Earth Day couldn’t pass last weekend without a multitude of feel-good press releases from coffee peddlers. We already knew that our coffee could support Ernie & Bert‘s ambiguously gay lifestyle on Public Television. Now we read about how our coffee could save chimps, help solve the energy crisis, and even how it could stamp out poverty and save planet earth itself. That’s a lot for one cup of coffee — especially when a couple years ago all you could hope for was that it didn’t taste like an oil change.

So I should get the warm fuzzies now that my cup of coffee just nudged Mother Theresa of Calcutta out of line for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church, right? Wrong, actually. Not to take away from the many good things going on around coffee, but for some reason coffee has attracted all the kooks-with-causes like flies to a bug lamp. When did buying coffee get to be like wearing ribbons at the Oscars? These days you can’t even smell a morning cup without subscribing to at least four causes and a making a dozen more statements about your personal morality. What gives?

Cause Coffee or Cause + Coffee?

The cynic might say that the best way to sell coffee these days is to package it with rich man’s guilt relief. Certs has Retsyn (a.k.a. “vegetable oil”), and my coffee saves the Western Wood-Pewee. But if it were merely that, why isn’t tea given anything close to the same treatment? Tea is nearly as popular, with as rich a history, and is harvested by the poorest of the poor in the world. And yet to buy a cup of tea today, consumers seem free to buy the Sri Lankan Child Labor Exploitation Blend with impunity — no questions asked.

The fact is that the world problems of hunger, poverty, exploitation, etc., go far beyond coffee. Trying to solve these complex issues as coffee-related problems is commendably better than doing nothing, but let’s not kid ourselves.

My advice: buy the best coffee your wallet and conscience can afford. Then donate cash to the causes of your choice. Every time someone has tried to meter out charity and activism by piggybacking it on a commercial product — whether it be socially conscious mutual funds or long distance telephone service that donates a percentage of profits to charity — consumers have always ended up with weaker products, less control over their charitable contributions, and less effective donations. If the research and choices involved are too much of a headache, pick your causes and labels and outsource it all by proxy. Otherwise, nothing beats D.I.Y.