As a country, America is disparaged for its addiction to oil. But as individuals, the truth is we're much more addicted to a different international product: coffee. Fortunately, we're not alone. In fact, the world loves coffee so much that it's the second-most traded commodity, bested only by that pesky petrol.
Given that status, a few alterations to your daily caffeine fix can have a big impact on how farmers treat the land where coffee is grown.
The nice thing about words like "organic" and "fair trade" is that they make people who care about the Earth also care about buying a particular product. The logos certifying these claims therefore get placed front and center on a bag of beans and make their labels function like those of wines and olive oils: Everything you need to know about the product is right there — that is, if you understand the certifications. Some apply to the land, others apply to the workers and still others attempt to cover a little of everything.
• Organic: Thanks to that omnipresent purveyor of all things natural, Whole Foods, most people are familiar with the word "organic," and the kind of organic they're probably used to buying is USDA organic. Lots of rumors have circulated around this slogan; the most typical is that to get it, a product only needs to be 30 percent organic. Not true. To don this label, a product must be at least 95 percent organic. The coffee Cliff Notes is that most synthetic substances (think fertilizers or pesticides) can't be used in the land or on the product, and that farming practices must maintain or improve the quality of the land.
Other organic certifications you might see on your grocer's shelves are CCOF, which stands for California Certified Organic Farmers, and QAI, or Quality Assurance International, which is also based in California. Although both have their own organic certification programs, the bottom line is that they're also accredited to certify products as USDA organic and are therefore trustworthy organizations.
• Fair trade: Anyone glancing at this logo can figure out it indicates that coffee farmers received a fair price for their goods. But this distinction goes a lot deeper than cash for crops. Among other things, fair trade also requires safe working conditions and fair wages for workers, prohibits child labor, and encourages sustainable farming practices and community reinvestment. The logo we see here in the States indicates that an American nonprofit called TransFair has audited and certified that the coffee producers were paid a fair price for their goods. The German company Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International monitors the other side of the equation and ensures that farmers and farming practices are meeting certification standards. The paper trail might sound confusing for the layperson, but for those spending the extra dollars on certified beans, it means there's an assurance their money is being used well.
• Rainforest Alliance certified: This is kind of a one-stop shop for environmental sustainability and social responsibility. To obtain this label, growers must meet 80 percent of criteria established by the Sustainable Agriculture Network, an organization of environmental groups in Latin America that works directly with producers to audit farms and provide Rainforest Alliance certification. The stipulations cover everything from protecting ecosystems to wastewater management and nondiscriminatory hiring practices. Although the organization is quick to point out that not all Rainforest Alliance Certified products are organic, the Sustainable Agriculture Network's criteria do prohibit the use of chemicals that are illegal in the United States and Europe as well as substances that have been identified as persistent organic pollutants.
• Shade-grown or bird friendly: Shade-grown coffee is presumably better for rain forest ecosystems because it preserves the upper tiers of trees in which rain forest life thrives. Unfortunately this buzzword can be tossed around to sell coffee without being substantiated. If your goal in buying shade-grown coffee is to protect the planet's biodiversity, then the certification you're really looking for is Bird Friendly. Although this certification is not as readily found as the others (particularly in the mega-stores), it's a convenient one to look for because it indicates the coffee farm has met USDA organic growing standards in addition to fair wages and access to health care for workers.
There is one caveat when buying based on certification labels: Producers have to pay fees to get these distinctions. If you're a gourmand suffering from a crisis of green conscience because your preferred coffee doesn't have any kind of certification, don't panic yet. Smaller retailers and suppliers are more able to maintain direct communication with their producers and can speak to their growing and employment practices if you ask.
Your biggest impact as a coffee consumer is in the beans you buy. Compared with everything else you do in a day, making that cup of coffee uses a small amount of energy, particularly if you're just making your own. That said, there are a number of options to further reduce this part of your carbon footprint.
• Think thermal: The single best thing you can do for yourself and your planet is to invest in a thermal mug or — if you're brewing coffee for large groups such as an office — a carafe. This is just good advice, even aside from greening your life. Because a thermal carafe eliminates the need for a hot plate underneath the pot and keeps the coffee hot for hours, it not only reduces energy consumption; it preserves the flavor of the coffee by removing the possibility of cooking and ultimately burning it. It also saves water because the old pot-and-hot-plate model, to prevent the pesky burn, requires leftover coffee be dumped and rebrewed once every hour or two.
If you're a fan of getting your afternoon fix outside the office, use your purchasing power at one of the many cafes, including chains, that use thermal carafes. We don't want to name names, but that mega-brand that starts with an "S" hasn't adopted these in all its locations and therefore dumps gallons of coffee a day.
• Think reusable: Here, too, a reusable metal mesh filter is as good for you as it is for the planet. Not only does it reduce waste, it also pampers your taste buds because it removes the possibility of processed paper imparting flavor on the coffee. If you already have a paper filter model, don't just toss it. Used coffee grounds are both a great mulch and add nutrients to soil, so you can still do good for the ground.
• The daily grind: It's pretty obvious that the best cup of coffee comes from freshly ground beans rather than the preground stuff that's so cheap at the grocery store, but we'd like to set the record straight on home grinding: Don't spend more than 15 to 20 seconds doing it if you're using the typical American drip-brew system. If you want stronger coffee, use more than the one to two tablespoons of ground coffee per six ounces of water that most roasters recommend. For more tips on grinding and brewing coffee, visit ineedcoffee.com or coffeeresearch.org; an instructional video by that mad scientist of culinary delights, Alton Brown, is available here.