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What You Need to Know About Sustainable Coffee

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Sustainability is more than just a simple buzzword, even if it might seem as if it came out of nowhere. The social, economic, and environmental health of the coffee industry has a ton riding on things like sustainability. Farmers who are living in poverty and a reduction in biodiversity are some of the issues that are involved with this issue.

The questions that need to be answered are whether a growth economy is sustainable and whether the coffee industry is capable of supporting fair wages while remaining sustainable in an environmental manner. We’ll look at the answers to those questions and more, offering everything you may have wondered about sustainable coffee.

How Sustainability is Defined 

Sustainability is a word you might hear a lot as of late and what it means has changed over the last several years. When it comes to coffee industry sustainability, there are three things that are considered. They include the planet, people, and profit. When sustainable development is put in place, the needs of today are met but without a compromise for generations in the future. In summation, it means being responsible for how resources are used now so our children and grandchildren also have what they need for comfortable lives.

Sustainability as it Relates to Coffee 

Sustainability is not a new thing for the coffee industry despite the fact that fair pricing for coffee and climate change are so important right now. Even back in 1962, when the first international coffee agreement was signed, there was a conversation about ways to ensure the excess coffee on the market was limited to provide economic sustainability. It’s a lot to think about all at once, especially when delving into how people, profits, and the planet are linked. 

Reasons for the Need for Social Sustainability 

The reality is that many of the areas where coffee is grown are in a place of major poverty where there no effective social infrastructure is in place. With a coffee market that is exceedingly volatile, coffee farmers and their families are extremely vulnerable. As such, the economic sustainability of the coffee world becomes linked to the social sustainability of communities found around the world.

When coffee prices are unstable, this has a serious impact on housing, healthcare, food, and education in the areas where coffee is produced. It doesn’t help matters that a lot of coffee farmers are in areas of geographic isolation, so transporting beans and buying tools can fetch a high cost. If the cost of coffee prices falls, it can make these people unable to access even these basics.

One of the areas where this matters most is in gender inequality. Based on reports by the Rainforest Alliance, coffee farmers who are female tend to produce less coffee than males and have less access to needed resources. The Food and Agriculture Organization explains that with a level playing field, women would be capable of increasing farm yields by around 25%. The ICO agrees that closing the gender gap might be enough to produce an extra 30 billion cups of java in an average year.

In 2003, the IISD put out a report showing that the coffee trade maintaining patriarchal structures of supply chains reinforces the inequality being gendered. Using alternative trading structures may be a chance to improve this issue through the entire supply chain. While this report is a number of years old, it is still relevant as gender inequality continues to be widespread.

The second issue of concern is child labor. In some countries, reports show that kids are commonly used to pick coffee cherries on plantations. As the Chief Markets Officers of the Rainforest Alliance, Alex Morgan mentioned that he believes workers around the globe should bring in enough profit that they can provide a decent life for both themselves and their families.

“We co-founded the Global Living Wage Coalition (GLWC), a group of NGOs working with two leading researchers to identify how much money workers need to afford a decent standard of living for themselves and their families,” Morgan says. “And (in 2018), we merged with the Dutch organization UTZ to form a stronger, larger, and more innovative organization to maximize our impact around the world in coffee-growing countries.”

Specific Needs for Environmental Sustainability 

As far as the most pressing issues facing the coffee industry and the world at large, environmental sustainability is way up there. The process of agriculture leads to 4/5 of all tropical deforestation while farming coffee necessitates significant amounts of resources. Importing and exporting of coffee as well as processing it have additional impacts on the environment.

In producing companies, wet million can have negative effects on drinking water as well as streams. When processed water, which is polluted, makes its way into the local water, it can cause disease or even death in animals, plants, and humans. A report by the Water Footprint Network explains that the typical water footprint for a 125 ml cup of coffee is 140 liters. Considering the global population is expected to be 9.8 million by the year 2050, the environmental aspects of agriculture along with food security are both increasingly relevant.

In addition to that, climate change is leading to new problems that farmers are trying to solve. Morgan says that “Climate change is hitting coffee farmers particularly hard. Precipitation is more volatile, drought and flooding are both more widespread, and rising temperatures threaten coffee farmers, regardless of location.”

Climates that are unpredictable can have serious impacts on the quality of crops. For instance, if a dry season is expected, which then brings heavy rains, this can destroy an entire crop which leads to a farmer making far less money than was expected. This is a major issue, especially for specialty coffee growers.

Morgan explains, “Because higher-altitude coffees tend to be higher-quality coffees, rising temperatures will force farmers up the mountainside to seek out the cooler temperatures that specialty coffee needs. But as farmers move up the mountainsides, there is less and less land available for coffee.”

In general, the practice of coffee farming can have a negative effect on biodiversity. However, some methods cause more turmoil than others do. For instance, farms that offer shade trees that birds and other wildlife appreciate are less problematic. However, most coffee is created on monoculture farms, as most are, reduces the level of biodiversity in the area.

Based on a report by the World Economic Forum, sun-grown coffee farms often have issues with pest and pollination, which means pesticides are needed. This increases the level of environmental degradation that is at hand.

Consumers of coffee also play a part in this. Using single-use coffee pods or disposable cups leads to waste that is hard or impossible to recycle. Thankfully, some small changes have been moving toward better sustainability, such as the proposal of cornstarch pods that can be composted and a latte levy. These are small fixes that can help, but the origin of the beans is where most of the attention needs to go.

The Potential for Sustainable Coffee

 You might be wondering whether coffee can ever be sustainable as a whole. That involves another question: how to reduce the environmental impact of coffee while ensuring social and economic wellbeing of those who are farming the coffee?

The truth is that we have to try things and see what works. As we’ve mentioned, the planet, people, and profit are all linked together. If the economic factor can be addressed, the social and environmental factors have a better chance of being addressed and taken care of.

How does this affect you as someone who consumes coffee? Knowing the impact that coffee has on so many things, being educated and knowledgeable about the coffee you drink is the first step. Before you grab a pound of coffee and take it to a counter to purchase it, think about the farming method and origins of it. Consider how you can prepare it in the most sustainable manner. It’s also worth thinking about what projects you can support with organizations that care about sustainability in the industry.

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Fair Trade Coffee Companies Worth Supporting

 Did you know that next to oil, coffee is the largest commodity on an international basis? With a huge demand for coffee in the west, the industry is unfortunately rife with child slavery and forced labor around the world. The International Labor Organization believes there are at least 250 million child workers producing items like coffee and cocoa for western buyers.

Children and forced laborers often have little to no rights available to them. These people are exploited to do the work and may spend hours in the field with very little or no pay. They also may be exposed to dangerous pesticides and fertilizers that are not allowed in the United States, which can lead to health conditions that follow them throughout life.

When buying fair trade coffee, you are saying you want the farmers who make your coffee to be treated ethically and fairly. If this is something that is important to you, the following companies offer fair trade coffee for sale. We’ll also look at sustainable businesses later in the article so you can make the best choices for yourself.

Cafédirect – London, United Kingdom

 Cafédirect is a company that is known for its commitment to quality. The blends made by this brand have offered them the chance to win more than 30 Great Taste Awards in a decade. The company also believes in creating quality relationships using face to face meetings with their farmers every year. The push for quality has also led the company to seek out Gold Standard and fair trade certifications for their treatment of the planet and the people on it. Almost 90% of the farmers of the brand are shareholders of the business. The company has also made a commitment to reinvest a third of their profits into their producers and the communities they are in.

Equal Exchange – St. Paul, Minnesota

 Unlike some coffee brands out there, Equal Exchange has been creating exceptional coffee for more than 25 years. The business was formed based on a simple but novel idea. The idea was to determine whether coffee could be traded in a fair and honest way where both consumers and farmers are empowered. That is exactly why this business is owned by its workers. The cooperative consists of more than 100 workers who have voting rights and equal shares in the company. This is a company with a unique focus on ethics and the company always gets high marks for its care of people and the planet at large.

Higher Ground Roasters – Leeds, Alabama

 The focus of Higher Ground Roasters is to create some of the best coffee in the world available fresh and to anyone who wants it. The coffee roasted is fair trade, certified organic, and shade-grown to ensure both the environment and farmers are protected. The company offers top relationships from the Farm to the Cup and do so by creating partnerships with nonprofits including the Cahaba River Society, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the Black Warrior Riverkeepers. Customers of the brand can enjoy being part of sustainability while preserving areas that matter to them.

Grumpy Mule – London, United Kingdom

 Grumpy Mule is a company that is serious when it comes to ethics. It’s fairly easy to use short term sustainability methods to make a company look great, but Grumpy Mule has worked to find long term options for sourcing and roasting practices of their coffee beans. The company has worked to gain organic, fair trade, and Rainforest Alliance certifications, which offers a conscious story for every brew. The company is clearly a nerdy one and the brand is playful and fun. They also offer a number of online guides to different brewing methods for those who are looking to experiment.

Wandering Bear Coffee – New York City, New York

 Wandering Bear is another company that is working to ensure the best coffee is available to all who seek it out. The company offers silky-smooth cold brew with a large kick of caffeine so you can get your motor running early and get through your day without trouble. The single-serve cold brew option makes a good choice for the morning or you can try the cold brew on tap if you’re excited to try the freshest cup every time you indulge. The coffee is fair trade and USDA organic and can be purchased in NYC stores as well as online.

DOMA – Post Falls, Idaho

 DOMA is a member of Cooperative Coffees, which shows a commitment to putting their farmers, product, and identity at the forefront of the brand. This coffee is fairly traded through the use of direct relationships and is certified organic. Their roasting methods also show a commitment to the planet and environment. The company uses a roaster that is eco-friendly to conserve 80% more natural gas than a typical roaster. As the company has grown, it has formed partnerships with several nonprofits and community organizations as a way to give back.

Stumptown Roasters – Portland, Oregon 

You’ve probably heard of Stumptown Roasters, but you may not realize they are one of the top fair trade coffee brands around the globe. Stumptown has had a huge impact on Portland due to its constant search for great quality. In addition to great quality, the company cares about ethics. The company uses direct trade sourcing, which means they create relationships with their producers and offers transparency about each of them online. While this company has grown far beyond its roots as a startup, their attention to detail and excellent product shows a commitment that makes this company one worth paying attention to.

Rise Up Coffee Roasters – Easton, Maryland

 Rise Up Coffee was founded by a man named Tom Cureton after a caffeine inspired trip back home from service in the Peace Corp. It has grown all the way from a little coffee truck to a team that encompasses more than a hundred people. This coffee brand has a serious love for their farmers and roasts their fair trade, organic beans in small batches to ensure the highest quality. There are a few cafes where you can try the coffee in Maryland, but the brand also sells their beans online for those from out of state.

Pura Vida Coffee – Tukwila, Washington 

One of the first brands to introduce all fair trade coffee is Pura Vida, which also has certifications for organic and shade-grown practices across all of its products. The company also have a commitment to reducing its environmental footprint all the way from the farm to the cup. Pura Vida also takes things further by a dedication to supporting at-risk children through education and health initiatives by working with nonprofit organizations.

Café Mam – Eugene, Oregon 

Café Mam focuses its efforts on sourcing organic and fair trade beans grown in the highlands of Chiapas by native Mayan farmers. Throughout the years, the family-owned brand has created a large following due to the consistency and quality of their beans. Café Mam is under the impression that the last thing we need are more glossy brands and that instead, people want companies who care about what processes go into providing quality products.

Allegro Coffee – Thornton, Colorado 

Allegro Coffee offers a wide variety of fair trade blends in which workers and farmers are provided with fair work and pay under fair labor conditions. This company uses organic growing methods to ensure beans have no exposure to chemicals while being created. In addition to offering a commitment to the environment and customers, the company also uses old-time traditions to create some of the best coffee you could ever taste. This coffee is found in Whole Foods as well as many other retailers across the United States.

Sustainable Coffee

Top Sustainable Coffee Businesses in the United States

 Most specialty coffee professionals put a lot of thought into how their coffee tastes in the cup, but it’s less common for a roastery to care as much about the environment. However, it is becoming more common for retailers and roasters alike to consider ways they can reduce their carbon footprint.

This is important since climate change is starting to have a major impact on the regions of the world where coffee is produced. While weather patterns are changing and temperatures continue to rise, the coffee areas we have now could decrease by nearly 50% in the next 30 years, according to Conservation International. When coffee farms move up the mountains to get away from rising temperatures, the further deforestation could lead to even larger problems.

Coffee is one of a number of industries causing problems by producing a large amount of greenhouse gas. A study from 2012 looked at coffee from Costa Rica to Europe which showed more than 50% of the greenhouse gas produced is on the side of the roaster through turning on lights, heating water, and producing waste through to-go cups and other items.

Turning this trend on end isn’t something that is simple. The geographic location, local infrastructure, and political climate of a coffee business have a lot to do with whether switching to renewable solar and wind energy is a possibility.

If you want to use coffee beans from sustainable companies, the 10 roasters and retailers below are a good choice. They are working on cutting down their carbon emissions, offsettingthe use of energy, decreasingthe level of waste, and helping farmers prevent extra damages based on climate change.

Kickapoo Coffee Roasters – Wisconsin

 Kickapoo Coffee Roasters, found in southwestern Wisconsin, took advantage of a 2015 grant offering them a 30% tax break in exchange for setting up their roasting facility with a solar grid. An 80-panel array was hooked up and over the course of a year, this covered the entirety of electricity usage with solar power and enjoyed a $25,000 tax credit for doing so.

The roasting machine does still use natural gas and their Milwaukee café uses traditional power, but some changes have been made to improve things such as turning the espresso machine off at night and switching over to LED lights. Kickapoo Coffee Roasters has long been a member of Cooperative Coffees, which is an importing group of nearly 25 roasters in the United States and Canada which source organic and fair trade coffee from cooperatives across the globe.

Counter Culture Coffee – North Carolina 

One of the adages in use by Counter Culture Coffee is that “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” and this is something the brand lives by. The company puts out a sustainability report each year that tracks everything from electricity to roasting and air travel. However, unlike Kickapoo, going to solar power wasn’t as attractive to Counter Culture. There are not as many refunds, tax incentives, and rebates for doing so in North Carolina. Instead, the company purchases wind energy credits to account for electricity used at training and roasting facilities.

This company also offsets extra carbon emissions, most of which are caused by shipping, by purchasing carbon credits through the AMBIO conservationist cooperative found in Chiapas, Mexico. In addition, this roaster added a new location in Emeryville, California recently to lower the number of long-haul shipments to their nearly 50 wholesale clients on the west coast.

Portland Roasting Coffee – Oregon 

Portland Roasting Coffee is one of the brands on the forefront of environmental sustainability. It has built a reputation for being energy conscious based on their pushing for the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s START program, which is corporate-grade, comprehensive software that helps track use of energy on a per pound basis with coffee.

The company uses this program to take down metrics about its coffee within the borders of the United States starting from the second it reaches a port as green beans all the way through to when roasted coffee goes to accounts. It also looks at details like how employees get to and from work each day. The results are used to determine the number of carbon offsets to purchase, which has led to being carbon neutral since 2007.

A few years ago, the company also put in place a program for bicycle delivery in Portland for coffee to go from the roasting establishment to sellers. Since this has been in place, the company has delivered at least half a million pounds of coffee by bike. The emissions that cannot be avoided are offset with a partnership with Trees for the Future. This nonprofit plants trees in areas of Africa prone to drought in order to protect against soil erosion, promote permaculture, and help fight poverty. The company paid for 10,000 trees to be planted in 2014.

Colectivo Coffee – Wisconsin 

Colectivo Coffee was opened by Lincoln Fowler and others in Alterra in 1993 and has built an energy-efficient reputation ever since. Back in the early 2000s, when nobody was doing it, this company took part in a Green Power Purchasing Program the city of Milwaukee offered and started to source all electricity from renewable sources. All of the cafes were running on green energy by 2004, which gained Alterra national attention from Whole Foods, Johnson & Johnson, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Based on the green quality of Alterra, Mars Drinks made an investment in the company in 2010, which was used to expand their Flavia line, which is similar to the Keurig K-Cup pods. Three years later, the company sold the Alterra name to Mars and branded as Colectivo, which is an homage to the type of bus transportation often used by the working class in Central America.

Nowadays, the company runs more than a dozen cafes in Wisconsin and many of them offer efficient heating and air systems that includes pressure sensors to ensure the best air temperature is circulated depending on the season. A timing circuit was also designed for the roast exhaust incinerator to ensure the flame is only one when needed to conserve natural gas.

Equator Coffee & Teas – California 

Equator Coffee & Teas has the distinction of being the first coffee company to be certified as a B Corporation. The company has also shown their penchant for conscientious business relationships that consider the livelihood of all the partners throughout the supply chain as well as the environment. In San Rafael, California, the company uses an energy-efficient Loring Roaster. At origin, they also have clean-burning stoves located in eco-friendly worker quarters at their farm in Panama. In May 2016, the California company which boasts LGBT-ownership won the award for California’s Small Business of the Year.

Larry’s Coffee – North Carolina 

Larry’s Coffee is based out of Raleigh and another of the founding members for Cooperative Coffees. The building used for the roasters is a model of sustainable efficiency. This B Corporation has a 37 out of 100 environmental score on the B Corp Impact Assessment, which looks at the environmental and social impact of a company. This is impressive because the median score is only a seven.

The roasting facility’s bathrooms and gardens use five water-collecting cisterns to provide water. There is also lots of natural light that comes into the building to cut down on the cost of heating. It also offers onsite composition for soil amendment in the gardens. The local deliveries are also made using a van that uses biodiesel from the nearby Piedmont Biofuels.

Peace Coffee – Minnesota 

Yet another member of Cooperative Coffees, the Minneapolis-based Peace Coffee is a non-profit establishment which is owned by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. This is an organization that puts effort into ensuring sustainable and fair farm, food, and trade systems. Peace Coffee has been delivering coffee with a bicycle since 1998 and their home office is eco-friendly with geothermal heating, solar panels, and a garden on the roof.

As of 2014, Peace became one of the initial public-benefit corporations in Minnesota, which means it is a corporation that prioritizes the public interest just as much as or more than bringing in the highest profits. In 2016, the company purchased more than a million pounds of organic and fair trade coffee. As a comparison, Counter Culture sources under 1,8 million pounds of organic coffee in 2015 for distribution beyond their home state.

Pachamama Coffee Cooperative – California 

This cooperative’s name translates to indigenous Andean as “Mother Earth” and brands itself as a company that is entirely farmer-owned. The company is based in Sacramento and works with a handful of cooperatives located in Nicaragua, Mexico, Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Peru. Each cooperative has a member on the company board of directors. Through this relationship, all coffee created is entirely certified organic. One of the things that Pachamama does to set itself apart is listing a breakdown of the price by the pound, which shows the cost at every stop on the supply line. This is an unprecedented price transparency for a United States coffee business.

Grounds for Change – Washington 

Grounds for Change is the first coffee business in the nation that became certified carbon-free, which means that all of the greenhouse gas emissions created through producing coffee has been offset using credits to the Carbon Fund. It is also the only company posted there today besides Counter Culture that participates in the formal carbon markets.

That isn’t all that Grounds for Change is doing to be sustainable, however. The company also purchases all of its electricity through solar power, biomass, and wind power. The company is a member of the 1% for the Planet Program, which means 1% of sales go to environmental organizations such as Save Our Wild Salmon, the Seattle Audubon Society, and EcoTeach. All of the coffee that comes from Grounds for Change is fair trade and certified organic.

Peet’s Coffee & Tea – California 

There has been quite a bit of apprehension about the fact that that JAB Holding Company took possession of Peet’s Coffee & Tea back in 2012. However, Peet’s roasts the entirety of its coffee using the first LEED gold-certified roasting facility in the United States, which is found in Alameda, California.

Additionally interesting is that fact that Peet’s gave a donation of a quarter of a million dollars to build a center at the University of California – Davis to offer coffee programs. Along with a pilot roastery, the center is a great step for helping develop the needed science to learn about the coffee plants and its organoleptic properties. This could offer insight into the resiliency of the crop and provide clarity for farmers looking to adapt and mitigate problems based on climate change.

Wrapping Up 

If we want coffee to be available for future generations, sustainability is an important thing to consider. Understanding what that means for the coffee industry is a crucial first step, but choosing beans that reflect those things might be even more important. When you select fair trade and sustainable coffee beans, you get a great taste while knowing you are helping keep the earth in the best shape possible.

Bonus Questions:

1. Is coffee farming sustainable?

The problem is that there is no clear consensus on what defines a sustainable farm or sustainable farming and those involved seem to lack agreement on something that makes everyone happy. However, in general, sustainable coffee farming is coffee grown in a way that is kind to both people and the environment.

2. What is the sustainable coffee challenge?

The Sustainable Coffee Challenge is an effort of various companies, NGOs, research institutions, and governments to transition the entire coffee sector to a state of sustainability.

3. Is Starbucks Coffee environmentally friendly?

Starbucks has unveiled something called the Starbucks Greener Stores initiative and plans to have over 10,000 environmentally friendly stores throughout the world by 2025. The company also plans to generate enough wind and solar power to offset the needed electricity for all the stores located in the United States and Canada.

4. How does coffee impact the environment?

Coffee was originally grown in shaded areas with indigenous insects and animals. The animals and plants helped to prevent erosion of the soil and made it unneeded to use fertilizers. However, as demand for coffee went up, so did the need for sun cultivation and plantations, which can cause issues for the environment.

5. What coffee brands are fair trade?

There are a large number of coffee brands that qualify as fair trade. Some of the most popular include Equal Exchange, Larry’s Coffee, Pure Vida Coffee, Café Mam, Rise Up Coffee Roasters, Higher Ground Roasters, Conscious Coffees, and Grumpy Mule.

6. How does fair trade help the environment?

There are all sorts of ways that fair trade coffee can help the environment. In order to sell coffee as a fair trade product, farmers are required to improve water and soil quality, deal with pests without chemicals, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, manage waste, and protect the biodiversity of the area.

7. What is shade-grown coffee?

Shade-grown coffee is a beverage made from coffee plants that are grown underneath a canopy of trees. These shade trees are integral to the proper growth of shade-grown coffee.

8. How much coffee does a coffee tree produce?

One average coffee tree is capable of an annual yield of about one 1.5 pounds of roasted coffee after processing is complete. To make a pound of coffee, it requires around 4,000 green coffee beans.

9. How long does coffee take to grow?

It depends on the variety of coffee, but, in general, it takes three to four years for a coffee tree to start producing fruit. The fruit is known as a coffee cherry and it turns a dark red when it is ripe and can be harvested to be processed further.

10. Why are minimum prices needed in fair trade?

A minimum price is set on coffee based on a process between the fair trade farmers, traders, and workers in order to ensure the producers get a price that is reasonable for the growing of the crop. If the market price is higher than the minimum fair trade price, the market price must be paid.

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