What does the term "ethical coffee" actually mean?

Let's decode phrases like "fair trade," "sustainable" and "relationship coffee"

Published July 19, 2021 4:00PM (EDT)

Roasted Coffee Beans In Sack (Getty Images/Dawid Garwol)
Roasted Coffee Beans In Sack (Getty Images/Dawid Garwol)

This article is part of Salon Food's "Coffee Week," a series of stories about America's favorite caffeinated beverage.

For many people, coffee is the ultimate escape — a comforting cup to sink into, a few minutes' break from work, the date before you decide whether you want to date. More recently, however, it's been at the center of a percolating problem about "conscious consumerism," which the New York Times has described as "an umbrella term that simply means engaging in the economy with more awareness of how your consumption impacts society at large." That could mean avoiding single-use plastics, buying second-hand clothes, joining a food co-op or trying to discern which companies have ethical sourcing, manufacturing, labor and marketing practices.

The notion of a "socially conscious consumer" is not a social-media or "Goop" invention. It's a concept that's at least half a century old, when it appeared that companies began taking notice of the gaining momentum for this social shift and realizing that "with further demands for social and environmental responsibility, the cost to the firm of ignoring the social and environmental context in which it operates may not be profit; the cost may well be survival." 

A 2021 "Meaningful Brands Report" compiled and published by the Havas Group found that today, the momentum of this kind of demand, contrasted with capitalism's unwillingness to make impactful progress, has spurred an "age of cynicism" in which 73% of 395,000 surveyed consumers believe brands "must act now for the good of society and the planet," while 71% of those same respondents lack faith in brands' willingness to follow through. 

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There are so many (like, so many) consumer products out there, many of which have been recognized as extractive and exploitable for a long time — diamonds, fast fashion, pretty much anything disposable — and generally, when faced with information about questionable practices and dubious business dealings, consumers are inclined to look elsewhere. 

So, where does coffee fit in?


Since it's not technically necessary for survival (though many of us may disagree), coffee is classified as a luxury product — especially the higher-end specialty coffees that have captured a growing percentage of consumer attention. However, unroasted ("green") coffee is still traded as a commodity worldwide and as such is subjected to the volatility of the market, due in part to supply and demand but also to the participation of speculators who aren't invested in the physical product but have real impact over the lives of the farmers who grow it. 

While coffee prices on the retail end have risen exponentially, green coffee prices have remained disastrously low. In 2018, the price for commodity futures of coffee dropped below $1 per pound — far short of the average cost of production — and stayed there for long enough to mobilize global concern. The Specialty Coffee Association established its Coffee Price Crisis Response Initiative as a way to raise awareness and rally efforts around creating better price stability for smallholder farmers; coffee importers and roasters explored sourcing models that could create more equity in the supply chain; and the language used in marketing coffee to consumers shifted to include terms like "transparency," with an emphasis on sharing the prices being paid along coffee's chain of custody. 

Meanwhile, climate change is gaining pace across the coffeelands, causing dramatic shifts in weather patterns that disrupt usual harvest cycles and increase the threat of agricultural disease (like the coffee-leaf rust outbreak of the 2010s). Political and economic unrest in some coffee-growing countries has caused many farmers to leave their crops in search of a better life, all of which adds up to consumers feeling overstimulated and confused — and not because of too much caffeine. Because these issues make it exceptionally difficult to make a living as a coffee farmer, the average age for smallholders is 50-plus, as young people seek more stable and lucrative employment in urban centers.

In other words, the deck has been stacked against coffee growers for a while, and more consumers are demanding to know who's holding all the best cards. 

Of course, concerns about farmer equity aren't exactly new. They gave rise to the fair trade movement, which came to the coffee sector in the 1990s, and the direct-trade movement, popular through the late 2000s and 2010s. Additional certifications like Rainforest Alliance/UTZ and Smithsonian Bird Friendly have left their mark on packages worldwide over the past 20-plus years, encouraging consumers to look for the official seals that indicate "good" coffee, vetted by third parties along stringent social, economic and environmental standards.

Naturally, the push for feel-good coffee inspired marketers to capitalize on consumer conscience. Today, language like "fair," "ethically sourced," "partnership," "relationship coffee," "transparency," "traceable" and "sustainable" can be found on almost every bag of beans on the shelf — often without much to qualify or quantify it. 

This raises an important question for coffee drinkers today, "How the heck are we supposed to know what's trustworthy and what's hokum?" Unfortunately, it's not easy. 

"How many sellers of roasted coffee will ever say, 'This coffee was not purchased on ethical terms?'" says Peter Roberts, a business professor at Emory University and the founder of a pricing-equity initiative called the Specialty Coffee Transaction Guide. "If sellers want to brag, they will showcase a label indicating that others (e.g., certifiers) approve. But, how often do we hear, for instance, that fair trade prices are 'not fair?'" 

The argument about whether or not fair trade sourcing is truly fair is as old as the certification itself. There's skepticism about the cost of the certification, which can range from several hundred to several thousands of dollars, plus the cost of any necessary adaptations to farming practices. There's also the fact that the fair trade floor price doesn't include any stipulation or reward for quality; it's merely a protection for smallholders in the event that the commodity price for coffee drops below a certain level, guaranteeing them a minimum that should, ideally, keep them in business. 

Challenges like these can be raised against any existing certification for coffee, as well as alternative sourcing models.

Direct trade is one such example. The term has no single overseeing body to enforce it, and it lacks a universal set of standards and behaviors, instead following a rather loosey-goosey business ethos that ideally includes long-term relationships with coffee farmers, higher-quality coffee and premium prices that reflect that quality and offer an incentive for the producer to keep up the good work. 

The lack of standardization, however, has made direct trade something of the Wild West all over again. Self-regulation means that a company can tell its customers whatever it wants about how "direct trade" is defined (i.e. it might not be very "direct" at all), and there's no outside accountability between the coffee buyer and the coffee farmer if the buyer wants to back out of future contracts for any reason. 

Unaware consumers may see the words "relationship coffee" but not know what that means. After all, we all know every "relationship" isn't a great or equal one. 


You may be thinking, "Wow, thanks, Debbie Decaf. Am I supposed to take a crash-course in the coffee supply chain so I can buy beans that won't leave such a bitter taste in my mouth?" Not necessarily. Even experts agree that there's got to be a better way.

For starters, it's important for consumers to both want to make the best and most conscious purchases they can while also realizing that they're not solely responsible for changing the face of the global coffee industry.  

"I think the main thing that people get wrong about 'ethical' anything is that they get overwhelmed by creating a binary of good and bad," Jamie Isetts, green-coffee buyer for Merit Coffee Roasters, says. "It would be amazing if there were a clean-cut, objective truth we could all trust and just follow that path into heaven. At the same time, expecting ourselves to verify every detail along a complex supply chain is not possible, realistic or fun — even for someone like me, who has made a whole career out of coffee sourcing."

Isetts raises a significant point: There is no one-way road to coffee perfection, just as there's no universal code of ethics or behavior. 

Even the most conscious consumers create a kind of hierarchy for themselves about the issues and products they focus on, it would be nearly impossible (if saintly) to be able to do in-depth research and critical-thinking analysis to every single thing we consume. Who has the time or energy to investigate toilet paper and toothpicks, dog toys, bathroom tiles, ballpoint pens, socks, tomatoes? The list starts to feel endless pretty quickly.

Roberts has an interesting perspective on the consumer consciousness conundrum, acknowledging that it's impossible to be fully present to every product in the store. He suggests making an ethical "plan," writing a list of the most important consumables in your household — things like coffee, dairy products, clothing, pet food — and doing some research on what you consider the ethical shopping guidelines for each one. 

List your requirements for things like corporate social responsibility, environmentally sound practices, BIPOC support, community give-backs, living wage guarantees and other labor protection — anything that speaks to a value you hold that would make a purchase meaningful. Then, when confronted with a purchasing decision, you'll already have an idea of what to look for, as well as what you will and won't accept, including what's feasible for your income.

Price has long been used as a marketing indicator for do-good coffee, but it's not always a water-tight metric on its own. Coffee production around the world is so vastly different from one place to another that without keen knowledge about the chain of custody country to country, it can be virtually impossible to identify whether the prices listed are truly "fair" and to whom. While some coffee companies are making their supply chains more transparent all the way to the farmer level, for most consumers it's still pretty baffling how a $3 pound of green coffee reasonably becomes a $20 pound of roasted stuff.

"Honestly, I'd say the price of coffee is only a bellwether of its ethics to a certain point," Isetts says, acknowledging the complex chain of actors responsible for harvesting, processing, shipping, roasting and packaging green coffee — all of whom need to get paid. 

"I think beyond the $15 per-pound-mark, it takes a deep well of knowledge and a lot of questions to understand how much of that extra money is going toward making that coffee more ethical," Isetts says. 

"If you're on a budget, go for organic," she adds. "In my experience, this is the certification that has the most potential to affect change."

"The majority of people have good intentions, and when presented with the option, they'll make the most ethical choice that fits their budget," says Kyle Freund, a communications and sustainability expert who has worked in the coffee sector for many years.

That's why it's important to have those boxes to check before you start comparing prices. It will help you decide what's worth the extra couple bucks and when you're willing to (or need to) make a compromise.

Freund has worked for equity-focused NGOs and seen the world of certifications up close and personal. He also believes that there's value behind the seal that a certification like organic, Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance holds. "When people learn what all goes into a certification, they tend to become more committed," he says. 

Isetts agrees that commitment is a key element of making ethical choices. "Look for companies that buy the same coffee year after year," she says. "Pick a shop or roaster that advertises where their coffee comes from, whose service and values you like, and whose coffee you can afford to drink every day." 

There it is — there's one major responsibility you have on your path to be a conscious coffee consumer. Drink coffee every day. (Not too bad, huh?) "Become a regular. When coffee shops, roasters and growers have a reliable audience for what they're doing, they can breathe a little easier and focus on raising the bar," Isetts says.

By asking questions and learning more about your favorite coffee company's sourcing methodology, you will show them that you (and hopefully others like you) care. "Especially if you're interacting with people regularly, you'll shape the supply chain toward the values that matter to you," she adds.

Being committed doesn't have to take all the joy out of coffee drinking, though. Isetts recommends an 80/20 approach to consciously caffeinating: "Try new things 20% of the time. Coffee is cool and tasty and interesting and you can have fun in the process."

It's important to remember that while consumers do have some impact over product trends and can work to move the needle toward more ethical sourcing and selling of things like coffee, changing an entire marketplace is collective action — and consumers are not the only ones who need to take care. 

"While I think everyone needs to do their part, in this case, I think the responsibility leans more toward roasters and retailers," Freund says. "They have direct access to the product and the ability to bring their customers along on the journey." 

If there were a bottom line, most experts agree, it would be to simply keep drinking coffee and doing the best you can at it. Leave room for yourself to learn, make mistakes and change your mind. New research is constantly coming out about coffee, and our caffeinated planet is constantly changing. 

"If there was some objective and permanent line or standard separating ethical and not ethical, my guess is that we might have found it and we might be able to hold to it," Roberts says. 

By Ever Meister

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Coffee Ethical Coffee Fair Trade Organic Reporting