Sustainable coffee has been a major buzzword in the coffee industry for several years now.
It began with simple questions such as “can we produce coffee without causing environmental damage?” And “can we produce coffee without exploiting workers?”
But what is sustainable coffee really? Does it just mean organic, biodynamic or fair trade coffee? And could we have 100% environmentally and socially sustainable coffee in the future?
What does sustainability mean?
Sustainability means continuing to produce a product in a way that is economically and environmentally viable.
It is defined as “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.”
While this refers to environmental sustainability, in coffee we also need to consider social sustainability.
In other words, sustainability in coffee is about ensuring that the coffee supply chain is environmentally friendly and that farmers and other workers are paid and treated fairly, while also remaining profitable and economically sustainable for the various businesses involved.
What issues impact coffee sustainability?
Climate change, deforestation, and the overall degradation of natural resources are some of the most pressing issues facing coffee sustainability.
Global warming is threatening the weather patterns that coffee needs to grow, and pesticides are poisoning ecosystems that the coffee plant needs to thrive.
Additionally, many labour practices within the coffee industry contribute to its unsustainability.
Coffee farmers may be paid extremely low wages or experience poor working conditions as a result of arbitrary labour regulations or exploitative business practices within their country or region.
Additionally, there are many instances of child labour and gender inequality in the coffee industry.
So what is sustainable coffee?
So, now that we’ve talked a bit about what sustainability is, let’s talk about what sustainable coffee is.
Sustainable coffee is coffee that is produced using farming practices that are environmentally and socially responsible.
This means paying attention to the impact of the products you’re growing on both human communities and the natural environment.
Sustainability can be an ambiguous, all-encompassing term that can be hard to pin down—and it doesn’t help that there are several different certifications for sustainable coffee production out there—so let’s break it down a little bit more.
Sustainable coffee production encompasses three key objectives:
- environmental protection,
- social responsibility, and
- economic viability.
Environmental goals include preserving biodiversity and protecting areas of high ecological value—such as fragile riverbanks or steep slopes—while minimising chemical use and developing clean water management systems.
Social goals include providing livable wages for workers, equal pay for women and men, fair trade practices wherever possible, increased opportunities for education (especially in rural areas), community development projects, healthcare access and safe working conditions.
Economic goals include making sure farmers’ work is profitable enough to support themselves long-term while also helping them invest in processing equipment like solar dryers or fermentation tanks to improve their harvests every year.
Fair Trade coffee
As a consumer, you can choose to support coffee companies that have adopted fair trade standards.
Fair trade means that farmers are paid an agreed-upon minimum price for their crop, which helps reduce poverty and improve community development.
Fair trade also promotes social justice and makes sure workers aren’t exploited or forced to do unsafe work.
Additionally, this system ensures producers use methods that protect the environment and promote sustainable practices in the local community.
Buying fair trade coffee ensures that everyone in the coffee supply chain is treated fairly. Fair wages are paid to workers and farmers, who work under safe conditions and have access to education and healthcare.
These fair working conditions yield higher yields overall, meaning more sustainable production profits for the farmers involved.
When you purchase fair trade products, you’re helping support these workers’ rights because a portion of your purchase goes directly to them. This means they can continue earning livable wages while improving their quality of life.
Gender inequality in coffee farmers
When you think “coffee farmer,” what comes to mind? Most likely, it’s not a woman.
But the fact is that women are disproportionately affected by issues in the coffee supply chain, yet they’re often excluded from conversations about solutions.
According to a report by the International Coffee Organization (ICO), 70% of labour in coffee production is provided by women.
However, the report also found that women have lower access to resources such as land, credit, information, and training.
Environmental sustainability is a key marker of sustainable coffee.
Buying organic coffee directly supports farmers who are growing their coffee without chemicals or pesticides and conserving the soil, water, and biodiversity around them.
Organic farming practices can prevent rainforest deforestation, conserve water, reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and protect species that depend on healthy ecosystems for survival.
It also helps farmers avoid the health risks associated with exposure to dangerous chemicals found in pesticides.
On top of all that good stuff, organic coffee provides a better cup of coffee—one that’s free from unwanted chemical residues and tastes its best!
Drinking certified organic coffee means you can enjoy your morning brew while knowing you’re doing something good for yourself and the environment.
Coffee packaging, whether it’s a plastic lid on your cup of joe or a bag of beans, can be one of the biggest offenders when it comes to pollution.
Not only is the packaging often made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas but they’re often not recyclable.
For example, many single-serve coffee pods are made from aluminium and plastic that get tossed out after just one use.
Some coffee brands have even begun making their packaging more sustainable.
By reducing the amount of plastic used or using plant-based bioplastics instead, these brands are helping protect our planet for future generations.
Can coffee become sustainable?
Sustainable coffee, in simple terms, means that all aspects of a coffee chain operate to create a long-term positive impact on the farmers who grow it and the planet.
To put it another way: sustainable coffee is the kind of coffee that’s best for everyone involved—the farmers, their families and communities, our earth and climate, you—and will continue to be so.
In this sense, “sustainable” can be thought of as an ideal state; one where all aspects are working together in harmony.
The good news (for coffee lovers and the environment alike) is that efforts are being made in the right direction.
In response to these issues, many coffee companies now offer “fair trade” or “sustainable” products.
Sustainability can be quantified with an overall sustainability score, which measures factors such as environmental impact, profitability, and social impact, often dividing them into subcategories like water use efficiency or farmer welfare.
One organisation pushing things in the right direction is the World Coffee Research program, which helps growers measure the sustainability of their individual farms by measuring everything from greenhouse gasses produced to labour standards used on the farm.