Has My Coffee & Tea Been Responsibly Farmed?

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Fair Trade – environmental friendly, sustainable and ethical?

The answer to these questions take the environmentally friendly credentials of coffee and tea just that little bit further

They are the next step on our route map towards ‘sustainable, green and ethical’ products which are more in line with Vegan philosophy. 

This step also pulls in those of us who are not Vegan or Vegetarian, but are concerned with the environment and the sustainability of production in the future.

And let’s be honest, when you invest in the best espresso machine, why load it up with anything other than the very best coffee you can lay your hands on?

The ethical dimension further embraces those concerned about the welfare of those working in the coffee and tea industry,  Small tea and coffee farmers produce a high percentage of the tea and coffee consumed around the world, but life for them is tough. 

Often poor and struggling to get a fair price for their crops, ethical sourcing is about making sure these producers can negotiate a fair price for the goods they produce. Not all farmers can afford for example to enter organic certification programmes, even though their product is farmed organically.  Without the certificate, they can only achieve a lower price for their crop and some go out of business.

Ethical farming programmes support farmers so they can run a profitable business.

Ethical sourcing also includes initiatives aimed at reducing exploitation of labourers who may work on any farm, large or small.

It is safe to say that organic farming goes a long way towards being environmentally friendly and sustainable, but it does not necessarily seek to make a positive environmental impact over and above the impact that organic farming by its very nature achieves.  Nor does it focus on labour issues for workers on the farms, or fair pricing for the owners/farmers themselves. 

So how far does organic farming go in relation to these additional questions, and how do they impact the brands you choose and end up in your drip coffee maker? 

Environmentally Friendly

Let’s start off by reminding ourselves of the environmental benefits of organic cultivation. 

What does organic farming offer the environment?

  • Fewer chemicals in the soil – so the soil is nutrient rich and harmful chemicals don’t make their way into plants and animals (or into your single-serve coffee)
  • Fewer chemicals in the atmosphere – so nothing harmful is breathed in
  • More biodiversity – protecting existing plants and animals and less need for using harmful chemicals
  • ‘Organic’ processing – not mixed with non-organic products or chemicals during processing

There are also environmental benefits to other cultivation methods that are linked with each other and often (but not always), go hand in hand with organic farming,

  • Crops grown at altitude have less need for chemical intervention
  • Shade grown coffee is more environmentally friendly than sun grown coffee and is known for its deeper, more complex flavour profile, making it perfect for grinding at home.
  • Small farms and end to end producers of coffee and tea involve less distraction of the environment than larger plantations – although not exclusively so

Additional environmental friendly steps and brands that take them

These extra steps encompass both the production or cultivation itself and processes beyond.  Some of organic certifications already cover additional dimensions, Equal Exchange for example has partnered with cooperatives that work towards restoring land to its natural forested splendour when growing the organic coffee your buy for your pour over coffee maker.  USDA NOP as well, include the need for crop rotation to prevent soil erosion in their organic accreditation.. 

Other bodies have certification aimed at higher environmental standards than ‘organic’ production.  

  • The Rain Forest Alliance for example.  On their certified tea farms, growers are encouraged and supported in phasing out the use of dangerous and banned chemicals.   Farmers are provided with the skills to reverse any environmental degradation and to restore the soil. They learn the benefits of manual weeding, capture agrochemical run-off by planting barriers of vegetation and help prevent erosion by planting grasses.  On their certified coffee farms, Rainforest Alliance operations ensure waterways are protected, trash is reduced or recycled, wildlife thrives and the habitat encourages migratory birds.
  • Bird Friendly Habitat coffee is a certification created by the Smithsonian Migration Bird Centre (SMBC) which is part of the National Zoo.  This requires growers to meet organic certification standards first and in addition, they need to maintain forest cover that provides a habitat for birds and other animals.
  • As awareness if what is and what is not environmentally friendly gathers followers, a raft of brands are now focusing what happens following cultivation.  For example such brands look at making sure their packaging is environmentally friendly, that they recycle as much as possible, avoid tea bags that contain plastic (which most unspecified tea bags do) and produce bleached recyclable coffee papers.  Small and larger producers alike, are now ensuring at least some of their brands take some of these steps. It is up to those of us that have environmental concerns, to find brands that are in line with our principals, whether we are Vegan or not. To mention a few of these brands: Pukka tea (owned by Unilever); Bird Blend Tea; Teapigs pyramid tea bags and We Are Tea.  In terms of coffee filters, just look for unbleached papers. 


Sustainability is all about planning for the future and helping ensure the crops, the environment and the livelihood of the farmers last longer.  So let’s look at some examples.

  • Forested coffee farms for example are more resilient and better equipped to handle the unusual weather patterns resulting from climate change, so making them a safer, longer term investment for farmers and their futures.  They will have a living for a longer time period. 
  • Forested and organic coffee farms prolong the fertility of the soil, whereas farms which need a high use chemicals,  particularly sun grown coffee farms, deplete soil nutrients. When the soil is nutrient deficient, it becomes unsuitable for future coffee growing, so farmers need to clear new land areas for their crops – a less than environmental friendly action.  
  • Talking care of the soil and growing environment also helps grow stronger plants which last longer.  This is important as crops from new tea and coffee plants are not immediate, they need 3 years to reach maturity before producing a crop suitable for harvesting. Shade grown coffee plants can produce the beans you roast at home for up to 30 years, compared with those grown in the sun which are typically productive for less than 15 years.  

Tea follows a similar story, with organic farming and environmental preservation methods increasing the sustainability of the crop for the future.  After all, tea is second only to water in terms of global consumption and we need to ensure farms can meet future demands.  

Support and certification on sustainability is available to small farmers in the same way as for organic farming and sometimes run alongside each other.  Organic coffee farms are more likely to be sustainable after all and we need these small farmers to stay in business. Increasingly, NGOs, local regions, large companies and local cooperatives are getting involved to make sure we can all enjoy tea and coffee for generations to come.  Unilever is a great example with sustainable brands like Liptons and Pukka, whose health and wellness philosophy centres on benefiting the three Ps – people, plants and planet. They have also partnered with another big tea brand Twinings and the Ethic Tea Partnership (ETP) to create a shared vision for a sustainable future withTea 2030.

Ethically Produced

Ethical production goes hand in hand with sustainability and the carbon footprint from farm to cup.

Certification often covers both aspects, however, some certification (and hence brands that boast the logo) go further and have additional focus on the human aspect of coffee and tea production.

It covers fair wages for labourers on large plantations, as well as small farmers, and focuses on stamping out exploitation and providing a fair compensation structure throughout the production cycle.  

Independent studies have shown that using sustainable farming methods increases yields and saves costs with more efficient management.  Add to this that achieving sustainable and/or ethical certification increases the price the farmer can negotiate for their tea or coffee crop.  This means that the farmers future economic livelihood is more secure. They have a better quality if life and are more likely to stay in business.

Less use of chemicals in organic and sustainable farming means that farm workers are not exposed to any harmful effects,  they are therefore healthier and a better quality of life.

However, with some large farms using intensive farming methods or sun grown coffee which uses more pesticides and other chemicals, there is still concern for the health of workers.

How do I recognise and buy sustainable and ethical coffee and tea?

Interestingly, most of the coffee and tea we consume comes from smaller farms, rather than large plantations. This was a surprise to us and maybe to you too.  It means that it is important to support small producers and help them stay in business for the future of tea and coffee.  One way we could choose to this by buying brands that support environmentally friendly, sustainable and ethical farming, existing harmoniously with vegan & vegetarian principals and way of life.

Many NGOs, public and private organisations and partnerships drive measures to regulate and certify these issues.  They provide farmers with the tools and support to farm according to these standards and they all have recognisable logos.    So basically it is a question of looking for the logos that best suit your particular concern or philosophy. Fair Trade, ETP, Equal Exchange, Rainforest Alliance and individual brands such as Pukka teas are just a few examples of choices you can make. 

In addition, the trustea logo (the Indian tea industry collaboration on sustainability), guarantees the social, economic, agronomist and economic performance of Indian tea estates.  Further the UTZ accreditation scheme covers both environmental issues and worker’s rights for coffee and cocoa production.  

 So keep reading the packs and looking for the logos covering your own area of focus.


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