When birders* drink Folger’s

by JulieCraves on February 2, 2009

An editorial recently appeared in the scientific journal Conservation Biology. It was titled “When swordfish conservation biologists eat swordfish.” As the title implies, it’s a riff on the hypocrisy of avowed conservationists when their own lifestyles are inconsistent with the messages they voice. It struck a big chord with me, so I am going to borrow on its theme and major points.

One of my biggest frustrations is the resistance among many birders to change their coffee buying habits. Most birders I’ve talked to are aware that shade grown coffee preserves habitat and is very important to birds, and that mass produced coffee and grocery store brands are bad for the environment. But the next thing I often hear is some excuse why they still drink unsustainable coffee: they can’t find shade coffee, it’s too expensive, they don’t understand or trust certifications, they don’t like the shade/organic coffee they’ve tried, or…no excuse at all. Just a shrug and an admission of guilt.

Not only is it time for us — birders — to acknowledge that our consumption is often in conflict with our professed beliefs and passions, it’s time to do something about it.

In an ideal world, corporate conscience or government regulations would see to it that our environment is protected and that habitats are not destroyed needlessly. But in reality corporations and elected officials both respond to the values and actions of public consensus.

For coffee, certifications (such as Fair Trade, organic, or Bird-Friendly) help fill a regulatory vacuum. But since they are voluntary and not legally required, they are market-driven. Market forces will favor the standards that are easiest to meet. Participation by producers and distributors is reliant upon them gaining higher prices, better market access, or positive social benefits. Lack of consumer demand for the certified coffees undermines all of these motivations.

Chestnut-sided Warblers used to winter here, once upon a time.

Lack of demand has also contributed to the scarcity of certified coffees in the market. Consumers need to grow this market segment. Seeking out sources of sustainably-grown coffee, even if it lacks a certification seal, sends a message to producers. But it means doing a lot of homework. So no matter how you look at it, it is our responsibility to become informed, and we are left to make hard choices regarding our coffee buying habits ourselves.

Of all people, aren’t we as birders the ones who should be setting the example for others? Certainly we are far more informed about the habits, natural history, and declines in many migratory birds than the general public. If we can’t translate our love for birds into action in our daily lives, who are we to criticize the “drill, baby, drill” mentality of others?

To not make the effort to drink coffee that sustains the habitats not only of the creatures that bring us joy, but also of an enormous chunk of the biodiversity that sustains our planet, is not being a particularly responsible world citizen. It also indicates a belief that the actions of individuals do not matter.

The ConBio editorial ended with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi that I will repeat here:

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

I want to see a world filled with birds and tropical biodiversity. I want to support that, even with the small but powerful gesture of the coffee I choose to drink.

(A follow-up to this post is here.)


*You may substitute “nature lovers”, “conservationists”, “environmentalists”, or other green type and still get the picture.

Photo of Doka Coffee Estate in Costa Rica by Josh Yellin via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Bearzi, G. 2009. When swordfish conservation biologists eat swordfish. Conservation Biology 23:1-2.

Revised on December 11, 2018

Posted in Background information,Corporate coffee

John February 2, 2009 at 11:45 am

Bringing field trip business to a responsible coffee shop can work pretty well, if you can find one that's convenient. When I was with DC Audubon, we used to meet for carpooling next to a Murky Coffee, which makes an effort to provide shade-grown or fair trade coffees. Most of the participants would buy something there before we left, even without much encouragement from field trip leaders.

Patrick February 2, 2009 at 9:46 am

Well said… a big birding culture shift that I see is needed is that birders LOVE to stop at Dunkin' Donuts or other chains for coffee. We need to start bringing our own coffee with us in a thermos and serving it to everyone. I usually bring my own for myself, but I am guilty as charged in participating in the DND binge. What's your thought on McDonald's Newman's Own Organic coffee? I know it's not shade-grown. If birders "have" to stop somewhere for a birder coffee break, is this the least evil?

Julie February 2, 2009 at 10:13 am

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters does supply a lot of east coast McDonald's with coffee, and it's one of the roasters that does a good job sourcing coffee. If you have Caribou Coffee in your area it's a decent choice, as they have a lot of Rainforest Alliance certified coffee. Panera is pretty good, too. It's great if you can find an independent coffee shop, and encourage them to carry at least one sustainable coffee — and promise them your field-trip business! Otherwise your option of bringing along your own is a great idea.

The lack of availability of certified shade coffees is a huge handicap. Personally, I just don't drink coffee outside of the house unless I know it's a "good" cup. Doing without is a small price to pay, given the lousy consequences of drinking mass produced coffee. I mean, drinking Dunkin Donuts on a birding trip is like going to see nice birds, and then turning around and shooting them. Makes no sense.

bug_girl February 6, 2009 at 8:59 am

yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Thanks for this post.

bug_girl February 6, 2009 at 7:25 pm

odd…I wonder why it posted twice? I didn't mean to be quite that emphatic :)

Julie February 7, 2009 at 8:57 am

I don't know why it double-posts some comments. Since you were so right on, I'll leave them there!

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