't mean it's necessarily true. I do my best to support local and organic products and companies.

Mar 14, 2012
12:17 PM

As a coffee enthusiast myself, I think this is a great message to get out to the public. So many people do not know where their coffee comes from! I roast my own organic, fair trade coffee beans from home from an ethically sound company in California called "Sweet Maria's" Would love to buy beans from a local Canadian equivalent to cut down on transportation costs. Thanks again.

Mar 14, 2012
12:05 PM

This poses a great question. I'm actually not certain if my morning coffee is eco-friendly or not, but I will definitely need to find out now before I buy anymore!

Mar 13, 2012
6:21 AM

About 10 years ago, I founded a coffee roasting company to highlight the relationship between the coffee you drink and the Birds you see (or, increasingly don't see) in your parks and back yards. We chose to address the problem of winter habitat loss for our migratory birds by roasting and marketing certified Shade Grown coffee in North America. We started by purchasing certified Bird Friendly® coffee where possible and filled in the rest of the line with coffee described as "Shade Coffee" — as we were told that is was "inherently Bird Friendly". As time went on and we wanted to increase our proportion of Certified Bird Friendly coffee, we decided we'd work with the existing farms and help them get certified. Since they are already certified Organic, no big deal right? Wrong! In every case, we found that the source was not certifiable because the ecosystem had collapsed under tree thinning and other agricultural pressures.

It turns out that the Bird Friendly criteria are very specific (see here: ) — so simply having shade is not enough. Simply being organic is not enough. There needs to be a functioning ecosystem for the farm to act as a habitat. These criteria have been developed by the Scientists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and published in peer reviewed journals and generally accepted by the Scientific community.

So, in answer to the question — "What's the eco-friendliest coffee?" It is Certified Bird Friendly coffee. We urge consumers to seek this coffee out an support the farmers and roasters who are working together to preserve this valuable habitat. And we challenge all coffee marketers, such as the one mentioned above, to help save the phenomenon of songbird migration by sourcing and offering certified Bird Friendly coffees.

Mar 12, 2012
5:12 PM

I always look around for the most locally sourced and locally roasted organic fair-trade brand. It does cost more than conventional coffee but the taste is very noticeable when you find the good stuff. I am lucky to be in the western provinces as there are a lot of options to choose from that are locally roasted.

Mar 12, 2012
5:06 PM

Thanks for concise and informative piece!

Mar 12, 2012
1:33 PM

Yes, I always drink organic fairtrade espresso. Is it safe to assume that most organic coffee will also be fairtrade? I tend to associate organic with fairtrade, but I wonder if that's the case?

On a related note, can we assume that organic milk goes hand-in-hand with the ethical treatment of cows? Hmmm…

Mar 12, 2012
1:17 PM

Lindsay— I'm happy to see your blog carrying information about coffee's environmental and social dimensions. While we at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center here in DC do not have the 30 yrs of roasting experience that Derek's company brings to this issue, as researchers for nearly 20 years in coffee's ecological aspects we do have some insight into some of the questions posed in this Canterbury Tale.

The roaster is correct about third-party certifications. Without them, consumers are left to depend upon roasters' and retailers' good faith about what a coffee's production characteristics might be. Given the obvious conflict of interest that marketing brings to such claims, self-certification is not a good model.

The blanket statement about conventional farms being monocultural systems is simply not true. Some certainly are. And in some countries, many or most are. But there are plenty of conventional coffee farms—i.e,, those producing coffee with high applications of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—that also have highly diverse shade cover. The structural habitat is there, but it's not nearly so healthy and chemical-free as an organic farm.

And organic farms are not necessarily or inherently good habitat for forest species of any kind. Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia and Kenya have organic farms with hardly a tree upon them or trees managed in ways that offer little in terms of habitat. Our own work, as well as that of others, has shown that it's not merely shade trees per se, but the diversity and height of the shade trees that matters where quality habitat is concerned.

We certainly concur that sustainable farms must be biodiverse and that that the more important aspect of organic coffee is its more healthy environment for the producers themselves.

Readers can find out about our work and research on shade coffee at our website: —click on the "coffee" link and learn about Bird Friendly coffees.

Mar 12, 2012
12:32 PM

If it doesn't bear both the fairtrade and organic certification labels, it simply doesn't make its way into our basket. These are very important certifications, and I am willing to pay a bit more for the assurance that we are doing what is right for the farmers who work so hard to grow their/our coffee and for our own health as well.

Mar 12, 2012
12:29 PM

I definitely always go for organic fair trade coffee! Is there any difference (environmentally) between buying locally roasted beans compared to beans roasted somewhere else? Or maybe there really isn’t any difference other than supporting a local company?

Mar 12, 2012
12:03 PM

I love my organic fair-trade brand — Kicking Horse Coffee! No other will do for me. Organic beans also make a more robust brew in my mind.

Mar 12, 2012
11:53 AM

An additional benefit to Eco-friendly farmers is that their farmland will remain viable in a post oil world. Those using pesticides and modern fertilizers are damaging the soil and I don't think anyone knows how long it would take for the soils to recover after these practices end.

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