Knowing Your Coffee Ethics

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Most coffee in America comes from countries in Asia, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa.
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“The Home Barista” by Simone Egger and Ruby Ashby Orr teaches readers how to take their favorite coffee bean and turn it into the perfect of cup of coffee.

The Home Barista (The Experiment, 2015) by Simone Egger and Ruby Ashby Orr teaches readers the ins and outs of brewing their favorite cup of coffee right at home. Egger and Ashby Orr walk readers through eight different methods of brewing after roasting your own beans. In this excerpt, they discuss buying ethically-produced coffee.

America is just one of the countries with an industrialized economy that consumes coffee like . . . well, the delicious drug that it is.

In the past ten years, our consumption of coffee has more than doubled. But most coffee comes from countries with developing economies in Asia, South America and sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a labor-intensive product produced by smallholder farmers who often don’t break even—thanks, for the most part, to fluctuating world market prices. Coffee production for the mass market is associated with exploitative child or forced labor practices. But there is a way to enjoy your coffee without it leaving a bitter taste.

Ethically produced coffee is guaranteed to have come from farms where workers are paid and treated fairly for their labor. It also refers to coffee that has been produced in a way that’s sensitive to the surroundings, with respect for the local environment.

There are a number of certification agencies setting basic standards and monitoring the activity of its members, but the nature of specialty coffee almost defines it as being ethically produced. Roasters and buyers partner with farmers to produce a high-quality product that most often only comes about from improved, sustainable farming and processing methods.


Fairtrade is a nonprofit commercial trading partnership and certification program established to ensure that growers receive a fair price for their coffee. Fairtrade does this by helping growers form co-operatives that then sell to traders who are certified to pay the Fairtrade Minimum Price—a price set by their co-operatives that covers the cost of sustainable production—or the market price, whichever is higher. The system protects individual growers from fluctuations in market prices and establishes growers in a robust supply chain.

There’s also the Fairtrade Premium, which is paid above and beyond the coffee price. The grower’s community receives this additional amount to fund better farming and community development programs.

Direct Trade

“Direct trade” refers to the relationship between roaster and grower, which is mutually respectful and beneficial without there being any official certification attached.

It means roasters scoot off overseas and visit farmers with some regularity. They discuss processes and practices, adjust methods if it’s possible to do things better and pay a fair price. It benefits the quality of the coffee, the environment, the farmer and their employees.

Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Alliance is an international nonprofit organization that works to conserve biodiversity and promote the rights and well-being of workers, their families and communities. Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee farms or groups of smallholder farmers are audited annually against comprehensive social, environmental and economic criteria and must commit to a process of continual improvement.

Rainforest Alliance certification also promotes decent living and working conditions for farm workers, access to education for their children and gender equity.

Cause Coffee

This is when a roasting company and/or retailer establishes a relationship with a particular development project (or cause) to which it gives a percentage of the purchase price. For example, Café Feminino in Vancouver (Fairtrade and organic to boot) promotes autonomy for women in Peru by being a business that’s entirely run by women.


Organic basically means that no chemicals were used in the growing and processing of the coffee. That means no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. While the certification involved in auditing an operation’s methods to ensure they comply with the guidelines of organic production will differ slightly between agencies, you get the gist: no chemical intervention.

More form: The Home Barista

Roasting Your Coffee Beans at Home
From the Coffea Tree to the Bean

Excerpt from The Home Barista: How to Bring Out the Best in Every Coffee Bean, copyright © Simone Egger and Ruby Ashby Orr, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.