Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Coffee Conversations

Mindful Echo weighs the beans of organic, fair trade, and local coffee choices.

Before I started university, I worked for a spell at a local coffee house (shout out Seattle!). Before that job I had never enjoyed a cup of coffee, much less knew how to brew a pot. Sure, I'd dabbled in the sugary, syrupy, iced cappuccino craze - but those are basically milkshakes. (Don't misunderstand me, I LOVE me a big ol' dessert coffee on occasion.) It wasn't until I learned the ins and outs of brewing a decent pot of coffee, pulling a nice shot of espresso, recognizing good crema, and knowing the temperatures and techniques for steaming milks, that I started to gain an appreciation for all things coffee.

A decade later and I still swoon over the smell of freshly ground beans.

The problems arise, as they are wont to do, when I start to consider the ethics of my oh-so-common habit. Take a stroll through any grocery store and you'll be met with a dozen or so coffee options:
  • instant
  • ground
  • whole bean
  • flavoured
  • locally roasted
  • fair trade
  • organic
  • dark roast
  • mild roast
  • Sumatra
  • Arabica
THE LIST GOES ON FOREVER (and don't even get me started on the price differences)

While most of these choices can boil down to personal preference, the decision I often struggle with the most is selecting between fair trade, locally roasted, and organic. When I can find a brand that offers all three of these choices, it's ideal. Unfortunately, depending on where I'm shopping, I'm not always so lucky.

Here in Nova Scotia we're lucky to have access to some great options, including Just Us! Coffee, Anchored Coffee, Full Steam Coffee, and Laughing Whale Coffee Roasters (as examples that I have personally enjoyed). These companies offer a transparent process to their customers through their website content, allowing us to make an informed decision about which philosophies we agree we and enable us to feel confident that their business practices reflect the values that a fair trade business should uphold.

But what happens when you are offered a choice between fair trade and organic? Or organic and locally roasted?

Personally, I've decided that my coffee-purchasing priorities will rank as follows:
  1. The Human Element
  2. Local Business Support
  3. Environmental Impact
  4. Flavour
  5. Price
I think that it's important to prioritize the fair trade element and be conscious when I'm enjoying my morning indulgence that people have worked hard to allow me this luxury. It makes sense that supporting the local businesses that facilitate the fair trade relationships is crucial, especially since the trade-off means giving more power to Big Business that has no incentive to foster such practices.

Being gentle with the earth is so important to me and so, like with other product usage, knowing that our beans are grown and harvested under organic regulation is reassuring. Although I do recognize that "organic" and "fair trade" can, unfortunately, be subjective ways of qualifying products and practices without universal regulations...but that's another post entirely.

It goes without saying, I think, that quality, flavour, and price do also factor into the coffee-purchasing decision. After all, if a cup of coffee isn't delicious, what's the point?


Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

This is a decision-making process that applies to so many different purchases. Local vs. organic is one of the biggest ones. We often have to prioritize our criteria, don't we? I agree with you that immediate impact on human welfare should often be the top of the list (this is why I'm trying to make an extra effort -- over other green priorities -- for things like slavery-free chocolate, and no palm oil). Lucky for me, my husband and I don't drink coffee at all, so that's one less eco-dilemma to worry about. I do love the smell of freshly ground coffee beans though...

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

P.S. here is an interesting article I read recently in my alumni magazine about deciphering coffee labeling:

Green Bean said...

I don't drink coffee but my husband is an addict. I've gone round and round on what to get for him. Right now, I'm really emphasizing shade grown coffee. We are buying from Birds & Beans which is also fair trade and organic - and sold by a small company. Ahhh, eco dilemmas.

Mindful Echo said...

Good points that we have so many variables to weigh with all our purchases, not just coffee. Unfortunately, the complexities of those factors are probably why so many people opt for convenience or choose not to consider them at all. It's so easy to be overwhelmed, isn't it?

Great article, Betsy!


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