A comprehensive guide to a more sustainable cup of coffee

Coffee is one of the first products for which I went down a research rabbit hole. In recent years, clever marketing terms have been popping up on coffee packaging everywhere (100% Arabica beans, fair trade, forest friendly, etc), making it all too easy to believe that we are making a difference just by a simple switch.

The truth is, getting caffeinated responsibly takes research! And when you do dig deep, the picture ain’t pretty. The modern coffee supply chain – which of course dates back to colonialism and slavery – continues to be so full of rampant environmental and labor abuses that, in fact, many people I know have stopped drinking coffee entirely.

This makes me pretty sad. Because not only is coffee pure happiness in a cup (fact), ethical coffee production can be economically empowering to farmers, particularly female farmers. When the industry destabilizes, the growers suffer (read this story on the link between coffee production and the Guatemalan migrant crisis). So to me, boycotting coffee as a means to minimize harm simply isn’t all that productive – if the people who care the most choose to look away, who is left to push the industry to do better?

But how do you see through the marketing BS for a cup of joe that you can truly feel better about? Below I give you a list of considerations.

THE VESSEL

Did your mind immediately go to K-cups when I said “more environmentally friendly coffee”? I don’t blame ya. Keurig has gotten plenty of news coverage over the years, and the amount of discarded K-cups sent to landfills and incinerators is horrendous. But let’s get one thing straight: using a pod – even if its unrecycable – is definitively NOT the worst way to consume coffee.

Why? Because packaging only accounts for a fraction of the environmental footprint of your coffee. And when you make a big pot of coffee, keep it warm on a hot plate all day (which uses electricity), then dump half a pot of stale coffee in the afternoon – you are not doing the earth any favors. (To learn more about the environmental impact of K-cups compared to the typical brewing method, read my post here.)

So here is my first message to you: by all means, choose a less wasteful brewing vessel – be it a Chemex, French press, or cold brew – but stop. pouring. coffee. down. the. drain.

Let’s do some easy math together to understand why this is important.

  • On average, a mature coffee tree produces less than 2 lbs of roasted coffee beans per year. (I learned this statistic from Jessica Easto’s book “Craft Coffee: A Manual” last year, and it blew my mind into gazillion pieces.)
  • One lb of coffee beans makes 288 ounces of coffee, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America. That means one v productive coffee tree would yield 288*2=576 ounces of coffee per year. Let’s be extra generous and round that up to 600 ounces.
  • If an office casually dumps half a pot of coffee each day (say 20 ounces a day, 3 days a week), that’s 60 ounces a week.
  • In just 10 weeks, said office would have wasted the entire annual production of a coffee tree.
  • Now multiply that by the number of offices, homes, and coffee shops around the world that regularly pour coffee down the drain!

Unless you live in a “bean belt” country, your morning cup of joe likely travel far distances to make its way to you. When we waste coffee, we are also wasting all the resources (fuel, water, land, fertilizers, etc) that went into producing, packaging, and transporting that coffee. Not to mention all the emission needlessly generated throughout the process.

In short: a more sustainable coffee drinking habit starts with less waste. Make as much as you’ll drink, and if you have extra, refrigerate for iced coffee, make smoothies, or freeze into cubes to use as ice for iced coffee.

THE BEAN

See picture below. *deep sigh* I’m so tired of seeing labels like this on coffee packaging.

Ethically sourced: how? Select growers: who? Worldwide: where?

Claims like this without any details to back it up is like saying “we promise you our product is really really really great, please buy it!” This is greenwashing at its worst, and I have some recommendations to help you become a more informed consumer.

1. Learn the words that mean absolutely nothing.

Example: 100% Arabica beans. Arabica is just one species of cultivated coffee, representing about 60% of the world’s production; robusta is the species that largely makes up the rest. Arabica produces less but generally better tasting coffee per hectare than robusta, making the cost of growing arabica higher. But claiming the beans are “100% Arabica” tells you little about how they were grown, and how the producers were treated.

2. Learn the words that do mean something.

Example: shade-grown. Let me explain. As most coffee trees only reach ~10 ft, they typically grow under other native forest canopy in the wild. Shade grown coffee, the traditional growing method, mimics the dynamics in the natural ecosystem: the taller trees suppress weed growth (by shedding leaves, branches and barks) and provide nutrients (through nitrogen fixation). This integrated agroforestry system also provides valuable habitat for wildlife, and prevents topsoil erosion.

But under market demand, the sun-grown method was introduced to farmers in the 1970s to increase yield. In Central America alone, 2.5 million acres of forests have been cleared for coffee farming. Not only did it lead to a loss in biodiversity, this disruption to a previously balanced ecosystem means that farmers now have to rely heavily on fertilizers and pesticides. A 2014 study estimated that shade grown coffee as a share* of global coffee production has dropped from 43% to 24% since just 1996.

(* An interesting wrinkle to this stat is that because coffee production is increasing globally, the absolute land area used for shade grown coffee has actually grown since 1996, but the land used for the sun grown method is growing at a much faster rate, thus shifting the overall share. Particularly in newer coffee growing regions – think Vietnam and Indonesia – most of the production is done in this intensive, mono cropping and sun-grown fashion.)

Coffee cherries. Image credit: Yeahbouyee via Flickr.

3. Show, don’t tell.

How can brands prove to you that they are sourcing responsibly? Third-party certification. A few common certifications you may see in the US.

It’s important to know though, while external certifications offer some accountability, they are not without issues.

For instance, a 2018 Center for Global Development review paper found that fair trade standards did raise the prices paid to farmers, but their income didn’t necessarily go up after considering the cost of certification and compliance. Certification is especially tough for small producers, who either don’t have the capacity to participate or aren’t able to sell the volume at a high enough price to recoup their investment on certification. (I highly recommend the documentary Black Gold on this topic.)

Of course, this challenge exists with other certification schemes, but if your local vegetable farmer can’t afford a USDA organic certification, you can at least speak to them about their management practices at a farmers market. Sadly, this sort of connection simply isn’t possible with a Costa Rican smallholder coffee farm.

Precisely because some mainstream certification programs have seemingly gotten farther and farther away from their original intent as they grow (e.g., setting standards that are too low, eliminating farmers from their governance model, and inviting large scale plantations in), some roasters have stepped in to disrupt the certification model through “direct trade.”

This is the practice where roasters buy directly from farmers (or co-ops) and can set their own quality, environmental, and economic standards, bypassing importers, exporters and any certification governing bodies. Some pioneers in this space in the US are Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Counter Culture, Blue Bottle, and George Howell.

In some cases, direct traders can indeed do better. Case in point, the average price of commodity coffee fluctuated around ~$1 per pound in 2019. Fairtrade America-certified farmers earn a minimum of $1.4 per pound (and $1.7 per pound organic), which is great, but even the certifying organization acknowledges that this price isn’t high enough. By their own account, the price needs to be $2 per pound for a four-person farming household in Colombia to earn a living income. On the other hand, Counter Culture paid $3.08 per pound for their coffee, according to their 2018 transparency report.

Ok I’ve presented you a lot of details here but the short of it is this: don’t trust a roaster that claims to be “ethical” but has zero detail to back it up. Whether the coffee you choose has or hasn’t been certified, transparency is the character you want to look for, in my opinion. It’s typically easier to find detailed documents for larger certification programs, but many direct trade roasters are publishing annual reports now as well. Because again – without transparency – “direct trade” becomes just another marketing term. (More on that point here).

4. The “best coffee” for you might not be the best for someone else

Some roasters are doing a fantastic job considering the environmental, social and economic impacts of their sourcing. Equal Exchange, where I get my beans from, is organic, fair trade, and largely shade-grown. I can even get it in bulk at a store a 30-minute bike ride away, at an affordable price to me, which is a DREAM. But I recognize this is not the reality for most people.

Thus, choosing the “best” coffee for you may depend on what issues you care about the most, as well as what you have access to. For example, if reducing packaging waste is important to you, of course you can look for a retailer that sells coffee in bulk or in compostable packaging. But how will you get to the retailer? If you can only get there by car, is the emission of driving worth the benefits of reduced packaging waste? Balancing these issues is hard, and something that only you have the answer to.

Image credit: Demi DeHerrera via Unsplash

THE CONDIMENT

Lastly, don’t forget about what else goes with your coffee. Milk, by some estimate, represents half the emissions footprint of the average coffee (and remember coffee beverages like lattes have a lot more milk).

I find condiment a hard topic to give advice because everyone has such different tastes for how they like their coffee. While I drink mine black, some people just really like half & half in theirs. (And in my personal experience, plant-based milk just doesn’t quite offer the same creaminess as dairy.) So my general tip: do without milk and sugar if you can. But if you can’t, here is chart that gives you a sense of the environmental impact of dairy milk compared to plant-based alternatives. Choose wisely, and don’t waste!

(Header image credit: NordWood Themes via Unsplash)