(updated June 2009) Recently, the topic of shade coffee came up on the popular Internet bird list, BirdChat. I hope BirdChatters will have a look around Coffee & Conservation, beginning with some of the posts listed under "Overview" at left. But I thought I would take this opportunity to directly answer some specific questions which were asked on the list.
First up was the issue of "dueling" eco-labels. Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has a trademarked certification called "Bird-Friendly." It is the strongest assurance you can have that the coffee was grown under sustainable conditions: it must be certified organic, grown under a certain level of shade, and meet other strict ecological criteria. This certification is mostly limited to Latin American coffee, but has recently been expanded into Africa.
Rainforest Alliance also certifies coffee and other products. Their criteria are not as strict (for example, coffee does not have to be certified organic) and they include social criteria as well. They allow use of their seal for products containing just 30% Rainforest Alliance certified beans. Large companies such as Kraft have used this to their advantage, for example on their Yuban brand, where the rest of the beans may be from totally awful sources. In fact, I am waiting response from Rainforest Alliance regarding some of the criticisms leveled at them. You can read more about certification at this post, and clicking on the category "Corporate coffee" will show you posts about specific problems with many of the big brands.
There is no law regulating the use of the term "shade grown." I wrote two posts (one, two) on who determines if a coffee is shade grown if it is not certified. The certification process is expensive, and many farms use completely organic methods (as they cannot afford chemicals) and grow coffee under shade in a traditional manner. With careful research, it's possible to determine if the coffee you drink is grown sustainably. It's easiest if you buy coffee sourced from a single farm or coop, and it is useful to know how coffee is grown in certain regions, and the type of bean grown. This is the kind of research I try to do for readers, and the list of sustainable coffee retailers in the left sidebar are good bets, and all coffees that are reviewed undergo similar scrutiny.
Regarding Trader Joe's and Whole Foods in general, Whole Foods subsidiary Allegro Coffee has many sustainable coffees in its line, and depending on the region Whole Foods carries other reliable brands: in much of the southeast, they carry Counter Culture's Sanctuary line, which I've reviewed. You can find other reviews of Allegro coffees in the coffee review section. Trader Joe's is very secretive about where they source their coffee and none of it is certified shade coffee. Read all about Trader Joe's coffee here.
Is Thanksgiving Coffee Company legit? Yes, although the fact that they imply that their Songbird Coffees are certified shade grown is misleading, which bothers me. I wrote about Songbird Coffees here and here. Who determines whether their coffees are shade grown? The founder of the company. Great guy and dedicated social activist, but not an ecologist. Nonetheless, from what I've determined, most of Thanksgiving's shade are grown quite sustainably. My personal choice for a "conservation" coffee is Green Mountain Coffee Roaster's National Wildlife blend, reviewed here.
I hope BirdChat readers find these answers helpful, and I welcome feedback in the comments. What other questions do you have after looking over C&C? What coffees, brands, companies, regions, or birds would you like to see researched and reviewed? I want this blog to be as useful to you as possible, so feel free ask away. Just remember, I have a day job! I'll get to your burning issues as quickly as I can!