Over the last four decades, coffee farmers have largely moved away from growing coffee under the rainforest canopy (that is, in the shade) to growing it in the sun, because the latter results in far higher crop yields. But these intensely managed farming operations come at a tremendous cost to the environment. When trees are cut down and burned to clear fields, stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming. Clear-cutting of rainforests, which has occurred over millions of acres, also destroys the habitats of birds and other animals, including bats and bees.
Fortunately, many farmers still grow their coffee the traditional way or are going back to shade-grown coffee due to its increased popularity. Another perk of shade-grown coffee: many coffee lovers swear it tastes better.
There’s no legal definition for shade-grown coffee, but here are some labels from independent public service groups that can help steer you toward this more sustainable brew:
Bird Friendly. Coffees that carry this label meet the strictest criteria for shade-grown coffee, set by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. As a prerequisite, the coffee must also be certified organic, meaning that it was grown in other environmentally sustainable ways—for example, using natural pest control methods instead of most synthetic pesticides and practices that enhance soil fertility.
Rainforest Alliance. This seal indicates that the coffee was grown in sustainable ways, though its specific standards for shade-grown are optional and not as rigorous as Bird Friendly coffee. Coffees that carry the seal are allowed to contain as little as 30 percent certified beans initially, but must scale up by 15 percent a year until they reach 100 percent.
Fair Trade. The focus of this certification is on guaranteeing that producers get a fair minimum price for their coffee and workers get a fair minimum wage. The standards also require responsible labor practices and environmental protection. Most (but not all) of the coffee beans are grown in the shade. According to the organization, about half of Fair Trade coffee is also certified organic.
Certified Organic. Coffees that have only the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-certified organic seal are likely to also be shade grown, but the label does not guarantee this.
Bottom line: Though the labels differ somewhat, all represent better environmental choices than sun-grown coffee. Some coffees may carry more than one of these seals (many Bird Friendly coffees are also Fair Trade certified, for example). And some coffees may meet or even exceed the standards but don’t carry a label due to the cost of certification or other factors.