The Importance of Eco-Friendly Coffee
Over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world daily. As coffee drinkers, we are often blissfully unaware of the environmental impact our coffee habits can have on the planet.
Every step in the coffee production chain, from the plantation to the point where it enters your mouth, has the potential to be damaging to local and global environments. Whether it’s land clearing, overuse of chemicals, energy consumption, or the type of packaging used, there are many potential points of failure for environmentally conscious consumers along the coffee supply chain.
Add to this the ethical issues of fair and equitable trade, worker exploitation, and the growing shadow of corporate interest in greenwashing, and finding a coffee that meets our expectations becomes something many of us throw in the “too hard basket”
Thankfully there are sustainably and ethically sourced alternatives for conscious coffee lovers. By understanding where the coffee industry has or continues to fail, you will be able to make informed decisions when you buy your next eco-friendly coffee
Coffee’s Ecological Impacts
While coffee crops are traditionally cultivated within the understory of the rainforest, the high demand for coffee and the pursuit of higher crop yields has led to a change in practice commonly known as sun-grown coffee.
Sun-grown coffee sees the wholesale clearing and removal of native forest to be replaced by a monoculture of coffee shrubs. This type of land clearing and farming practice brings a whole host of secondary environmental impacts which we will examine below.
Research estimates forest loss across Central America to be approximately 2.5 million acres cleared for sun-grown coffee crops. Removing the world’s rainforests, which are estimated to remove around 40% of carbon emissions we produce, will speed up the negative effects climate change brings.
Sun-grown coffee crops are more reliant on chemical pesticides and fertilizers than traditional or “shade-grown” coffee crops. This reliance and often overuse of chemicals can have devastatingly negative consequences for surrounding ecosystems, particularly waterways.
Runoff containing higher levels of nitrate due to fertilizer use can cause algae blooms in water bodies, depleting oxygen levels making them all but uninhabitable to other life. This process, known as Eutrophication, can create dead zones as seen in Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, a direct result of excessive amounts of fertilizer ending up in the water.
Habitat and biodiversity loss
The destruction of native forests to clear space for profit-maximizing sun-grown coffee plantations reduces the availability of habitat for native birds, insects, and mammals.
The overuse of chemical pesticides reduces or destroys insect populations, which has huge negative flow-on effects on the health of the whole forest ecosystem. Many animals, particularly birds rely on insects as a source of food and in turn, the plants of the rainforest rely on birds and insects to reproduce and maintain the health of the forests.
Soil health and erosion
Tree and plant species help replenish soil nutrients by simultaneously drawing them from deeper in the earth with their extensive root systems and replacing them with decaying plant matter.
When ecosystems such as rain forests are converted into agricultural farms, the soil must be replenished artificially, typically with chemical fertilizers. This often leads to over-fertilization to make up for the soil becoming less productive over time, a practice that can cause the destruction of soil flora and fauna, which can, in turn, cause both physical and chemical deterioration of the soil itself, the groundwater, and the wider environment.
Without the protection of the tree canopy, the ground will retain more heat and the soil dries out faster. This leads to further nutrient loss in the soil and allows wind and water to carry off top layers causing problems with serious issues with erosion.
Coffee’s Ethical Issues
Fair and equitable trade
More than 90% of the coffee exports are grown in developing countries. Coffee farmers, in particular small to medium-sized producers, are heavily reliant on stable coffee prices. In coffee-growing regions, whole communities may rely on the coffee industry for their livelihoods, either directly or indirectly.
The principle of fair trade is that the farmers that produce the coffee are paid a fair price for their beans. Through paying a fair and equitable price for coffee from producers of all sizes, there is more likelihood for wages to increase and money to flow through to support the local community.
The Fairtrade certification aims to protect producers by guaranteeing farmers a minimum price of $1.21 per pound of green coffee beans. This allows farmers to predict the minimum value of their harvest and provides some certainty to their finances.
Child labor and worker exploitation
The coffee industry has had a long history of slavery and human rights abuses. While the use of slave labor has been made illegal in the majority of the world, reports of workers (including children) who are overworked, underpaid, facing unfair, and unsafe working conditions are still common today.
Working at coffee plantations frequently involves intense manual labor, with workers often denied food, breaks, or rest. The lack of training and work health and safety standards means the work, often involving toxic chemicals and heavy machinery, is dangerous at best and potentially life-threatening.
To put this issue into perspective, about 20% of children in coffee-growing countries fall victim to labor exploitation. Human trafficking and forced labor are still common occurrences with threats of violence and withheld payments preventing them from leaving the farms.
The best way to improve conditions for these people is to remove the demand for coffee that doesn’t treat their workers humanely. If there is no money in forced, dangerous, or unfair labor practices, the market for coffee produced this way will cease to be profitable
Certifications like Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and 4C aim to improve the working conditions in the coffee industry by setting criteria and benchmarks for the treatment of workers including payment, workers’ rights, living conditions, PPE, and the banning of toxic chemicals
Corporate behavior and greenwashing
The global coffee market is estimated to be worth US$144.68 billion by 2025 and is the world’s second most tradable commodity after oil. As with any industry where mind-boggling amounts of money can be made, coffee suffers from the profit-driven motivations of large businesses and global corporations.
Despite coffee’s value as a commodity, the communities, and people responsible for growing it receive little in return for their efforts. In an industry dominated by mega-corporations like Starbucks and Nestle, many coffee-producing communities still live in abject poverty.
In developing countries with a lack of effective social infrastructure and often in the face of extreme poverty, coffee farmers are vulnerable to mistreatment and are taken advantage of by profiteering businesses.
Price reductions, increased competition, undercutting, and extreme demand, increase the odds of socially and environmentally destructive practices among coffee producers. This is especially prevalent among smallholders who depend on the profit of each harvest to survive.
While this booming industry provides employment and a source of income, the negative effects on the local community can be devastating. The environmental destruction associated with sun-grown coffee can poison freshwater sources and destroy natural food sources causing huge cultural, social, and economic impacts for years to come.
Coffee corporations are responding to consumer demand for more sustainably and ethically sourced coffee. Whether their policies, (which include internal sustainability certification to minimize cost and conveniently external oversight) are actually effective or just greenwashing is up for debate.
As consumers, we hold the power to dictate demand for any given product. Wherever possible buy your coffee from local roasters and producers, ensuring their beans are certified by your organization of choice. Support your local cafes brewing sustainably and ethically sourced coffee and keep your money out of the pockets of the coffee corporations.
Coffee’s Carbon Footprint
Globally, over 9.5 billion kilograms (20.9 billion pounds) of coffee is produced each year. With demand for coffee products expected to triple by 2050, coffee’s impact on our climate and ecosystems is a problem that needs serious attention, and quickly.
The average carbon footprint of 1kg (2.2lb) of Arabica beans is a whopping 15.3 kilograms (33.7lb) of carbon dioxide. Sustainable, eco-friendly alternatives produced 77% less carbon dioxide than their conventional counterparts coming in at 3.51 kilograms (7.7lb) for every 1 kilogram (2.2lb) of green coffee produced.
On average, one espresso will have produced 0.28kg (9.9oz) of carbon over its life cycle, whereas an eco-friendly espresso can reduce this to 0.06kg (2.1oz). That’s an incredible 4x reduction in carbon footprint.
|Carbon Cost Per Cup||Conventional Coffee||Eco-Friendly Coffee|
|Espresso||0.28 kg (9.9 oz)||0.06 kg (2.1 oz)|
|Latte||0.55 kg (19.4 oz)||0.33 kg (11.6 oz)|
|Flat White||0.34 kg (12.0 oz)||0.13 kg (4.6 oz)|
|Cappuccino||0.41 kg (14.5 oz)||0.20kg (7.1oz)|
The amount of carbon produced over the life cycle of any given cup of coffee is largely dependent on a number of variables. Research shows that the largest contributors to conventional coffee’s carbon footprint are processing, growing, and transportation. Conventional coffee’s use of air freight for transportation and its reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides are cited as the major points of failure in its massive carbon footprint.
To put coffee’s greenhouse emissions into perspective let’s compare it with other farm-based industries.
|Industry||CO2 per kg produced|
|Conventional Coffee||15.33 kg (33.8 lb)|
|Beef||27kg (59.5 lb)|
|Cheese||13.5kg (29.8 lb)|
|Tea||7.1kg (15.7 lb)|
|Bananas||1.28kg (2.8 lb)|
|Wine||1.72kg (3.8 lb)|
|Sugar||0.55kg (1.2 lb)|
|Eco-Friendly Coffee||3.51 kg (7.7 lb)|
Nab C, Maslin M. Life cycle assessment synthesis of the carbon footprint of Arabica Coffee: Case study of Brazil and Vietnam conventional and sustainable coffee production and export to the United Kingdom. Geo: Geography and Environment. 2020;e96.https://doi.org/10.1002/geo2.96
It can be a little more than overwhelming to discover how potentially destructive our coffee habits can be. But don’t lose heart!
While conventional coffee production has and continues to be an industry responsible for deforestation, eco-system destruction, the poisoning of natural environments, and the mistreatment of workers. An industry that takes advantage of farmers, carries a massive carbon footprint, and often tries to hide these facts behind corporate greenwashing, there are alternatives!
Now that you know where the conventional coffee industry has gone wrong, you can understand where you as a consumer can do better. Certifications like Smithsonian Bird Friendly, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and USDA Organic show significant improvements to many of the factors listed above.
For more information on how to make your daily coffee habits more environmentally and ethically sustainable check out our guide on how to make your coffee more eco-friendly