Light and sweet; milk, no sugar. It seems as little as 20 years ago, people cared more about how they took their coffee than where it was from and how it was grown. Now we have choices and people are more informed. But how can we be sure that we’re buying ethically grown and processed coffee that does not exploit the people who produce it? With the emergence of an artisan coffee roaster on every corner and the abundance of information available, it’s actually getting easier.

The two main species of coffee being used today are Robusta and Arabica, the better of the two. Robusta coffee is grown at sea level and is a much sturdier plant, yielding more fruit. Its coffee has about twice as much caffeine as Arabica.

Arabica is grown at 4,000–6,000 feet above sea level on hillsides and is a more delicate plant, making it more difficult to farm. It likes partial sun and shade, and is more susceptible to disease and drought. Robusta is often mechanically harvested, while Arabica is hand-harvested, as the cherries don’t ripen all at the same time.

For the most part, the coffee industry can be separated into two sectors: large multinational companies and specialty coffee roasters. Specialty coffee roasters make up a small percentage of the industry, and they are intimately involved in the coffee process, from farming to processing to roasting. Large companies, on the other hand, buy in large quantities, making it easier for them to get what they want.

It seems as little as 20 years ago, people cared more about how they took their coffee than where it was from and how it was grown.

Unfortunately, these companies sometimes pay the farmer less than the cost to produce, giving farmers few options other than to resort to unethical farming practices. This includes cheap; clearing native trees and existing landscape to plant as many coffee trees as possible; and the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides.

There are also two main ways to source coffee: fair trade and direct trade. Fair trade refers to buying coffee from growers at a higher price than standard coffee, providing greater economic incentives for its producers and promoting healthier working conditions. Although the fair trade movement emerged as a response to post World War II poverty, certification was not introduced until 1988. Because the supply of coffee was greater than the demand and the International Coffee Organization did not set price quotas, the market was flooded with coffee. This rendered it nearly impossible for growers to command sufficient wages to turn a profit.

Launched in the Netherlands, fair trade certification aimed to artificially raise coffee prices on behalf of growers. The original name of the organization was Max Havelaar, named for a fictional Dutch character who opposed the exploitation of coffee farmers. In 1998, Trans Fair USA (now Fair Trade USA), an arm of the Fair Trade Labeling Organization International (FLO), was introduced as the only fair trade certifying label in America.

Fair Trade standards seek to support the development of disadvantaged and marginalized small-scale farmers and plantation workers. The three areas of focus on sustainable development are social, economic, and environmental. To be considered fair trade sources, farmers must meet and adhere to several criteria as set by their specific certifying body:

  • Organize in democratically run cooperatives subject to independent inspections

  • Use sustainable methods of agriculture

  • Enable pre-harvest financing for farmers who need it

  • Facilitate mutually beneficial, long-term trading relationships

  • Create a safe and healthy working environment and fair wages

  • Adhere to the UN Convention to the Rights of a Child regarding child labor exploitation and forced labor

  • Display transparency and accountability

Like any other system, fair trade has its issues and criticisms. One of the biggest concerns is the producer certification fee associated with carrying the Fair Trade logo. Therefore, the system excludes small family farmers and producers who cannot afford to form cooperatives or associations, hence cannot become Fair Trade certified.

The existence of “green washing” or “social washing”—when large corporations claim to be fair traders while only importing a small fraction of their total products actually fair trade—is another drawback of the fair trade system. Whether a company imports 1 percent or 100 percent of its products fairly, it is deemed a fair trader. Unethical companies can abuse fair trade certification by marking up retail prices significantly, while only providing the growers with marginally higher prices.

Direct trade is a form of coffee sourcing practiced by some coffee roasters, and is defined by sourcing green coffee beans directly from farmers with a varied standard between producers. Direct trade is seen as an alternative to fair trade certification and represents the interests of the roaster, as well as the farmers who might disagree with the fundamentals of fair trade.

The term was coined by roasters, who consciously eliminated the middlemen on both the buying and selling side, as well as third-party organizations that control certifications. This puts more money (as much as 25 percent more than fair trade) directly into the hands of the farmers. In return, growers agree to produce beans to the standards of the roasters, which differ from roaster to roaster.

The basic guideline for direct trade coffee is economic sustainability, with an emphasis on quality standards, social issues, and environmental concerns. Most plantations are visited once during the growing season and again during harvest. In addition to their farming practices, coffee roasters who visit the farms monitor such issues as plantation management, including the use of pesticides and herbicides; wastewater disposal; and maintenance of forest cover. Unlike with fair trade certification, most roasters involved in direct trade are flexible with their approach to labor concerns, if it is addressed at all.

Although many roasters now practice direct trade, the movement was pioneered by three roasters: Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, Counter Culture Coffee, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters. These companies are considered the big three of the “Third Wave of Coffee,” a movement to produce high-quality coffee that is considered an artisanal beverage like wine, rather than a commodity like wheat.

Direct trade coffee is met with some criticism, as well, or at least skepticism. Many consumers wonder how they can be sure the coffee they’re buying and paying more for is actually what it claims to be. They can’t. But if they trust the company to stick to its own standards and they agree with those standards, then third-party certification is not necessary.

As we continue to progress as a planet and think with a more global mindset, additional types of certifications of not only coffee, but also other products like cacao, will present themselves. Consumers must choose their cause, educate themselves, and jump on that bandwagon to make a difference in the world. Whether it’s milk and two sugars or fair trade from Sumatra, the well-informed choice is inevitably theirs.

Paul Delle Rose is a chef and assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Beverage, Outside Insights, Story, Sustainability, Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, Stumptown Coffee Roasters