About 10 years ago, just as Americans started noticing fewer songbirds stopping over in their back yards, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Council launched a program to address the problem. By buying coffee with SMBC’s special seal of approval, consumers could support farming methods in Latin America that preserved the rainforest habitat where the birds spent their winters. Around the same time, a small coffee roaster based in Massachusetts called Equal Exchange began promoting coffee that was Fair Trade–certified, meaning that the farmers who grew the coffee beans had safe working conditions and were paid a fair price. Suddenly, for a small cadre of socially conscious coffee drinkers, buying the right kind of coffee became a simple way to support sustainability in some of the most ecologically and socially troubled countries in the world.

Since then, the sustainable coffee sector has grown exponentially. In 2005, American consumers bought $500 million worth of Fair Trade–certified beans, a tenfold increase since 2000. Other types of certified coffees have experienced similar booms, and while the market was once dominated by small, specialty roasters, Big Food is now jumping on the bandwagon. Dunkin’ Donuts now sells 100 percent Fair Trade espresso drinks, while McDonald’s offers certified-organic, Fair Trade coffee from Green Mountain roasters. Retail giants Costco and Sam’s Club both began selling Fair Trade beans last year. In May, Kraft announced that its Yuban brand would start carrying the Rainforest Alliance seal, a move that’s expected to bring the food giant’s certified bean purchasing to to more than 20 million pounds per year, surpassing the previous leader, Starbucks, which bought 12 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee in 2005.

“Coffee is paving the way for sustainable consumerism, more so than anything else you can buy, really,” says Nina Luttinger, a sustainable business consultant and coauthor of The Coffee Book. But as responsibly raised beans gain popularity, it’s hard not to wonder: Is sustainable coffee doing as much good as roasters and retailers claim?

The sustainable coffee sector now consists mainly of three different independent certifications. Fair Trade standards primarily address social issues and worker rights, though environmental concerns are also taken into account. The Rainforest Alliance certifies coffee using standards that deal mostly with environmental issues and include some safeguards for workers’ rights. Coffee must be shade-grown, meaning it’s planted beneath the canopy of native trees rather than in full sun. Certified organic coffee, grown without pesticides or other chemicals (like all certified organic products), has also become a major part of the market.

The certifying organizations, along with some nonprofits and sometimes even the coffee buyers themselves, work with farmers to convert to sustainable methods. The coffee is then sold to importers, who sell it to roasters. Once a farm is certified it can command a higher price for its coffee. Farmers are happy with their improved business and healthier working conditions, and the environmental benefits also become apparent. “I’ve seen coffee plantations go from dead zones with no biodiversity, contaminated soil, and polluted watershed to being ecologically healthy again. With the additional trees planted, ninety percent of the birds return,” says Florence Reed, founder of Sustainable Harvest, a nonprofit that trains farmers in organic and shade-grown techniques.

But despite its rapid growth, sustainable coffee is still only about five percent of the market. “The coffee industry is ginormous, but the sustainable part is tiny, even though it’s huge in the public conscience,” says Mike Ferguson, spokesperson for the Specialty Coffee Association of America. That means the bulk of our coffee is still grown with a lot of chemicals on plantations cleared of native trees. But both the Rainforest Alliance and Transfair, the American certifier of Fair Trade goods, say that they’re going to be certifying much more coffee in the future. “Right now we certify roughly two percent of all coffee produced. Our goal is to have ten percent certified by seven years from now,” says Sabrina Vigilante, senior director of marketing and business development for the Rainforest Alliance. Similar growth is also expected for Fair Trade, which now makes up another two percent of the market.

Despite these efforts, some worry that as sustainability goes mainstream, big roasters and retailers will use their buying power to force compromised standards. “Smaller roasters don’t have the leverage to negotiate with certifiers like Transfair, but bigger ones might,” says Ferguson. He also predicts more companies will establish their own sustainability standards (as Starbucks has done), which may be less strict but offer the same cache in customers’ minds — a practice some independent roasters call “fair-washing.” “The early pioneers in the movement are really getting aggravated. The way they see it, these companies are doing just a little tiny bit sustainable and are then promoting it really well,” says Luttinger, who once worked for Transfair USA.

The Rainforest Alliance has also taken some heat for its willingness to work with large farms and for having more relaxed standards than the other certifiers. “They appeal to a lot of big coffee sellers — they’re shade standards are looser, they have farmers, rather than roasters, pay for certification,” says Luttinger. The Rainforest Alliance counters that it’s better to offer mainstream companies something they’re comfortable with than lose them entirely. “It doesn’t make sense to make the criteria so narrow that they don’t become widespread,” says Vigilante.

But experts say there’s room in the market for several different certifications to flourish. And one thing seems certain: Environmental and social benefits of sustainable coffee will continue to grow. When you consider that rainforest trees can take twenty or thirty years to reach maturity, it’s easy to see that the greatest impact may be still to come. “There’s a lag time,” says Reed. “But soon we will reach the tipping point where the impact is going to be obvious.”

Story by Sarah Schmidt. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.