How To Buy Eco Conscious Drinks

Tips for buying sustainable and responsibly produced drinks.

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Wine Beer Tea Coffee


What is organic wine?

The answer to this question depends upon where you are. In the US, organic wine is defined by the USDA as wine made from organically grown grapes, without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, or fungicides, and is made without the addition of sulfites. There is a heated debate going on in the wine industry on whether the use of sulfites in wine making should qualify as organic. Sulfites, also known as sulfur dioxide, occur naturally during the wine making process. However, sulfites are also added throughout wine production, acting as a non-toxic fungicide as well as a preservative that keeps wine shelf stable by preventing oxidation and microbial growth. Currently, the use of sulfites does not qualify for organic certification in the US because it is viewed as a chemical additive, the use of which is banned by organic regulations. On the subject of sulfites, the EU and the US differ in opinion. Only recently did the EU canonize its definition of organic wine, moving away from the only previously existing label, “made from organic grapes”. As of 2012, the EU’s organic certification for wine covers not just the process of growing wine grapes, but regulates the production of wine as well—in which sulfites are allowed. In fact, the US is a very rare case of sulfite prohibition in organic wine, as both Canada and Australia share Europe’s decision to allow the additive. It should be noted, however, that these countries allow sulfites only in significantly smaller amounts than that used in conventional wine production. Therefore, wine imported into the US from countries who allow sulfites in organic wine can only attain the label “made with organic grapes”. This label, however, can be a confusing one.

Made with organic grapes

The “made with organic grapes” label first and foremost means that a wine contains at least 70% organic grapes. However, wine producers who use 100% organic grapes will also share this label, simply because they have added sulfites to their wine. For this reason it is hard for the wine buyer to know exactly what they are buying when they see this label. And many vintners who do use organic grapes, such as Frog’s Leap in Napa, California, don’t mention it on their labels at all.

How organic is it?

Other USDA labels can be misleading as well. When picking up a bottle of wine labeled ‘organic’ from the store, one might assume that the product is completely organic. However the organic label means that the product contains 95% or more organic grapes, while a completely organic wine will be labeled ‘100% organic’.

Natural wine

Natural wine can mean anything, as no legal definition currently exists. The core ethics behind making natural wine that are generally agreed upon are that natural wine should be cultivated through organic methods and involve the least manipulation of ingredients as possible. This excludes the conventional practices of filtering, fining, or adding sulfites. Fining is the process of clarifying the wine of any detritus. In conventional wine production, fining is done by adding a chemical substance that collects solids and proteins at the top of the wine so that they can be scraped off and discarded. A common, natural alternative to using a chemical fining agent is the use of egg whites. Filtration removes any bacteria or particles that are left in the wine. Those who advocate for natural wine making methods prefer to leave their wine unfiltered, equating filtration to sterilizing the flavor of the wine which comes from the natural fermentation and living bacterial growth. A fine example of natural wine is Donkey and Goat, which produces natural wine from its vineyards throughout Central and Northern California. Donkey and Goat wine is hand harvested, crushed by foot, and does not depend on any additives to enhance their wine’s flavor or alcohol content. Fermentation is allowed to happen naturally, and in wooden vats instead of the conventionally used plastic ones. The decision to age their wine in wood barrels was made after the owners, Tracey and Jared Brandt, researched chemicals in plastic like Bisphenol A (BPA), a substance classified as toxic in some countries like Canada, which can contaminate liquids and foods that it comes into contact with.

Biodynamic wine

Biodynamic agriculture reaches a level of sustainability that far surpasses the efforts made by organic cultivation. Based on the work of Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic farming abjures the practice of monoculture that conventional farming employs. Creating a monoculture strips the local ecosystem of all its natural plants and wildlife and replaces it with a single crop. In nature, an ecosystem houses a range of plants, animals, and insects—all of which have a function that supports each other. Whether it be through birds and insects preying on pests, natural weeding and manure fertilization through grazing animals, or the diversity of plant life that attracts and supports these animals and insects in the first place—nature has a method of growing food. When this is stripped and replaced with a monoculture the farmer needs to supplement these elements to grow his crop, which is conventionally done with pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and massive amounts of water—a system that requires excessive amounts of labor and expense. According to Frey Vineyards, a California winery which produces organic, biodynamic, and vegan wines, “The Biodynamic agricultural model overcomes the problem of input substitution organic farming, which simply replaces a chemical input (fertilizer or herbicide) with a naturally derived product. We support organic farming on all levels, but it is important to consider which inputs are being brought onto the farm, where they are sourced and what the long-term implications of their extraction and distribution are.” The benefits of a biodynamic system goes beyond enhancing the environment. For example, in addition to aiding soil fertility and weed control, the farm animals on Frey’s biodynamic farm also offer a fresh source of cow and goat milk, from which Frey has made soft and hard cheeses, kefir and tara. Demeter International, a renowned international organic and biodynamic certifying agency, requires its biodynamic certified farms to set aside at least 10% of their land acreage towards biodiversity, stressing independence from imported materials, and in its stead offering a self-sustaining method of farming.
Consider carefully materials that are imported onto the modern day organic farm. Where do they come from? Often they can be tracked back to a natural resource provided by the earth. Examples include petroleum to move materials around, ancient mineral deposits, by‐products of unsustainable agriculture‐related industry, and the life of the seas and waterways. An important social value of Biodynamic farming is that it does not depend on the mining of the earth’s natural resource base but instead emphasizes contributing to it. Demeter International
There are two labels that Demeter International offers for biodynamic wine, Biodynamic® Wine, the most rigorous category allowing the least manipulation, and Made With Biodynamic® Grapes. Both categories permit the use of sulfites, approved yeast nutrients, bentonite for protein stabilization, and biodynamic or organic egg whites for tannin fining. Unfortunately the USDA does not offer a label distinguishing biodynamic wine from organic. Although Demeter International requires all of its certified biodynamic farms to meet the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) regulations, due to the sulfite allowance in biodynamic wine, biodynamic wine farmers who choose to add sulfites cannot attain the USDA organic seal.


The guidelines for organic beer are similar to those applying to all organic foods—the ingredients must be grown without the use of GMOs, synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizer. The use of these inputs not only has a negative environmental effect but can pose a threat to the health of agricultural workers who farm the grains and hops that go into beer production. Seven Bridges Cooperative, a supplier of organic brewing ingredients, states that, “Today’s agriculture relies heavily on chemicals and often causes erosion and depletion of soil nutrients through loss of biomass. Organic farming is a growing industry that reduces erosion, pollution, and water shortages by using natural methods to fertilize crops and to fight pests and disease.” Prohibiting the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizer in the cultivation of the grain and hops is especially important when it comes to water conservation. As one of the ingredients of brewing, water can carry these petrochemical-based agricultural inputs and leach them into the groundwater—where they pollute our drinking water, water consumed by wildlife, and are absorbed by local plant life. Wandering down the drinks isle one may find several beers labelled ‘natural’, however it should not be mistaken to mean organic. In fact, the ‘natural’ label as applied to beer has very little meaning.

Becoming mainstream

Organic beer has been adopted by several mainstream brands. One of the first contemporary organic beers was released in Germany by the Pinkus-Mueller brewery in 1980. Since then, organic beer has made the leap from microbreweries to larger ones, like Anheuser-Busch, which released two of its own organic beers—Stone Mill Pale Ale and Wild Hop Amber Lager—under the Green Valley Brewery label. However, brewing organic beer is not a new phenomenon. Before the rise of industrial agriculture in the 19th century, all brewing ingredients were grown through organic methods.

The problem with organic hops

A common misconception made by consumers is the belief that organic beer is 100% organic. In fact, a product labeled certified organic assures that 95% or more of the beer’s ingredients are certified organic. What about the other 5%? Previously, the USDA added hops to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, placing non-organic hops in the 5% of non-organic ingredients allowed in certified organic products. The list was created to make allowances for ingredients that are commonly used in processed foods, where organic options are either not applicable or largely unavailable. For instance, seaweed, which is widely used to thicken a dizzying variety of processed foods, falls under this category. It’s easy to see why seaweed would be impractical to certify as organic, but why hops? Hops are exceptionally susceptible to pest infestations. To ensure a reliable harvest, large amounts of pesticides are routinely used. Under organic certification standards, farmers can use pesticides, as long as they are not chemical—however, organic pesticides can be considerably more expensive than their chemical counterparts, making the investment to grow organic hops eye-wateringly dear. Because of the risk involved, many hops farmers have not taken on the challenge of growing hops organically. Due to the shortage of an organic alternative to conventional hops, they were added to the National List. “Organic hops cost two to three times the price of conventional hops, and without demand, farmers have also had little incentive to grow them, deepening commercial unavailability,” stated CoHOPerative, an organic brewers’ cooperative.
For example, only 100 acres of the 30,500 acres of hops in Washington’s Yakima Valley utilize organic methods of harvesting, a valley that accounts for nearly 30% of the world’s hops production. CoHOPerative
However, due to an increase in organic hops production in America’s Pacific Northwest, along with rigorous petitioning by the American Organic Hop Grower Association, hops were officially taken off the list in 2010. Effective January 1, 2013 all beer labeled organic will be made with organic hops. The switch to organic hops will present a challenge to the beer industry. Almost all hop production is based on contracts, some lasting for several years. In order to certify a crop as organic, the land has to undergo a two year period in which organic cultivation is practiced in order to rid it of any residual synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. During this interim period, a farmer cannot sell his hops as certified organic, even though he is taking on the expense of growing to organic standards. This period can be financially destabilizing as the farmer navigates the learning curve of switching to organic cultivation while, at the same time, trying to fulfill his end of a contract made with a brewer. This topic brings up the issue of ingredient sourcing. Undoubtedly, the push to move to 100% organic ingredients is an important progression. However, it is worth a note that due to the current shortage of organic hops—as well as the regional requirements to make certain types of hops—many organic brewers will look to imports from Europe and New Zealand, which already supply many hop varietals to the US. This switch over to organic hops will force organic brewers who prefer to source locally, supporting their local economy and foodshed, to start importing their hops.

Supporting microbrewers’ switch to organic hops

CoHOPerative was formed out of a response to the short supply of organic hops. In order to empower smaller, organic brewers the website was created so that brewers could pool together their orders and buy hops in bulk. This allows smaller brewers to decrease their cost of buying a more expensive product—organic hops—and also sends a clear message to hops farmers that there is a significant demand for an organic product. To boost the sales of organic beer, CoHOPerative provides an example of the effect organic beer consumption has on organic beer agriculture. “If a household buys two 6-packs per week of organic beer, over the course of a year the choice would cause a farmer to convert 1/20 of an acre of land to organic agriculture for barley and hops. To put this into perspective, 1/10 of an acre of land is roughly the average size of land allotted to the consumer’s typical suburban home!”

Water usage—not addressed by the organic label

Water conservation is a big concern for the beer industry. A report was issued by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in conjunction with SABMiller and GIZ, a German sustainability development consultancy, that addressed both the environmental and financial risks that the beer industry faces due to water scarcity in many beer producing countries.
It is clear that unlike, for example, carbon footprinting, where the size of the footprint is in direct proportion to the impact on climate change, it is impossible to infer anything about the water impact based simply on the size of the water footprint itself. World Wildlife Fund Report
Water usage in crop cultivation differs by region. For instance, in Tanzania the report found that it takes a total of 180 liters of water to produce just one liter of beer, while in Peru the total was much less, at 61 liters. The WWF has already started working with NGOs, local government representatives and businesses to create watershed protection programs based on the detailed risks presented by data in this report. The main focus of these programs is on educating farmers in water management techniques and preservation tactics of freshwater ecosystems.

Other ways to manage waste

Another way that the beer industry can cut resource costs and environmental impact is by offering returnable bottles. Growlers are a fine example of this as they are large, usually glass, reusable containers that can hold half a gallon (1,900 ml) of beer. With the right infrastructure, standard beer bottles could be returned at local collection and cleaning facilities. The owner of Bison Brewing, Daniel Del Grande, commented in an interview with on what this system might look like. “The glass bottles would have to be thicker to withstand the handling, heat sterilization, and multiple capping, but the energy use would be a third of the current required to melt down recycled bottles and reuse them. This procedure does use a lot more water to clean and sterilize, but wastewater can be cleaned and reused for landscaping if the urban planning is done ahead of time.” Particularly inspiring is his vision of what his ideal brewery would look like. I would build an urban zero waste, green brewery on a brownfield contaminated site, probably along the shoreline of SF Bay, with a railspur for grain and glass delivery, rooftop solar hot water (breweries use lots of hot water), micro wind turbines, biodiesel steam boilers, upcycling of broken glass and cardboard, on-site mushroom production on the spent grain (sold in local stores), and wastewater treatment that could discharge into adjacent open space or municipal irrigation. Tons more ideas, but those can be implemented right off the bat. This brewery design isn’t a pipedream because these technologies are no-brainer business decisions that have payback periods of less than 3-4 years.”


Organic vs. conventional tea harvesting

Through organic cultivation, tea harvesting can be a constructive element to its surrounding ecosystem. Using natural alternatives to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides such as crop rotation, mulching and composting, along with promoting natural pest control such as pest-munching insects and birds, creates a thriving environment for both tea bushes and their local wildlife. The problem with many GMOs, pesticides and herbicides used in conventional tea farming is that although effective in controlling pests, weeds, and disease, they often affect non-targeted animals, insects, and plants. According to a report from the Soil Association, the average organic field can have up to five times as many wild plants, 57% more animal wildlife, and 44% more birds than that of a conventionally cultivated field. Workers, too, are exposed to the pesticides and herbicides sprayed on plants, which they administer as many as 15-20 times annually. Many of these chemicals are listed as hazardous and toxic to humans, according to a report released by Oxfam. With the growing number of crops that are outsourced to other countries, such as Africa and India, many workers are exposed to chemicals that are otherwise prohibited in many Western countries. Pesticides have a greater chance at getting into your cup than coffee, in which residue may be burned off during the roasting process.
When it comes down to consumer use, tea is not a washed product like fruits and vegetables. So if you think about it, the first time tea touches water is when you put it in your cup. Greg Nielsen, Numi Organic Tea

Artificial and natural flavoring

Artificial flavoring is achieved through the manipulation of chemicals to mimic a natural flavor. This is commonly done to produce a less expensive and more concentrated flavoring. The FDA does not require products to list color of flavor additives in the ingredients list on the packaging, which may be why synthesized chemicals created to make flavorings often are not given common names. Natural flavors are not much better. The USDA states that, “natural flavor must be from natural sources that have not been chemically modified in a way that makes them different from their natural state.” However, this does not mean that natural vanilla flavor comes from a vanilla bean. Since the additives used to create the flavor are exempt from being listed under the ingredients list, the consumer has little idea whether that natural vanilla flavor was made with one or one hundred additives, nor what those additives are.
What we believe is that if you use the best type of tea, and the best fruits, flowers, and spices—real ingredients—then it is going to produce the best, most natural tasting tea. A lot of times, and in tea specifically, flavoring is used to cover up low quality tea. Greg Neilsen
Many consumers hold the common belief that organic goods are the healthier choice. Indeed, produce made with organic ingredients can keep pesticides from being indirectly consumed, however, the organic label can be misread as an overarching statement of the wholesome nature of the product. According to the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, non-organic, natural flavors are allowed as ingredients in processed foods that have been certified as “organic” or “made with organic ingredients.” So even when you are picking up a Certified Organic product it is highly important to check the ingredients list for natural flavoring—with the knowledge that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the flavoring itself is organic.

Fair Trade

At the heart of Fair Trade organizations lies the common principles that workers should be given fair wages and should be provided safe and clean working conditions with an emphasis on a minimum exposure to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that have proven to be harmful. Fair Trade certification is reserved for workers in developing countries as many of these do not enforce the same standards of wellbeing for their workers as are practiced in developed nations. Fair trade organizations act as a third party that forms relationships with farm workers all over the world, connecting them with companies who are looking to create a Fair Trade product. Although there may not be a direct connection between the company and those that they source from, Fair Trade organizations play an important role by creating and facilitating these connections—a daunting task that may have otherwise made companies looking to pursue Fair Trade certification hesitate. Organizations like Fair Trade USA have worked in conjunction with Choice Organic Tea to develop working standards for tea farmers. In order to achieve such standards, Fair Trade USA works with agricultural laborers to give them the right of representation so that they may democratically manage their own working conditions as well as decide on how the Fair Trade premiums paid on their products should be spent in their community. Fair Trade premiums are a separate payment on top of a product’s price that is designated for social and economic development of the workers’ community. Fair Trade standards go beyond worker-centered regulations. These standards also promote social responsibility to ensure that child or forced labor is not being practiced, and also aim to uphold environmental integrity in the type of farming practices implemented. Many Fair Trade organizations ban the use of toxic chemicals and incorporate agricultural practices that increase soil fertility, water conservation, and reduce energy consumption.

Fair Labor

Where Fair Trade’s focus stops at the farm, the fair labor certification picks up by covering the rest of the supply chain. Fair Labor certifications, like the one adopted by Numi Organic Tea called Fair Labor Practices and Community Benefits, conduct a thorough audit at every step of the supply chain, from agricultural production to manufacturing and distribution—both domestically and internationally. “Fair Labor has provided a verification process to ensure that our partners and our supply chain are adhering to working conditions that we have established, and that go outside of the scope of Fair Trade,” said Greg Nielsen.

Community projects

Numi is an excellent example when it comes to educating the public on where their Fair Trade premiums go. On Numi’s website, one can find a list of the different projects that agricultural workers have implemented in their communities with the premiums they received on their crop. For instance, if you have enjoyed a cup of Numi’s Jasmine Green, Breakfast Blend, or their Magnolia Pu-er, the premiums paid for these teas have gone to the Fair Trade tea cooperative in Dazhangshan, China, and has supported such endeavors as promoting childrens’ enrollment in high school and college. Premiums have paid for the construction of a school dormitory and have provided a number of technical and organic agriculture training programs to the 4,000 members of the tea cooperative. Other community projects have focused on communal investment in land and agriculture to support their business, providing transportation to and from work, mosquito netting, and sanitation projects. “We provide farmers in developing nations the tools to thrive as international business people. Instead of creating dependency on aid, we use a market-based approach that gives farmers fair prices, workers safe conditions, and entire communities resources for fair, healthy and sustainable lives. We seek to inspire the rise of the Conscious Consumer and eliminate exploitation” —Fair Trade USA


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), coffee is the single most important tropical commodity that is traded worldwide. It accounts for nearly half of the total exports of tropical products. Daniele Giovannucci, co-founder of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, reported that it is one of the top cash crops produced by developing countries, several of which are economically dependent on it. The EU ranks as the world’s largest importer of coffee, accounting for 66% of global coffee imports, followed by the United States at 24%, and Japan at 7%. As such a large, globally traded commodity, coffee cultivation has a large impact on the environment and those who grow it.

Shade grown coffee

Traditionally, a coffee tree is grown in a forested environment under shade from a canopy of larger, taller trees. Shade from taller trees prevent the growth of weeds, protects the coffee trees from frost, and houses a variety of birds and insects which helps keep the pest population down as well as aids in pollination. Those who advocate for this traditional and natural method of growing coffee note that shade grown coffee takes longer to grow but develops a rich taste from the longer ripening time. However, in order to produce higher yielding and faster growing coffee trees, the coffee industry created a sun-resistant coffee tree hybrid which is now used in approximately 70% of the world’s coffee cultivation. No longer dependent on the shade provided by tree canopies, major deforestation of rainforests has been undertaken to clear away land to make way for coffee production.

Twice the harm

Destroying forests in favor of coffee cropland not only releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it removes the very means of mediating these gasses. The Global Forest and Resources Assessment, a report released by the FAO, states that the amount of carbon stored in the world’s forests is approximately 50% more than the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. When forests are cut down or burned, the carbon held therein is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, along with nitrous oxide, methane and other greenhouse gasses. Deforestation contributes 22% of carbon dioxide gas emissions into the atmosphere. Moreover, forests play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gasses. Tropical forests in particular absorb large amounts of carbon through photosynthesis.

Bird friendly

Deforestation is not just a threat to the environment but to local bird populations as well. Bird Friendly, a certification created by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, has established a 100% organic standard for coffee farms in order to reduce the harmful effect conventional coffee cultivation has on birds. The certification was created in response to a devastating decline in North American migratory birds that was attributed to the loss of forests to agricultural land in Latin America, where birds migrate during the winter. The Bird Friendly certification focuses on the habitable environment and natural biodiversity that shade grown coffee promotes.

Certified organic coffee

Certified organic coffee is grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and does not derive from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Organic farming practices employ low impact methods of cultivation and are tailored to enhance soil fertility. Organic methods of processing are especially important in coffee production when it comes to the process by which coffee is decaffeinated. Typically coffee beans are decaffeinated with the use of chemical solvents, such as methylene chloride—which is potentially dangerous to the central nervous system—or ethyl acetate, which can be harmful to the kidneys, liver, and to the central nervous system as well. Organic decaffeinated coffee cannot be treated with any synthetics which leaves many of the traditional decaffeination methods out. Two of the most common organic decaffeination methods are the Swiss Water® process or through the use of carbon dioxide. However, although certified organic coffee regulations promote methods of cultivation which enhance the ecosystem, it does not require coffee trees to be shade grown. This means that the environmental impacts that come with sun grown coffee—such as deforestation and reducing the habitat that supports a diverse range of wildlife—still occurs.

Risks to coffee workers’ health and livelihood

A common misconception amongst consumers is that the organic label means that the farmers and workers involved are treated ethically. Although coffee drinkers are not exposed to much risk from pesticides—most residue is burned off during the coffee roasting process—coffee still remains one of the most chemically treated crops in the world. Agricultural workers who farm coffee often come into direct contact with vast amounts of chemical pesticides. Remuneration for a farmer’s coffee crop is another area in which coffee farmers can be at risk. As interest in organic products expands, so does the market for organic coffee. With this comes a series of complex supply chains associated with mainstream distribution. It’s not unusual for the premium paid for organic coffee to be lost along the way. Many companies are now insisting on transparency when it comes to the distribution of premiums along the supply chain. Starbucks, for example, in conjunction with Conservation International, has developed a new set of guidelines for ethical sourcing called Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E) Practices. Along with standards for implementing environmentally sensible practices on farms that supply Starbucks, C.A.F.E. has also established economic transparency, requiring their coffee suppliers to submit evidence of payment distribution along the supply chain to evaluate how much actually gets paid to the farmer.

Fair Trade

Fair Trade certifying organizations have been some of the most successful at getting premiums paid to farm workers. Fair Trade programs work with farms and plantations in developing nations, from which most of the world’s coffee is sourced, to ensure that a fair price is paid directly to the farm workers and that their working conditions are not a danger to their health. Certified companies pay a premium in addition to the amount paid for the coffee. This additional money is used specifically for social development projects decided upon by the farm workers. According to the FAO however, only 2% of the total green coffee imports to the US is certified Fair Trade. “Many buyers believe that it makes good business sense to request that some higher standard of quality is met as part of sustainable practices,” stated Daniele Giovannucci in a publication on the certified coffee trade in North America. “However, when buyers fail to distinguish the value they place on sustainable practices, they dilute its importance…For sustainability to advance, producers need to have a clear signal from the market about sustainability and there is no signal clearer than a price premium.”


  1. Great article – thank you. It offers a good deal of clarity on the distinctions between organic, natural and biodynamic and will inform my purchasing.

    Just a note – Conscious is misspelled in the article title.

    • Thank you for the kind feedback. I’m really glad you found the information useful. We are currently working on adding a juice section as well.

      And well spotted, gpguk. The typo is now fixed. Many thanks!

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