Conscientious Coffee: Why Choose Fair Trade and Shade Grown Coffee?

In the world of coffee drinkers, I fall somewhere in between Enthusiast and Obsessed. I have only one cup per day but the ritual is so satisfying and restorative that I savor every blessed moment. In the Winter, there is nothing like hot coffee to warm you from the inside out. In the blistering Dog Days of summer, what better remedy than a creamy iced coffee with a dash of cinnamon….the cold cup streaked with beads of condensation soaking your hands as you stroll the balmy streets.

I’ve been a vegan for a decade, and “organic” has been leitmotif in my life, but only a year ago I started reflecting on my daily coffee ritual. Thanks to the broader consumer consciousness movement I started to ask: where is this coffee from? Who grew it? How was it grown?

Fair Trade Java: What’s the “Buzz”?

To see the fuller picture of coffee’s impact on the economy and climate, you have to draw the narrative line back not only from the barista who poured it but the trucks that delivered it from the docks and the boats that sailed it from its origin. We must acknowledge the families that live in coffee-growing regions of the world, from the East African coast to the volcanic Hawaiian islands. We must also acknowledge the farmers who maintain and pick the beans, and of course, the earth which yields it.

It’s overwhelming to imagine, but it inspires Robert and Elizabeth Thompson, owners of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on New Orleans’ tree-lined Ponce De Leon Street.

Mr. Thompson is passionate about the business of fair trade coffee because he believes in preserving the age-old practice of careful coffee growing. “It’s all connected,” he enthused, “the morality of the industry, the health of the shade-scape, organic product, the protection of birds and plant life in the coffee region’s ecosystem.” 

A popular Crescent City cafe, Fair Grinds is fair trade in every sense, he explained. “We carry 100 percent fair trade and shade grown coffees and chocolates,” he beamed. “It’s about sustainability; the small farmers that grow our coffee need to survive.”

Thompson, like so many others, is troubled by the reality of “free trade” production and the domination of behemoths such as Starbucks and Wal-Mart. “We have seen the effects of free trade on farmers and the current profit levels are not sufficient to sustain quality of life,” he said. When Starbucks buys in massive volumes and Wal-Mart advertises to save hundreds on a coffee maker with free coffee thrown in, the value of farming and integrity of the product is compromised. Moreover, pesticides that make farmers sick during harvest can also endanger the consumers’ health. Fair trade’s overarching goal is to give farmers fair representation about what their work involves. Certified organic means free of pesticides and contaminates (sometimes genetically modified ingredients). Shade grown is essentially a softer cultivation with a gentler impact on the land. Plantation-style coffee growing without proper shading ravages the soil, Thompson lamented. Approximately 2,500 retail outlets around the nation–including Safeway, and independent co-ops–offer Fair Trade Certified coffee.  Starbucks Coffee, the world’s largest specialty coffee roaster, also offers Fair Trade certified coffee in its 2,000+ stores nationwide.

It’s a poverty existence to everyone’s detriment, and fair traders believe that we can do better. Documentaries such as “Black Gold” spotlight the ways the movement tries to address the widespread inequity, dangerous working conditions, and ecological damage. 

Coffee Communities

More than venues for artists and writers, conscious cafes like Fair Grinds represent an integrated coffee trade system. From organic sugar to recycled napkins, progressive coffeehouses are growing in demand in the US and worldwide, even the coffee costs extra. Any informal poll with also tell you that organic/fair trade joe simply tastes better. Perhaps it is the lack of pesticides or the Made-With-Love difference, and organic brew is a richer experience. “15-20 percent of our customers don’t even know it’s fair trade,” Thompson said of his Fair Grinds clientele, ” they just come in because they know it’s good coffee.”

Setting standards and best practices for socially just coffee traders are organizations of devoted fair traders like Cooperative Coffees (a roaster’s cooperative created to buy fair trade coffee directly from farmer co-ops), Equal Exchange, Global Exchange, TransFair, and the Fair Trade Federation.

A founding member of Cooperative Coffees is the Massachusetts roaster Dean’s Beans ( Dean’s Beans is a poetic, ambitious company–the paragon of an environmentally responsible and fair trade business. Their inventory of whole beans are certified organic, fair trade, and kosher, roasted in small batches at their beanery in Orange, Massachusetts. 

For the folks at Dean’s Beans, coffee, sustainability, and community development are connected. “Besides only roasting organic coffees, Dean’s Beans only purchases beans from villages and importers that are committed to fair trade and working towards better economic opportunity, improved health and nutrition in the villages,” they say on their website. “We promote local empowerment and self-reliance through our fair trade purchases and our work with local grassroots development and human rights groups. We also sponsor projects here at home with disenfranchised communities such as Native Americans, the homeless, and disabled, and many other groups trying to improve their lives and that of their communities.”  

It may be just a small chink in the armor of a colossal industry, but the conscious coffee movement is growing. More and more consumers are “waking up” to better brews. Whether it’s the mysterious citrus of an Ethiopian blend or a velvety Peruvian roast, each fair trade cup is a positive contribution. Whole Foods–the go-to organic purveyor–promotes organic, shade grown, and bird friendly coffee. McDonalds UK has switched over to fair trade coffee.  

Hopefully more will follow.

I’m about to make a French Press of Dean’s Bean’s Birdwatcher’s Blend–a nutty blend of Guatemalan Atitlan and Mexican Chiapas coffees from shade grown farms. Smooth taste while protecting migratory songbird habitats…it’s coffee that makes me sing.

For more information, visit:

 Posted by: Margot Douaihy


3 Responses

  1. As someone who is pretty much on the same wavelength with their love of coffee, I greatly appreciated this post! I try to buy Fair Trade beans whenever possible and that usually involves going to another grocerty store to do so (unless I’m lucky enough to get the time to drive up to Whole Foods).

    I’m going to check out Deans Beans now! Thanks Margot


  2. Yea for Fair Trade!!! Along with your coffee, consider buying Fair Trade for chocolate. Most people don’t realize that the majority of the world consumed chocolate is made from cocoa from the Ivory Coast, where child labor (and often slavery) is used on the cocoa plantations – not to mention the environmental devastation that modern cocoa plantation have on the communities.

    For Fair Trade chocolate, check out We specialize in Fair Trade truffles handmade from Fair Trade chocolate and organic ingredients. We also have Chocolate Body Treats (yes…chocolate for your body!!) that are also organic and contain Fair Trade cocoa/chocolate.

    Peace, Love & Fair Trade Chocolate!

  3. Thanks for spreading the good word and mentioning our great friends at Dean’s. The world should know what Dean’s folks do for the planet, they did for us here in New Orleans after Katrina destroyed our shop. They kindly sent bags of their various fresh coffees personally signed by their staff, which we brewed and distributed to our homeless neighbors, our relief workers and other Katrina victims for free. Of all the relief sent to New Orleans in the first weeks of recovery, Dean’s was the best product and lifted our spirits more than any old Red Cross baloney or discontinued corporate products dumped on us. Thanks Dean and friends for your honest help, your sincere gift and your good works!

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