Shade coffee plantation in Guatemala. This image is typical of a traditional shade coffee plantation in which only some or none of the canopy has been removed and coffee crops have been added.
- Fair Trade. Inspired by humanitarian concerns, Fair Trade labeling helps to ensure that the workers on coffee farms get paid fairly for the work they do. The higher prices that Fair Trade products earn help to provide an alternative to the price leverage that large coffee buyers can wield. However, a Fair Trade label does not convey any specific information about environmental practices.
- Shade-grown. “Shade-grown” labels often appear on specialty coffees, but unfortunately this designation is not regulated and doesn’t tell you much about the growing conditions at the farm. When the idea for Bird Friendly coffee was hatched by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in 1996, plans for the certification process faltered while coffee companies quickly adopted the term “shade-grown” as a marketing buzzword. Unfortunately, this type of coffee can be grown among sparse trees on farms that lack diverse forest structure. Some shade-grown coffee is even grown under only the flimsy cover of banana trees fed artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
- “Specialty” just means the coffee scores 80 or higher on a tasting scale. It has nothing to do with environmental conditions, though specialty coffees do tend to come from smaller farms that often have some form of shade cover, which helps impart a richer flavor to the coffee.
- Sun-grown. Most coffee grown at an industrial scale is grown under full sun. Acres upon acres of coffee bushes planted in hedgelike rows are sustained by fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. Cheaper brands of coffee are likely produced with these methods and are unsustainable.