How To Find Sustainable Coffee On Your Trip

By Pip Denne

To make sure you get to the end of this article without feeling jipped, I confess now that I do not have the godlike, all-inclusive, step-by-step guide on to how to find a sustainable coffee in the city you’re visiting.

When I sat down (coffee in hand, thank god), with Teresa Von Fuchs from The Genuine Origin Coffee Project, I had to quickly come to terms with the fact that finding a socially friendly cuppa was less like that caffeine-induced instant euphoria and more like my head when it doesn’t have caffeine, struggling to find enough words that sound like they could all be part of the same sentence.

As Teresa frankly put it, “it’s just really hard to weed through the bullshit.”

Despite the odds, we’ve bravely broken it down for you. Here are three key questions for you to go full throttle to coffee shop owners, roasters, giant coffee chains and any other industry professional you may encounter on your travels.

Cheers to finding an ethical cup of coffee on your trip:

Photo by Pip Denne.

1. Have they visited or do they live with their farmers?

(Or, might they have just quickly downloaded a stock image from Google?)

In cities where coffee snobbery is integral part of the urban sprawl, you’ll hear hipsters toss around the word “from origin” or “direct trade.” These buzzwords are being used to declare commitment to sustainability and ethical working conditions for farmers. By cutting out any sort of middleman, and going straight to the source, it’s claimed to be doing the farmers a world of good. 

So, how can we test the authenticity of these words and and understand the way they translate within local cafés and roasters? 

First off, there’s no standardised legal threshold that defines or measures these buzzwords. This means that cafés can use them however and whenever they want. It also means that budget-allowing, café owners, roasters and the like, typically jet down to a community-run farm in Costa Rica, take a few snaps, offer a nice deal and jet back home with the words “direct trade” plastered all over their marketing materials. 

Teresa made a clear distinction between flying down for a work trip and setting up an in-country office base, collaborating daily with local farmers to help set standardised, competitive pricing, offering business consultancy to improve prosperity, and hiring locals to drive forward coffee farming through the cultural, economic and social interests of the community (like they do at The Genuine Origin Coffee Project). 

Photo by Pip Denne.

As someone familiar with the complexities of culture and intercultural development projects, realistic about the amount of time and follow-up it takes to implement long-term solutions, this sentiment resonated with me immediately. 

However, it also brought up questions of viability. For a small coffee owner with a limited budget and resources, flying down to visit their farmers is a big enough feat, let alone setting up an international base dedicated to ensuring ethical beans make it to your cup. Worthy of investment but likely to put many wishful entrepreneurs out of pocket.

With that in mind, it does lay the foundation for questioning café owners in another capacity.

Should we allow café owners to cover their walls in emotionally charged travel photography when they lack in-country groundwork and seem disconnected with the needs, lifestyle and daily working conditions of local farmers?

In a similar way, shouldn’t we make café owners accountable to exploring viable avenues readily available to them?

Leading on to our next question,

2. Do they have any certificates? And if not, why?

I know what you’re thinking, how legitimate is the Rainforest Alliance Stamp with that cute, little froggy in the centre? And, what exactly is “shade-grown”? (FYI, a fantastic concept but not an actual certification.)
With a bunch of certificates out there and many heated debates undermining the purity of their sustainability mission, sorting through the mess as someone who frequently needs coffee can pose challenges.

However, pursuing certificates, claims Teresa, is a step in the right direction and shows a willingness to grow ethically. The great perk of these certifications is that the simple and user-friendly application process leaves no room for excuses. Applying for the Rainforest Alliance certification asks fives questions upfront, see here, and then connects with their partners directly to walk them through the rest of the process.

When I asked Teresa about the biggest issues surrounding these kinds of certifications, she mentioned that a lot of the certificates just aren’t applicable in many countries. 

We clump South America and Asia into two, big, “same but different” continents and naturally, everything from the ecosystems, biodiversity, culture and environmental conditions (like altitude) are worlds away.

Prime example: The Bird Friendly certification. 

The Bird Friendly certification, lesser known but one of the best out there, requires farmers to abide by a strict policy of shade-grown coffee, allowing some of natural habitat to coexist, avoiding soil erosion and retaining moisture so farmers use less water. It’s fantastic and it works, but in Brazil’s Cerrado habitat, which has very few trees, coffee is naturally grown in the sun. To preserve the biodiversity in the Cerrado, clusters of natural habitat need to be set aside and remain untouched. 

For certificates to work, we need them to be decentralised and contextually specific.

There’s also a few gaps to be aware of when glorifying certifications.

The Rainforest Alliance certification nobly shoots for the golden trio, mindfully developing inclusive standards that meet their requirements for environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Their biggest downfall? Only 30% of the coffee in a package needs to have passed muster for the package to be legally labelled Certified. It also doesn’t require a minimum purchasing price for coffee, nor does it actually do anything at all to ensure more equitable wages for farmers.

 “And, what about the Fair Trade Certificate?” I asked, probing for a charged response.

The Fair Trade certification has received countless praise and criticism, yet, Teresa gives it credit for starting the conversation. The Fair Trade certification can be applauded for the way it kicked the community into gear, generating quality debate surrounding the issue.

Traveler’s Tip

When pursuing Fair Trade coffee, be sure to look for the “Fair Trade Certified” label, just “fair trade” holds no legal weight.

3. How knowledgeable is the coffee shop about the industry and how plausible are their claims?

Do they have a Bird Friendly label on their Brazilian coffee?

Did they claim pursuing certifications was full of red tape and other unnecessary paperwork?  

If they’re a roaster that chose to use a broker, why?

If you’ve done your research, you have the tools to question their claims, start a conversation, challenge them to do more and enhance your own knowledge base.

We have a moral responsible to keep our café owners, roasters and any other third-parties within the industry accountable. If coffee isn’t meeting your ethical standards, move your travel purchases elsewhere.

And if ever in doubt, call up The Genuine Origin Coffee Project and grill their wonderful staff on the best way to keep moving forward.

Now, is it time for a coffee?

Published: 11/30/2016

Born and bred in Sydney, I'm proud of my roots yet an addict for being anywhere but home (I'm sorry, mum!). Above all, I'm passionate about spreading my love of sustainable, innovative and entirely unique travel experiences through El Nomad

Besides fruitlessly crossing countries off my long, long list, I'm a word-lover and photographer. I can't leave home without my camera, even if I "definitely" (you just never know) won't be needing it. 

I'm also a hopeless dreamer, I love new projects and connecting with people that inspire me.