We all want an ethical coffee industry. One with a sustainable supply chain that benefits everyone, especially those the coffee industry has historically left behind: farmers.
The problem is, the word ‘ethical’ is thrown around so much as a buzzword, it feels nearly impossible to know what it means—not to mention whether a specific company’s coffee is actually ethically sourced.
The team at Bellwether has collectively been sourcing green coffee for more than three decades, our sustainability work has won awards across the industry. We thought it’d be helpful to put together some recommendations on how to assess coffee for you. In this article, we’ll cover:
- Why defining ethically sourced coffee is harder than it seems
- The human and environmental aspects of ethical coffee
- 7 recommendations of ethically sourced coffee on the market today
By the end, you’ll know how to identify and source ethically produced coffee beans, guaranteeing an honorable wage for farmers and promoting sustainable farming.
What Even Is Ethically Sourced Coffee, Anyway?
What’s the biggest obstacle when it comes to identifying ethically sourced coffee? That there’s no universal definition. No single worldwide organization defines the term with a globally accepted meaning. Even the industry’s most well‑known formal certifications, like Fair Trade and Certified Organic, have different goals and ideas about sustainability. However, since most of the world’s smallholder farmers can’t afford those certifications anyway, it’s best to find alternative answers.
Ethics in coffee is a complex topic—the supply chain has beans going from farmers to middlemen to resellers, wholesalers, and any number of other hands before reaching your coffee maker. And with everyone taking a cut along the way, typical pricing models are simply not working for a lot of farmers, many of whom live in poverty.
At Bellwether, sustainable and ethical coffee sourcing is something we’ve thought a lot about
. We’ve tried to clear up the confusion by developing our own definition of ethically sourced. We believe there are two key elements to ethically sourced beans: the human, and the environment.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Human Side of Ethically Sourced Coffee
Sourcing coffee ethically means paying farmers a living wage and treating them with dignity and respect. At Bellwether, we’re working with organizations to develop a standard model for Living Income Pricing
that determines appropriate coffee prices based on the daily cost of living realities of individual regions and communities.
Unfortunately, this runs counter to how the industry has historically operated:
- 80% of the world’s coffee farmers live below the poverty line. Current market prices do not meet farmers’ needs. Ethical coffee can only exist when businesses pay fair prices for coffee beans so farmers can earn a local living wage and support their families.
- The coffee industry has been characterized by colonialism and exploitation. Western powers tend to exert undue control over coffee‑producing regions and dictate the terms of trade. This has perpetuated a system of inequality, with coffee producers often being marginalized and disempowered. Ethically sourced coffee supports producers’ agency to determine their own needs and set prices accordingly, rather than requiring producers to abide by rules set by roasters, importers, and other buyers.
- To practice ethical sourcing, coffee customers must respect farmers and producers. They’re free agents who deserve to be treated with dignity and have their agency and autonomy in the coffee supply chain honored. This respect involves avoiding a "white savior" mentality, where Westerners or other outsiders come in and try to "save" or "fix" things for coffee producers. Ethical sourcing does not see coffee buying as an act of charity, but an agreement between two businesses that want a fair and just deal.
Coffee businesses need to work closely with farmers and producers to make sure they’re being paid fairly. This requires visiting coffee producers on site and understanding their living costs firsthand, working with importers to evaluate pricing mechanics, and looking at what retail prices a coffee can support. It’s a whole supply chain process (in other words, a ton of work)...but something we take pride in doing at Bellwether’s Green Coffee Marketplace.
The Environmental Side
Ethically sourced beans are produced using approaches that protect nature and minimize environmental damage. Think practices like growing coffee under the shade of trees (promotes biodiversity and reduces deforestation) or organic farming (uses few or no pesticides and fertilizers).
Many coffee growers around the world abide by organic agricultural principles, even if they aren’t officially certified. So how can you discern whether a coffee is sustainably grown, harvested, and processed? Start by looking for transparency and clear data: detailed information on the origin, farming practices, and efforts made to develop a more sustainable practice.
When we support systems that produce coffee production in unsustainable ways, we support harming the environment, damaging soil, and polluting the ecosystem. But by prioritizing ethical coffee production, we can support healthy ecosystems and vibrant communities for generations to come.
Taking our definition of ethically sourced beans, we developed a scorecard system
for the Bellwether Green Coffee Marketplace. This tiered rating system helps us assess our coffee portfolio and continuously improve it.
We rate our coffees on:
- Farmer‑centric pricing
- Transparent data
- Ongoing relationships
- Investment in farm communities
Our goal is to continuously improve our coffee sourcing practices, help more farmers earn a living wage, and keep investing in community projects.
“The green coffee marketplace is one of the things I like most about Bellwether. It really is high‑quality coffee! They also seem to hook up with quality producers. There’s always an interesting and important farm story that goes along with the coffee.” — Dax Johnson, Capitola Coffee
7 Coffees That Are Prime Example Of Ethical Sourcing
If you’re looking for ethically sourced beans, you can’t go wrong with any of our selections below. While it’s impossible to measure every ethics‑and‑sustainability metric, we’re confident these beans represent the best of the best.
In first place is Shatterbox Coffee (available online
). Shatterbox Coffee roasts all their beans on a Bellwether electric coffee roaster and is proud to be the only zero‑emissions coffee roaster on Vancouver Island.
They focus on blends, rather than single origins, in the hopes to — as they put it — “demonstrate the way different coffees can accompany each other, like voices in a choir or ingredients in a cocktail.” And they source all their beans from our green coffee marketplace, meaning that farmers get paid fairly and environmental best practices are followed.
Next up are our good friends at Coffee Science NOLA. The East Java Konang Springs Natural is an unusual natural processed coffee that works well both for drip coffee and as a single origin espresso. With bittersweet chocolate, raspberry liqueur, and vanilla notes, it’s an exceptional representation of what natural processed Indonesian coffees are capable of.
This coffee is a light roast sourced from Honduras. It contains notes of chocolate, hazelnut, and vanilla.
Wagon Coffee has been working with Bellwether for years to give back to the community. Not only do these beans guarantee a living income to the farmers in Honduras, but they also empower and employ women in recovery from addiction.
Founding Farmers is more than a restaurant group and grocery market — they’re a community of farmers committed to creating sustainable and equitable food systems. Since 2005, they’ve strived to do more good and less harm to the planet.
One of our favorite blends is their fantastic Friendship Blend — a well‑rounded and sweet medium roast with notes of nuts, toffee, and chocolate. They source their beans from a blend of Central and South American sources, carefully selecting each one for its unique flavor profile and ethical sourcing practices.
You can’t go wrong with these beans from Massachusetts‑based Seabird Coffee.
This coffee is a light roast that contains notes of cherry, plum, and cocoa. It’s sourced from a coffee cooperative in Columbia called ‘Asociación de Productores Agropecuarios de Café Especial de Planadas (ASOPEP)’, which has received nearly $3,000 from Bellwether’s Tip the Farmer™ program.
In 2021, we signed our first living income‑based pricing contract with ASOPEP — giving them a 20% pay rise. We’re committed to replicating that raise across all of our supply chains by 2025.
Another excellent coffee from Capitola is the sublime Sea Bright Blend. A blend of Central American and South American beans, this washed coffee contains notes of dark chocolate and cherry. It’s known for its great body and consistency in flavor.
“Capitola coffee is the best! My Colombian coffee was rich in flavor and strong.” —Maria H
This coffee from Cerrado, Brazil is a medium‑roasted coffee with notes of hazelnut, dark chocolate, and raisin.
The Paubrasil is certified as part of the Regiao Cerrado Mineiro Designation of Origin program and the Cerrado Coffee Growers Federation. We at Bellwether have also signed statements of good practices in accordance with Brazilian labor laws — meaning you can feel good about drinking Paubrasil coffee, knowing that it's sustainably and ethically sourced.
Bellwether: Your Partner in the Search for Ethically Sourced Beans
Ethically sourced beans are more than just a trend — they’re a cornerstone of our business and the coffee industry as a whole. More and more coffee connoisseurs are concerned about where their coffee comes from, and whether the farmers involved are being treated with dignity.
This change in customer perception is not just important; it's also the right thing to do.
Our Green Coffee Marketplace was founded on the principles of farmer‑centric pricing, gender equality, and transparency. We pay a living income price to all the farmers we work with and invest in programs like the Farmer Impact Fund
to help lift farmers out of poverty.
Our commitment to ethical sourcing practices doesn't just benefit the workers involved; it also benefits our customers. By paying fair prices and supporting sustainable farming practices, we ensure that our coffee beans are of the highest quality and flavor.
Learn More About Our Green Coffee Program.