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Food : How to Find Coffee That’s Both Sustainable and Ethical

As more of us try to incorporate more sustainable habits into our daily lives, Flora Beverley and research assistant Hattie Webb investigate how eco-friendly our morning cup of coffee is and what we can do as consumers to support ethical and sustainable production.

Global coffee consumption has over doubled in the last 40 years, from 4.2m tonnes in 1970 to 8.7m tonnes in 2015. In the UK alone, we drink around 95 million cups of coffee per day. Grown primarily in tropical conditions, with as many as 125 million people worldwide depending on coffee for their livelihoods, the industry has begun facing questions about its ethical and environmental consequences. As a consequence of less developed social infrastructure and the highly volatile coffee market, producers and their families are often put in vulnerable situations. With so much of the economic sustainability of the industry linked to the social stability of these communities, it is becoming increasingly important to consider the ethical, social and environmental factors of your morning cup of coffee.

So, what are the main environmental issues? 

In general, the monoculture farms often required for coffee production are having a negative impact on the planet’s biodiversity, with more modern cultivation methods proving more destructive than others. With regards to the resources required to actually grow the coffee plants, Water Footprint Network reports that the global average water footprint of a 125ml cup of coffee is 140 litres. In addition to this, there is the increasing use of pesticides and fertilisers to promote higher productivity or to ward off any pollination and pest problems facing intensive sun-grown coffee farms, according to The World Economic Forum. Much the same as the wider food industry, many tonnes of spent coffee grounds are wasted in landfill, rather than being composted or recycled, causing the release of methane – a greenhouse gas known to be 84 times more warming than carbon dioxide.

As more people look to bring coffee culture into their daily at home routines, how we consume our coffee has come under scrutiny. Though often made of non-biodegradable components and unrecyclable materials, products such as coffee pods have been proven to not be the worst environmental offenders due to their precise measurements and consequent reduced waste. Rather, how the coffee is cultivated can come to affect as little as 1% or as much as 70% of the total environmental footprint of a cup. 

Reducing Your Coffee Waste

In an effort to minimise the waste from each cup of coffee, the fresh grounds can be repurposed in beauty products, the garden or in the kitchen. If you are a keen gardener, keep your spent coffee grounds to add to your compost as an effective fertiliser – helping to absorb heavy metals and offer several key minerals for plant growth. Why not use your coffee grounds as a kitchen scourer, sprinkling on tough to clean surfaces and scrubbing (though do be sure to check the surface won’t stain). If #sundayselfcare is the highlight of your routine, add your grounds with a little water and coconut oil to make the perfect face and body scrub; with the caffeine acting as an antioxidant and providing an exfoliant to stimulate better blood flow. Alternatively, mix with soap glycerine and your favourite essential oils to form a zero-waste soap bar.

Coffee Production, Workers and Farming

Requiring a specific climate and growing environment, coffee production can be unpredictable; meaning that without unions or fair-trade agreements, communities are often left without guaranteed of prices that cover their production coast. This can lead to extreme poverty, as witness after the 1989 International Coffee Agreement collapse. According to The Rainforest Alliance, female coffee farmers (of which make up 60-90% of coffee labourers) have far less access to resources and so produce less than their male counterparts. If the playing field were made level, women could increase their farm yields by 20 to 30%. The ICO estimates that closing the gender gap could create an extra 30 billion cups of coffee per year. In a 2003 report on the coffee industry’s sustainability, the IISD suggested that gender inequity may be reinforced by maintaining a patriarchal supply chain structure and suggested alternative structures that could improve the gender imbalance. However, in the 17 years since the release of this report, gender inequality is still a widespread issue in the coffee trade.

Child labour is a social issue deeply ingrained in the industry, with reports suggesting many children are widely used as cherry pickers on plantations. Among health and safety risks, such labour results in lower education levels and subsequently maintains a cycle of poverty over generations. Regulations against child labour do exist in many coffee-producing countries, but economic pressures result in a reluctance to enforce such laws. Poverty has also seen a rise in debt peonage (forced labour to pay off debts) on large coffee estates meaning increased concerns of modern slavery within the industry.