I confess that while I drink my herbal tea all day long, my morning treat is one really good cup of coffee. We all have those treats, and if coffee is one of your go-to choices perhaps it’s an iced cappuccino on a hot day or a morning dose of caffeine, it is worth considering if we can make coffee better.
With nearly 2 billion cups consumed every day across the globe, coffee is one of the world’s most popular drinks, and, according to Fairtrade, with 125 million people whose livelihoods depend upon it, coffee is also the most valuable and widely traded agricultural product. As with any industry this size, coffee production has significant environmental and social impacts, and it is important to remember that our beloved caffeinated beverage affects more than our sleep schedules. Your daily cup of coffee presents an opportunity to choose sustainability and start off your day with a positive impact on the world around you.
Navigating the world of sustainable coffee can present its own challenges. With so many to consider, it can be difficult to determine what really makes a batch of beans sustainable. Is Fairtrade the same thing as sustainable? Does environmentally friendly mean socially conscious as well? Are all growing methods equal? Unless we understand the social and environmental consequences of coffee production, it can be hard to be a conscious consumer.
Environmental impacts of coffee production
While the first environmental concerns that may come to mind when we think about coffee are the many disposable cups and pods that are thrown out every day, it is important to consider the environmental impacts of coffee throughout the entire production cycle, not just at the consumer phase. Like any other agriculture crop, coffee plantations demand land and bright sunlight to grow crops. As world demand for coffee increased, so did deforestation for the purpose of creating coffee plantations, leading to loss of 2.5 million acres of forest in central America. The WWF states that of the 50 countries in the world with the highest rates of deforestation, 37 are coffee producing countries.
This deforestation has many cascading impacts. Forests are essential for removing CO2 from the air and converting it to oxygen, helping offset human emissions. The loss of forests not only reduces the amount of oxygen that an area can produce, but also leads to loss of biodiversity as habitats are destroyed. Biodiversity is essential for a healthy environment and healthy ecosystems. Although it may seem like planting coffee plants in replacement of the trees that are cut down should balance out the loss of oxygen producing forests, agriculture crops produce significantly less oxygen than healthy, biodiverse ecosystems which are much more complex and high functioning.
Biodiverse vegetation is also essential for the maintenance of healthy soil and prevents the need for fertilizer. Removal of this vegetation leads to topsoil erosion and often leads to the use of chemical fertilizers on crops, which have their own impacts. Deforestation also leads to a loss of shade. As climate change causes rising temperatures around the globe and droughts ravage many traditionally humid climates, shade plays an important role in slowing evaporation of water and providing relief from the hot sun.
Can coffee be environmentally sustainable?
The way in which coffee plants are grown can have significant environmental impacts that damage local ecosystems and can exacerbate the effects of climate change in coffee producing communities. However, when coffee isn’t grown as an intensive agriculture crop, many of these effects can be mitigated or even avoided. Shade-grown coffee is coffee that is grown under a canopy of assorted trees instead of in a deforested, full sun area. By growing coffee under a tree canopy, many of the previously mentioned concerns are mitigated. This method greatly reduces deforestation, preserves biodiversity and ecosystems, prevents habitat loss, protects soil health, and maintains shade.
While sun grown coffee does have a slightly higher yield than shade grown coffee, the shade grown method protects the soil and surrounding environment to ensure sustainable coffee growth for years to come as well as a healthy ecosystem for the local community. When choosing your coffee, opt for shade grown to ensure environmental sustainability.
In addition to using shade grown coffee, using a reusable Keurig or equivalent coffee pod is a great way to cut down on individual waste. Although some coffee pods claim to be compostable, they often require industrial composting facilities to break down and will not be able to compost in your garden or backyard bin.
Social impacts of coffee production
In addition to environmental impacts, coffee production also has far reaching social consequences. The most significant of these issues is the unfair compensation of farmers and workers who grow, harvest, and process coffee beans. Despite the growth of the global coffee industry, the average famer’s income has not changed in the past 20 years. According to Fairtrade, nearly 61% of coffee producers are selling their coffee for less than the cost of production. Multiple factors contribute to this circumstance, including price volatility, global oversupply, and increased participation of hedge funds in the coffee market. What is most important to know is that the recent increase in popularity of coffee pods and capsules mean that most profit generated from coffee sales goes back to big coffee brands, instead of coffee farmers.
Unfair compensation of farmers has more impacts than just economic hardship among coffee farmers. Low compensation rates can lead to increased child and forced labour, less sustainable growing methods, and the inability of farmers to upgrade their farms to keep up with demand.
How can I support sustainable coffee?
Fairtrade works with small scale farms and workers in form of co-ops to ensure fair prices, good working conditions, child labour bans, and stronger supplier-buyer relationships. In addition, Fairtrade offers the Fairtrade Premium, which is an additional amount of money paid to producers to invest in business or community projects of their choice. Supporting socially sustainable coffee production can be as easy as looking for the Fairtrade logo.
Image sourced from: fairtrade.ca
However, not all Fairtrade coffee is shade grown, as this is not a requirement for a product to be designated Fairtrade, so it is important to check if your beans are shade grown as well. While buying Fairtrade and shade grown coffee may be more expensive than less sustainable alternatives, if you can afford to, it is a simple way to start your day off sustainably while pushing for a better world for all.
Another sustainable trade model that is becoming more and more popular is direct trade. While Fairtrade models strive for sustainability and have done great work in promoting more ethical coffee, they are not without fault. Fairtrade focuses on attaining fair prices for farmers co-ops, and while this is beneficially, it does not guarantee fair compensation to each small scale farmer, or to all workers at the beginning of the supply chain. In addition, Fairtrade prices are not quality dependent, rather being fixed without consideration of the climate or environment in which the coffee is grown. Direct trade seeks to fill these gaps by promoting trade directly with farmers, instead of through co-ops, and by offering quality centric pricing. In addition to offering a fair price for the coffee grown, direct trade provides incentive to farmers to improve the quality of their product to make more money and grow their business. This is described as a model of aspiration, instead of the model of preservation used by Fairtrade. Working directly with farmers also makes it easier to identify and address community needs. Direct trade aims to eliminate power imbalances that exist in supply chains and create long term trade relationships.
Organic is a term that is thrown around often when it comes to coffee, but its meaning can be ambiguous or vague. It is also often equated to Fairtrade or shade grown coffee, but organic only applies to the fertilizers and chemicals used during the growing process. Organic coffee is grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or chemicals. This doesn’t mean that no fertilizers or pesticides are used at all, but ones that are used are naturally derived. Organic farming has positive impacts on the water supplies and soil that crops are grown in, and can prevent accumulation of toxins in the surrounding ecosystem. Organic coffee is not always shade grown and organic designation does not guarantee that farmers are being justly compensated.
Similar to shade grown coffee, bird friendly coffee prioritizes the maintenance of surrounding habitat to minimize the impacts of growing coffee on surrounding ecosystems. Birds are especially affected by the loss of trees when forests are cut or burned in order to establish sun grown coffee plantations.
The Bird Friendly certification for coffee was developed by The Smithsonian and based on conservation science. These coffees are organic, shade grown, paying attention to tree canopy height and well as maintaining biodiversity.
Because the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides can also harm birds. Bird-Friendly coffee certification requires that coffee be organic and shade grown to support bird habitat, and that prices be fair and stable to support coffee producers. Bird-Friendly coffee also recognizes the importance of creating healthy environments for local communities and ensuring equal access to markets for small, Bird-Friendly coffee producers.
Although this certification may be less widely-known, it is very well rounded and evidence-based, so it is a great choice.
Coffee to Go
When grabbing coffee on the go, it is important to think about more than just the beans. Remember to bring your own reusable cup to prevent waste. Even though many coffee cups are compostable, most often this requires industrial composting which many cities do not offer. Recycling cups is a better solution than throwing them in a landfill, however it still uses a significant amount of energy, and recycling of these cups is not available in many jurisdictions.
In the end, bringing your own cup is the best option to reduce waste. Many coffee shops even offer a small discount to patrons who bring in a reusable mug. And of course, don't forget to tip your barista!
But which coffee is best?
Looking at all of the different “sustainable” options that are available can be overwhelming, and understanding the different pros and cons of them can be challenging. At the end of the day, you can choose to support the coffee brand of your choice, but to make choosing that brand easier, here is a final breakdown of the above sustainable designations.
So, I love all of these options, and indeed, many coffees will have multiple certifications. As an all-round best certification, I like Bird-friendly because it is so all encompassing; however, it is not as widely available as other options. But, simply paying attention to your coffee and its potential for good or negative impacts is really important, and then taking action! Ask for certified coffee from your local place, or write to your favourite coffee brand to ask why they are not yet certified. Let the companies who supply you with your cuppa know that this matters to you!
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