Friday, February 26, 2010

Un Petit Cafe

When it comes to eating a diet that is as sustainable as possible, one of my daily struggles is coffee. I generally only have a cup in the morning, but boy do I need that cup to start my day. Not so much for the caffeine as for the rich, comforting warmth that only the aroma and flavor of coffee can provide. (I have nothing against tea and drink plenty of it, but it's just not the same.)

For years now, I have been buying only Fair Trade, Shade Grown, Organic coffee. But, one thing I have never managed to do is get up early to brew this sustainable coffee and take it into work with me four days a week. The result: I, like so many tired, coffee-loving people, find myself at Starbucks, ordering coffee whose origins are unknown to me and drinking it out of a bleached paper cup. Sure, from day to day it may not seem like a big deal, but when you think about how many of us grab a quick cuppa Joe each day (or two, or three), it adds up very quickly on two fronts. First, there is the quantity of waste we generate with all of those disposable cups, the most offensive arrangement being the giant plastic iced coffee cup doubled up with an even bigger styrofoam one (shame on you Dunkin Donuts). But, even more importantly, there's a great deal of power being exercised when that many consumers make a repeat, daily purchase. We could all walk out tomorrow and tell Starbucks we're not coming back until everything they serve is shade grown. And guess what? They would have to comply. It's easy to forget that, added together, our daily personal choices do make for a serious force in the business world. As Gary Hirshberg, the owner of Stonyfield, points out in Food, Inc., it's the reason that Wal-Mart no longer carries milk from hormone-treated cows. We do have a voice, and even our smallest choices matter.

With this in mind, I recently made an investment in a teeny tiny French press, pictured above next to some lovely fruit courtesy of Enterprise Farm. I used it at home this morning for fun, but starting this Monday I will get my daily coffee at my desk rather than at a counter. Thanks to this adorable contraption, I will know where my coffee comes from and how it was grown. I can drink it out of a ceramic mug that makes a much better hand warmer than cardboard. And, I can change my part of the group message to places like Starbucks, no longer sending the signal that everything they're doing is a.o.k. with me. All this, while saving myself a good bit of money as well. Tres magnifique!

Update: As noted by a coffee-minded reader (see comments), Starbucks does have better practices than many coffee retailers when it comes to how their beans are grown and traded, all of which is detailed on their newly revamped (and rather impressive) website. While I am aware that Starbucks does have some good practices, the issue for me is that I can't be sure what lies behind the daily variety on any given morning. According to the site, 75% of their coffee is currenty "repsonsibly grown, ethically traded," and they have set goals for environmental responsibility, though nothing I can see on shade growing. You can let them know that you appreciate their efforts to be responsible, transparent corporate citizens, and that you'd like to see them reach 100% by dropping them a line here. If they can reach that goal, busy coffee-lovers no longer have to worry that the variety in their re-usable mug falls into the 25% whose provenance is questionable. If you are a devoted Dunkin' drinker, or Peet's, or elsewhere, encourage them to raise their sustainable standards as well!


  1. Good article and I agree that consumers should use their power to influence companies to do the right thing. Just a few minor things.
    1. You should really be able to know where your coffee comes from when you go to Starbucks. Almost all of their coffee is bought directly from farmers most of their coffees will show where the coffee comes from. Obviously they can't put everything on the pack but I do know that their relationship and buying practices means they can trace more than 90% of their coffee to very specific farms. Check out their CAFE Practices as this is one criteria - transparency right from the farmer to the cup.
    Lastly, there just isn't enough shade grown coffee in the world. You should engage with companies like Starbucks, Peet's, Tully's and the "instant coffee giants" like P&G, Kraft, Nestle and Sarah Lee - these four buy the majority of coffee in the world. Speak to them about getting more shade grown coffee grown in the world. And include the 3rd party certifiers as well - like Fairtrade - as most of their coffee do not come from shade grown either.

    My favourite coffee doesn't come from shade grown. Unfortunately, but it is still one good cup of coffee - Ethiopian Sidamo!

  2. Thank you for the note about Starbucks' practices--I did not mean to pick on them unfairly, so I've added an update to the post that includes a link to the website and its comments section for consumers. Hopefully people will use it to give feedback, as you suggest!