Monday, 18 July 2011

The Scoop On North America’s Leading Coffee Brands

Recently I was asked about some of the leading brands of coffees available in North American markets.  Two questions in particular were raised:

1)  Do these brands fit the ‘sustainable’ mold?


2)  If a large company claims to use Fair Trade beans, what does that mean? And, how can you distinguish this coffee from all of their other products?

In my first coffee blog, I provided the basics on sustainability labels.  The motivations behind our interest in these labels may vary. Some of us may prefer to support environmentally or socially ethical certifications or both.  Some may choose to buy coffee with no certifications in hopes of supporting local and smaller disadvantaged farmers, while others may take it one step further and eliminate coffee entirely from their routines because there are no ‘locally grown’ options where they live.  Although diverse coffee choices do exist if we look hard enough, the majority of coffee available to us is industrially produced with no certifications related to environmental or social farming conditions.   

To my knowledge, there are few certified sustainability standards associated with coffee sold by the four multinational companies dominating the North American coffee markets (click here for a critique on ‘when birders* drink Folgers’).  

Multinational corporations are experts in driving market prices down. This means ecologically and socially sustainable farming practices are not a likely a priority when large corporations purchase coffee beans.  The only way these companies can make the profits they seek is by purchasing coffee at low prices. And if the cost of coffee is low, this generally means that minimum effort is put into maintaining a high quality product and environmental standards are not a high-priority (Frontline provides a good background on the 'coffee crisis').  When world coffee prices plummet, farmers globally may suffer wage cuts, driving them to abandon their coffee plants and replace them with economically viable crops (e.g., such as the environmentally unfriendly sugarcane). I know many former coffee farmers in Costa Rica who have switched crops because they could no longer make a living producing high quality shade-grown coffee. By not paying attention to the products we buy, we may be unwittingly playing a part in this race for low prices. As a consequence, we neglect important issues, such as maintaining coffee farmers’ livelihoods or supporting environmentally friendly farming.

Back to the original questions. At least one of the major coffee brands produces a Fair Trade certified coffee. One of the benefits of Fair Trade is that it guarantees farmers are paid a minimum price for their coffee. This price, to some degree, is independent from market fluctuations. 

To answer the second question, if coffee is 100% certified as Fair Trade, it will be labeled on the package.  Commonly, you will find the logo (on the right) but different companies produce different labels depending on the product and the region of the world.  Because large companies may produce many different brands of coffee with varying certifications (if any), if you are looking for Fair Trade, makes sure the label says so.

My Two Cents:

Even if large companies produce one or a few Fair Trade products, in my opinion purchasing these ‘popular’ coffee brands is still supporting the practices of multinational market-driven corporations.  These same corporations are instrumental in creating social inequities that Fair Trade and other socially conscious choices attempt to counteract.  So, if you are set on drinking these major coffee brands then the best choice would be a Fair Trade option. However, there are other options out there. I have previously suggested a couple found in my neck of the woods. At first it may seem like a lot of work for us to weed through coffee aisles or shops in our quest to make socially and environmentally conscious choices.  However, as we do so we become better informed about how our eating choices influence the environment that we, and especially coffee farmers, depend upon.

For more information on coffee giants check out:


Bacon, C. 2005. Confronting the coffee crisis: can fair trade, organic, and specialty coffees reduce small-scale farmer vulnerability in northern Nicaragua. World Development 33(3): 497-511. 

Coffee photo courtesy of David Minor.


  1. Some of the major coffee producers have been making claims that they are prepared to move to 'free-trade' coffee. In Canada,we are now seeing Van Houte (European) brand showing about 40% of their choices with the 'free trade' sticker. This inicates some customer preference. Kicking Horse brand, and Safeway Organics brand are 100% free trade. How can we convince other brands to follow suit?

  2. Thanks for the question! The appearance of more Free Trade options on the market is indicative of consumer preference. So, demonstrating our preferences when we buy coffee is one way to influence other brands to follow suit. Another option is to contact coffee companies of your choice to inquiry about their policies. What I think is most important is putting ourselves, the consumers, back into the chain of food production.

    Lobbying for more social and environmentally sustainable products is not necesarily a straight forward process when our markets are flooded with products with no indiaction of where they came from. I'd love to hear from other people who have had similar experiences with coffee and/or other foods.

  3. Thank you for educating me about this! I will be sure to look for Fair Trade coffee from now on!

  4. Thanks Nina! I'm glad it was helpful!

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