Environmental Justice Food Resources Waste

New Resource Provides Options for Sustainable and Ethical Coffee

Coffee is a luxury good, yet the average person living in the United States drinks around two cups a day. In 2010, 5,600 paper cups were disposed of every day at WashU, most of which were coffee cups. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the carbon footprint of drinking coffee. Though we usually experience coffee in its final liquid form – maybe as grounds or beans if you make it yourself – each sip that we take is the fruit of a long story rooted in local agricultural practices, global ethics, and climate change.

Because of coffee’s prevalence in our daily lives, it’s critical to take time to examine the impact of our practices on social and environmental issues, and to pursue sustainable and ethical alternatives. That’s why the Green Office Program released a new guide to inform offices in their coffee choices, examining waste, energy usage, and ethics in sourcing coffee while considering the specific needs of the offices’ coffee drinkers.

An Industry in Crisis

Coffee is notoriously a finicky crop that is very sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture and susceptible to a variety of diseases.  Things as common as storms or the introduction of a new pest can threaten a region’s coffee bean harvest for the entire year. Because of this sensitivity, climate change is a huge industry stressor, one that may change how we consume coffee forever. The more common impacts of climate change, such as changes in global temperatures and rainfalls, will force growers to move their plants “up the mountain” after lower regions get too hot and dry to sustain the crop.

It is expected that displacing the crops will result in a lower quality drink, but even so, displacing one’s livelihood to a higher elevation is not an option for everyone. The majority of coffee bean producers are small farmers that are subject to extreme price fluctuations in the global coffee market, so literally uprooting themselves to move uphill takes time and money that they often do not have.

In sum, climate change will only exacerbate the pre-existing disparities between the Global South and Global North. Climate-induced changes in yields and prices will disproportionately affect the growers – all of whom live in developing or post-colonial countries – rather than the main consumers, most of whom are from countries in North America and Europe. While consumers may have to endure price hikes and a change in taste, the growers have their entire livelihoods threatened.

The Art of Sourcing Coffee

There are many factors to consider when gauging the sustainability and ethics of the coffee you consume, ranging from farming practices to the roaster’s location.

The first major distinction is whether the plant was shade or sun grown. Shade grown is considered the traditional way to grow coffee plants and offers a variety of benefits to the grower and the environment. With this method, the coffee plant is sheltered under native tree species, which protects it from pests and direct sunlight, while also diversifying the farmer’s crop output. Many coffee beans are now produced with the sun-grown method, which was introduced to coffee growers by the World Bank and USAID as a way to increase crop yields. Though the yields may be higher, this method relies on pesticides to manage fungi and pests, requires farmers to cut down swathes of biodiverse forest, exhausts the soil and promotes monoculture farming that makes farmers reliant on the single coffee crop. Doing research and checking the labels on coffee products to find out how each batch was grown can be the first step in being a more responsible consumer.

Once harvested, the beans have to be roasted. This step usually takes place near the location where the coffee is consumed for quality and preservation purposes. Roasters local to where you live are considered the more sustainable option since the finished product does not travel far, cutting down on transportation emissions. That being said, it is important to keep local roasting businesses accountable by asking where their beans are coming from, and what compensation growers receive.

The Fair Trade Certified label, for example, guarantees that the growing and distribution of the coffee met rigorous social, economic, and environmental standards. However, branding can be very deceiving– as even educated consumers can be tricked by green labels and buzzwords that are not consistent with industry standards of sustainability. To avoid being misled by greenwashing, know what you are really looking for before going in to shop. Review the full Coffee Guide to know what labels to look for, and what they mean.

The Art of Making Coffee

The vast world of coffee making is flooded with different machines, filters, and grinders that all cater to specific coffee tastes. It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but finding the right setup for your home or office is easy once you identify your needs and those of your community members. Some factors to consider when looking for a coffee maker are:

  • How many people are going to regularly use the coffee maker?
  • Do you have access to hot water?
  • How quickly do you drink the coffee after it is made?

Responding to these questions will help you determine the coffee practices that best fit your needs. Check out our newly released Coffee Guide to learn how to choose among different coffee sources and supplies, and which production method best matches your or your office’s needs.

Further Reading

This article was written by Natalie Snyder, Communication Associate at the Office of Sustainability.