Guest Blog – How environmentally friendly is your cup of coffee? by Derek Thomas

DerekThomasEducated at Imperial College London, Derek Thomas (@Coffeewarblers ) spent his professional life as a mathematician, but has also had a lifelong interest and involvement in natural history. Now retired, he is fully occupied as a nature conservationist. He has served at a local and national level in many guises with a variety of organisations including The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The British Trust for Ornithology and The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. Recently retired as Chairman of Wildlife Trusts Wales he continues to work at a national level in the UK. Passionate about rainforests, Derek is presently the UK representative for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bird Friendly Coffee Programme and is engaged in an educational campaign to promote shade-grown coffee in the UK. 


Photo: Julius Schorzman, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Julius Schorzman, via Wikimedia Commons

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after oil. It’s estimated that about 30,000 cups of coffee are consumed on the planet every second, and that we produce in excess of 5 million tons worldwide each year. Have you ever stopped to think of what effect this huge trade might be having on the environment and our carbon footprint?

The Ethiopian highlands are the home of coffee, and it still grows there naturally under the shade of tropical forests. First discovered there over 1,000 years ago, it was eventually taken to Asia by the Dutch, and first cultivated in Latin American in the 18th century. It is now grown in over 50 countries throughout the tropics.

Over the last few decades, economic and social pressures have forced farmers worldwide to increase the productivity and yield of coffee shrubs and individual farms. This ‘technification’ of coffee farming, which replaced traditional shade-grown methods with sun-cultivated monocultures, resulted in for example over 2.5 million acres of forests in Central America being destroyed in the last 20 years. This caused an immediate loss in biodiversity, both in the many types of trees and plants that were eliminated, but also in the animals that depended upon them. It also had the effect of reducing the essential absorption effect of carbon dioxide by the felled trees. Thus instead of the original shade-grown wildlife-friendly arabica variety, most coffee in your local supermarket will be of the modern sun-grown robusta variety.

What about Fair Trade coffee, surely this is OK? Well it’s not quite as simple as that. Fair Trade products, as the name implies, guarantee a fair price to the producer irrespective of the variation in the market value of their goods. This can mean that some Fair Trade coffee is grown in an environmentally-friendly way and some may even be shade-grown. Look in your local store, find the Fair Trade logo and read carefully the information on the package. It will typically tell you that the contents are Fair Trade, but will usually have little or no detailed reference to the environment.

Other varieties are labelled ‘organically grown’ and you will find this claim on many Fair Trade coffees. A label to look out for in the UK is that of the Soil Association. This organisation, as the name suggests, promotes coffees that have been grown in a sustainable way, using the minimum of fertilisers and herbicides, thus keeping the land in better shape. This is of course to be welcomed, but still you will usually find no reference to shade-grown coffee and the certification does allow for some fertilisers to be used.

Coffees which have the Rainforest Alliance logo (a little green frog), are everywhere. This is an American organisation, now working in over 50 countries. It works towards conserving biodiversity and ensuring sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behaviour. There’s a chance that a coffee with the Rainforest Alliance seal of approval could be shade-grown, but look very carefully at the small print and decide how environmentally friendly the coffee inside really is. Many rainforest coffees are not even organically grown.

In North America the issue of shade-grown coffee is well known and you will find many varieties on sale in many supermarkets and grocery stores. One reason for this awareness lies in the recent decline of North American Neotropical migrants. These are birds that breed in North America and winter in Central and South America. Many of these species, in particular warblers, have undergone dramatic declines in the last couple of decades, and one of the major factors has been the decimation of their wintering forest habitats in the tropics, including shade-grown coffee plantations. Huge areas of forests have been cleared, or fragmented for timber, but also for agriculture, and coffee production on this land has been a very big factor.

coffeeThe Migratory Bird Centre at The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC has undertaken a great deal of research over more than 20 years into the effects of coffee growing on the environment, and in particular on Neotropical migrants, and has developed a system of sourcing and certifying shade-grown organic coffees. Their logo can be found on many coffees in supermarkets throughout the USA, Japan and sales are gradually taking off in Europe.

We must be very careful about what we consider as shade. It can range from just a few banana trees, to original rainforest. The Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification guarantees that the coffee is grown under sufficient shade to replicate as near as possible rainforest biodiversity, and that it is certified organic by an internationally recognised organisation. The Smithsonian’s website is packed with lots of interesting information and is certainly worth visiting.

At last, the Smithsonian’s ‘Bird Friendly’ coffee is available in the UK and can be purchased via the RSPB’s website and a few independent retailers. It’s the only triple certified coffee in the world – organic, Fair Trade and shade-grown with enough shade to satisfy strict biodiversity standards. The certification is considered by the coffee industry as the ‘Gold Standard’.

So what about our migrating birds? Most of our small migratory birds winter in the African savannahs and not in Latin American forests, so we don’t have the same problem. This kind of parochial argument doesn’t hold water in the light of our current global ecological problems. We drink lots of coffee in the UK; we must think about the planet and in particular about rainforests. At the end of the day, coffee is all about forests!

So, next time you buy coffee, take a little time for research. Almost all coffee sold in jars, is sun-grown and blended (keep away from jars and blends, you have no control on their contents!). Look at the origin of the coffees in your local supermarket. The majority are from Latin America, with some from Africa and Southeast Asia. There are virtually no logos which guarantees the coffee is both shade-grown and organic. However if you look very carefully at the small print, you may find a reference to shade coffee. For example, some coffees from Ethiopia are shade-grown and I have recently found one from Cuba and Ecuador. Indian coffee is also a good bet as most appears to be grown in the shade.

Best of all is to ask shopkeepers to stock shade-grown organic coffee – they’ll probably look confused!

Demanding and buying shade-grown organic coffee is just one more example of how we can each make a difference, and it’s the combined effect of all of us that will strengthen our crusade to save the planet.

I’m working with the Smithsonian to try to introduce the message of shade-grown organic coffee into the UK and am gradually winning. But we also need to inform the public here about the damage most coffees are having on the environment. Please spread the word!

Finally, I believe that shade coffee tastes better. It is certainly beats the instant stuff (we call this coffee!). It also makes breakfast a nicer experience, knowing that you’re doing your bit for the planet and enjoying a really good cup of coffee in the bargain.

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28 Replies to “Guest Blog – How environmentally friendly is your cup of coffee? by Derek Thomas”

  1. I have always been a Kenco drinker but not thought about any if the issues in this blog, this has made me think and at the earliest opportunity I will buy some of the RSPB shop, might be able to get to one tomorrow. Thank you.

  2. The RSPB coffee isn't cheap but that is what comes with ethics.

    I switched a while back though and it tastes excellent. Much nicer than what I used to drink.

  3. Very interesting.

    I don’t want to perpetuate contemporary loss of natural habitats but is the coffee I buy or a large proportion of it grown in landscapes that have been given over to coffee production for years/decades/centuries?

    How do we differentiate between products creating and adding new losses and those where the impacts are now historic – all those crops grown on land that used to be occupied by woodland supporting passenger pigeons for example. When is ‘year zero’ and is it different for different crops?

  4. Good points Derek and I would not argue against them. However, in this country we are the World leaders at destroying our Environment. It is about the only thing we are good at. We tell others to protect their Environment and turn our backs on our own.

  5. The World Land Trust has been promoting Puro (organic, fair trade etc) coffee in UK for several years, and they donate % of the turnover (nb not just profit, but turnover) to conservation. This has resulted in major conservation initiatives in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador Guatemala and other places, and around £150,000 a year for land purchase and other conservation initiatives; There some good videos on the Puro website. Colombian conservation NGO, ProAves also produces similar coffee. And some is produced in Belize. In fact there's quite a lot out there if one looks for it. It's not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction that we can all take. For past five years Puro Coffee has been available on the WLT stand at the BirdFair. We should have a tasting with the others perhaps!

    1. Thanks for this John. Yes, I'm aware of the great work that WLT does to promote good coffee. Let's all work together to get the message to the UK public. All big NGOs in the UK should be spreading the word, but alas many people in the environmental movement are unaware of the connections between coffee, rainforest, birds and eventually climate change.

  6. Totally support the campaign for bird friendly, organic coffee BUT if this concept is to have a real impact it needs to be more than a niche market. One outlet for what is obviously an expensive product is not enough. I spend time looking at the details about the food I buy - sadly the labels do not always tell me what I want to know and that is one issue that needs sorting [along with supplying each shopper with a magnifying glass to read the 'small print']. But to have an impact the big supermarkets need to sell the products because the facts are that probably most of the food purchased is from a supermarket. If your supermarket doesn't have exactly what you want you are not likely to go home empty handed, go on line and order it and wait 3-5 days for it to be delivered [if you are at home to sign for it of course]. This is the real world of the majority and this section of the market is the one that such campaigns have to tackle.

    1. Stella - I think that, as usual (always?), you are right. Thank you for your comments on this blog - I like them!

  7. Thanks Derek, more power to your elbow. I think that price (to the consumer) will determine which coffee (instant or fresh) people drink for a while yet. In London, I have seen a shift toward organic coffee in high end local stores in recent years. The leap to shade grown produce will not be easy as folk are used to cheap (relatively) coffee like cheap everything else. Have any supermarkets shown any interest in promoting shade grown?

    1. Thanks for your kind words Pete! Have tried to get the supermarkets involved, but no success as yet, but I will keep at it!

  8. I like choice and I also like beans over ground, so I looked for some of the other bird friendly coffee Derek referred to as available from 'a few independent retailers'. I found only Bird & Wild ( online which carried the Smithsonian certification logo - at least they also offered beans as well as different types of grinds. Not that long ago we switched from a premium coffee brand to an organic coffee (Forest Alliance certified) and the spend is around the same at £1.65 per 100g (the RSPB coffee is £2.40 per 100g) but at the time we couldn't find any Smithsonian certified coffee in the UK. Now I see we have at least two choices. So things have got better in just 12 months or so. I'll try the ones on offer and if the pass the Dudley taste test I'll consider switching. (I wonder if the RSPB use their own bird-friendly coffee in their reserve cafes?)

    I was discussing this very point with one of my bird groups last month and one guy threw in a curved ball. He knew of two South American coffee growers who do not grow shade grown bird-friendly coffee, but, and their is nearly always a but, they both plough all their profits in to buying up primary forest and conserving it. You could probably argue (as he did) that primary forest is far better for wildlife than any shade grown forest system. Personally I like this and it would be great to have a scheme sourcing coffee from such growers and providing another option, but these growers beans will no doubt be simply bought up and absorbed into a mass purchase of beans which is often the case (and most beans go to produce instant coffee anyway).

    Since we're never going to get all coffee growers to be forest shade grown, bird-friendly and fair trade, then I think we have to live with a system which at least includes as many different environmentally beneficial growers or growing systems that we can support as consumers.

  9. Cafeology are delighted to read @Coffeewarblers blog. Next month sees us launch our first Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre Bird Friendly Coffee endorsed by the RSPB.

    This product will be available in both ground and beans and we hope to be speaking to major retailers soon.

    Please follow @cafeology to keep informed of the developments. The coffee is Guatemalan and will be sold under the Cafeology brand. As well as retail, we will be launching this fabulous Guatemalan coffee into the out of home markets. It also Fairtrade certified and naturally organically farmed.

    Although a premium product, it will be competitively priced and available throughout the UK.

    Keep up the great work Derek!

  10. As you say, our birds migrate to West Africa. I don’t know how many birds winter in the cocoa areas there, but there is a similar problem with cocoa where the shade is being removed for various reasons.

    1. Absolutely, and this is happening in the coffee growing regions of Africa as well. Climate change is also adding to the pressures on wildlife as the cooler highlands where coffee is grown are slowing getting warmer.

  11. Thanks for your informative post, Derek! The term 'shade grown coffee' is largely unknown in the UK for the moment, and this post is great for growing awareness. We at Bird & Wild have also been doing what we can to spread the word...

    We've been making Bird Friendly certified coffee available on our website since late 2013 (very glad you found us Steve Dudley!), and our coffee is also stocked in a growing number of retailers across the UK. At present our coffees are sourced from Peru and Ethiopia.

    I would also add that shade is not only good for the environment - it's good for the coffee too. Most coffees are naturally suited to growing in shade, and coupled with the elevation of highland forests, coffee is allowed to grow and ripen slowly and develop great complexity and character. For us, that's the real clincher, because nobody really wants to buy an 'ethical' product if it isn't as good.

    Keep asking your retailers for shade grown and Bird Friendly coffee: it tastes better!

    Follow us on Twitter for our updates and news: @BirdandWild

    Cheers Derek!

    1. Thanks for this and really good to know that there are companies out there with a conscience.

      I've been working at getting the notion of shade coffee known in the UK for several years now and am now confident that the coffee will take off here in the near future. It needs pioneering companies like Bird and Wild to start the ball rolling!

  12. Derek we share your enthusiasm for the certification and the ambition, as roasters of fine coffee we identified SMBC as ticking all the boxes, including great taste, we have some 4 SMBC coffees available and have recently agreed with Harrods that they will stock our 250gram Caddy. The range includes coffees from; Colombia, Guatemala, Ethiopia and Peru. The price is £ 6.45 per caddy.
    On our website we offer 125gram bags of the same selection in beans, medium or fine ground.

    1. Many thanks for this Andrew, and thanks for being the very first company in the UK to promote Bird Friendly Coffee.

      Very exciting news that the coffee will soon be available at Harrods. This should certainly raise the profile of @SMBC over here!

  13. Thanks for the post promoting Certified Bird Friendly coffee - it is good to have some company! After working on it in North America for more than a decade, we're delighted to see BF coffee beginning to take hold in the UK.

    One small point - the coffee being sold is not the only Triple Certified coffee in the world - we also offer triple certified coffees (including the first, and as far as we can tell, the only, triple certified Bird Friendly espresso!)


  14. Is there anyway we can get involved in helping to get this product into supermarkets and local stores?

  15. Hi Mark,
    I am currently in the process of opening a restaurant in London and I would like it to be as environmentally sound as possible, starting with our raw materials. I have just begun the process of finding coffee roasters that tick all the boxes : organic, shade-grown, fair trade and direct trade - and have found quite a few. Now it's a question of narrowing them down. I am reaching out to you because I was wondering whether you personally knew of any in particular who are 100% transparent and have a great taste. Your advice would be much appreciated. Thank you,


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