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The U.S. is the world's leading consumer of coffee, with Americans drinking some 400 million cups of coffee each day. But, drinking coffee can be detrimental to people and the planet, and the industry says it will cost $4 billion and take decades to make the entire sector sustainable.
But if you still want enjoy your cup of joe and be conscious of your impact on the Earth, here's a list of the 10 most sustainable coffee roasters in the U.S.
The list compiled by coffee writer Jimmy Sherfey comprises "10 U.S. roasters and retailers that are overcoming obstacles to curb carbon emissions, offset energy use, cut down on waste and help farmers mitigate the existing damages associated with climate change." They range from the nationally-distributed Peet's Coffee, which roasts all of its coffee in the first LEED Gold certified roasting facility in the U.S., to smaller producers such as Larry's Coffee in Raleigh, North Carolina. Founder Larry Larson is a Seattle expat who converted a school bus, used for deliveries, to run on used vegetable oil.
Coffee plants naturally prefer shade, as they evolved in the understory of the African jungle. But more and more, coffee is being grown in direct sun on monoculture plantations that resemble cornfields. Shade-grown coffee slipped from 43 percent of the world's farms in 1996 to just 24 percent in 2010. Three-fourths of the coffee farmland in Brazil and Vietnam has no shade tree cover at all. Much of their production is cheaper, robusta beans that are generally used for instant coffee and low-price supermarket brands.
The coffee you choose may be harmful to your health, to the environment or to the growers themselves. Much coffee is grown using pesticides, which has been shown to be detrimental to coffee farmers. Also, pesticides used to combat the coffee cherry borer and coffee rust can remain in the environment.
On large coffee plantations, workers often toil in harsh conditions for subsistence wages. Children as young as six or eight work the fields, and just 13 percent of coffee workers in Guatemala have completed primary education. In contrast to these big plantations, small farmers generally cultivate less than seven acres of land and often struggle to earn more than the cost of production. Fair Trade coffee may or may not help: only the label "Fair Trade Certified" ensures that farmers receive a fair price for their coffee.
Shade grown coffee in NicaraguaFlickr
So shade-grown, organically grown and Fair Trade Certified coffees are the way to go —if you can find them. In a recent trip to my local supermarket, however, I could find no coffee with the Fair Trade Certified label.
In order to research this story, I went to my local coffee shop and asked for a cup of sustainable coffee. The clerk wasn't taken aback by my requests. He told me that their coffee is supplied by Wicked Joe, which it turns out uses organic, Fair Trade Certified, shade grown beans. Their coffee is also bird-friendly. It meets the rigorous Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center criteria for shade tree farms, which includes 100 percent certified organic beans and the use of native shade trees for cover.
Many of these smaller roasters sell locally and online. But what about the ubiquitous Starbucks? On its website, the coffee giant states, "We're committed to ethically sourcing and roasting the highest-quality arabica coffee in the world."
Last year, they announced that 99 percent of their coffee had been ethically produced. Working with Conservation International, they've developed their own set of standards related to farmers' working conditions, reduced agrochemical use and improved economic transparency. But although the company states that it is one of the largest buyers of Fair Trade Certified coffee, you might have to specifically ask your barista for it. A search for "fair trade coffee" on the Starbucks website yields just two results, one for a whole bean Italian roast and one for portion packs.
McDonald's announced last week that it committed to purchasing all of its coffee from sustainable sources by 2020. The fast food retailer is also partnering with Conservation International. McDonald's buys arabica coffee from Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Brazil, Peru and El Salvador, along with some espresso beans from Indonesia.
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