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Cause Coffees: Sustainable Coffees

The latest and most ambitious initiative by coffee idealists is the sustainable coffee movement, a big-tent effort to bring together everyone from cranky connoisseurs to birders, health fanatics, and social progressives. The goal is to rally them in common cause against the coffee-as-faceless-commodity system that, in its anonymous emphasis on price alone, is the ultimate cause of coffee's exploitation of both human beings and environment.

One version of the sustainable vision has been implemented by the Rainforest Alliance, whose Eco-OK seal certifies that Eco-OK inspectors have found that qualifying coffee farms and mills meet a wide variety of environmental criteria, including wildlife diversity, non-polluting practices, and responsible and limited use of agrochemicals, as well as social and economic criteria that support the welfare of farmers and workers.

Unfortunately, the current sustainable movement offends some supporters of organically grown coffees, who feel that the sustainable idea is a warm, fuzzy rip-off that dilutes everything they have worked for. It also bothers quality-oriented purists, who feel that the only criteria for selling coffee should be how good the coffee tastes in the cup. Time will tell whether the inclusive goals of the sustainable movement can be turned into a practical system with clear and verifiable criteria satisfactory to coffee's many passionate voices and communities.

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Adapted from Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing & Enjoying; Espresso: Ultimate Coffee; and Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival. St. Martin's Press.
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