ike most products and services that are consumed, there is no shortage of angles from which sustainability can be approached and especially as it relates to coffee.
There are no more right ways than there are wrong. There are stereotypical ideals for what makes up a “sustainable” cup of coffee: Fair trade, organic, reusable mugs and composted grounds. Those are all steps towards a more focused attempt to achieve sustainable ideals; however, they are null and void when it comes to its root, and these practices alone are simply not enough.
In order to better understand how to achieve true sustainable practices in coffee, a few things need to be considered.
Despite what the bag label or barista says, the coffee drunk in North America cannot and should not be considered “local”.
It is grown exclusively in some of the world’s most remote mountainous countries in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Asia, and farmed by some of the poorest hands in the world. The history of coffee is definitively colonial, and its roots are deeper than most North Americans will ever know or care to understand.
After a once-per-year crop cycle, coffee is (for the most part) picked by hand, processed, shipped around the world via cargo ship, roasted once more, packed, shipped again to a local cafe or store, brewed and finally, consumed—and too often in a single-use disposable cup. It’s a long road for those little beans to travel, yet they somehow remain inexpensive as they are; but as most things do, it comes at a price. In this case, at the cost of the people working in the coffee industry and the environments in which it is grown.
Keeping that in mind is a good place to start when considering how each of the choices made by individuals directly affects the planet and the other some-billion people living on it. Fair trade and organic certifications are often the platonic “ideal” of coffee growing practices. In the case of Fair trade, only after meeting a rigorous set of social and economic standards wherein farmers are also guaranteed a minimum price for their crop can the farm be certified. But at this point in time only coffee grown by co-ops (which makes up only 12% of what is consumed) can be certified, so it’s limiting to say the least.
When it comes to organic certification, the coffee has to be grown without the use of chemicals, herbicides and pesticides for at least three years, and certified as such. That alone comes with significant financial costs and several physical challenges. Coffee is often grown at altitude on the side of mountains, and takes upwards of six times more organic fertilizer to grow healthy coffee than it does a chemical fertilizer. Combine those two realities and it’s an incredible physical feat for a farmer trying to ensure that their plants have all of the nutrients they require to grow and produce fruit.
Despite this, there are two other commonly used resources that are helping coffee farmers and the environment. In the case of Rainforest Alliance, the organization requires farmers to adhere to a rigorous set of standards and controls created by an organization called the Sustainable Agriculture Network. It is an excellent framework and set of best practices for farmers to follow. Direct trade is a practice favoured by the specialty coffee sector of the industry, whereby roasters visit farms to establish trading relationships that allow for direct negotiation and most often, better prices for the farmers and an opportunity to tell their stories.
Rainforest Alliance and direct trade can work wonderfully for co-ops or larger farms. However, the average coffee farm is less than two hectares (or about the size of two football fields), which is not big enough to grow the amount of coffee to make certification or direct trade models viable. Scale is critical and most farmers can’t achieve that on their own.
In short, none of the mentioned four methods for achieving sustainability are perfect. They all focus heavily on either social, environmental, or economic requirements and meet different needs for the various farmers there are around the world. Each has their place and gives farmers—regardless of their size, resources, geographies and capabilities—options for producing their coffee in a more stable way.
Agriculture isn’t actually the most environmentally intensive aspect of coffee: it is consumers who unsurprisingly do the most damage.
Between heating up large amounts of water, the waste created from packaging and cups, and the milk that goes into a cappuccino, cafes and home consumption have a huge impact on the carbon footprint of coffee’s lifespan very quickly. All that said, the final onus lies on consumers who have to honour, value and support farmers by committing to sustainability.
How can this be achieved? Engaging with local baristas, coffee shop owners, and roasters to hear their thoughts on the subject could give a sense of whether or not their head and heart are in the right place. Look for shops who offer incentives for bringing a mug from home, who don’t charge extra for non-dairy milks, and have visible recycling and waste reduction programs in place. By supporting businesses that care and put action behind their words, it will help to encourage others to take a similar approach and create momentum behind this movement.
If coffee is mostly consumed at home, there are even better opportunities to support sustainability. Do the research, and buy beans that support sound agriculture and business practices on the roasting side of the industry. Look for the certifications (any of those mentioned above are better than none), and try to avoid falling for loosely associated terms that are deceiving like “fairly traded” or “naturally produced”, as green-washing in coffee is very prevalent. When researching roasters to support, check that their messaging is clearly detailed on their website, and not leaning on the use of frilly language with nothing to back it up. Finally, it is also important to understand that drinking more sustainable coffee does not also have to be prohibitively expensive, as certified products are now more accessible than ever before.
At the end of the day, there is no such thing as the perfectly sustainable cup of coffee. However there are definitely wrong ways to approach it.
Common sense, and well-researched and intentional choices, will make the biggest difference. In order to create the change needed to be seen in the world, surely it needs to be inclusive and accessible for all to participate in, and coffee is no exception. By supporting more sustainable coffee solutions, all of those small, daily decisions can start to add up in a way that can’t be done alone.