Why they matter, why they exist

The certifications and special labels on coffee today grew out of two concerns: For the people who produce it and for the environment.

The people

coffee worker brings in the harvestThe Fair Trade movement arose in both the United States and Europe in the 1980s. Coffee had always been a boom and bust crop in Latin America and Africa, with little of the wealth it created going to the people who pruned the trees and picked the beans. In many countries, a day's pay for picking coffee beans wouldn't buy a fancy cup of coffee at Starbucks. By guaranteeing a minimum price for green coffee, the founders of the movement hoped to improve working conditions in the producing countries and reduce social problems, such as children dropping out of school to work or bankrupt farmers migrating to cities in desperation, where they joined huge numbers of other urban poor.

The environment

Even though coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in the world, it is still mostly grown on small farms. The traditional techniques used by those farmers involved growing coffee under a partial canopy of shade trees. To an uninformed or casual observer, a coffee farm can look like just another stand of forest. Yet it's a both a producing farm and a thriving natural habitat for a variety of wildlife.

Meanwhile, in search of higher yields, many large coffee plantations, sometimes with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank, pursued "technification." Producers grew coffee in open sunlight. The land was clear cut and coffee trees were planted in rows, like corn in Iowa or soybeans in Ohio. This so-called "sun coffee" produced greater quantites, but at an environmental cost. Pesticides replaced the birds that ate harmful insects on traditional plantations. Commercial fertilizers replaced the natural mulch from the tree canopies that had been cut down. Erosion, chemical runoff and other problems resulted.

Baltimore orioleAt the same time, in the 1990s, expert biologists and everyday birdwatchers alike became increasingly alarmed over the effect of habitat loss in Latin America on bird populations, including some popular species that summer in North America (such as the Baltimore oriole shown here at a feeder). Suddenly, birdwatchers in the United States had a personal reason to care about how their coffee was grown thousands of miles away.

From those forces grew the coffee certifications that guide consumers today.