Written by Lily Bonasso

Have you ever glanced at your morning coffee and wondered about its origins, about the process that it has undergone from bean to cup, about the environmental implications of the industry? Maybe not, but I’d like to urge you to do so today. My goal here is to shed some light on the complicated production of coffee and the ways that you can make your consumption of this caffeinated beverage just a bit greener.

First, it is important to understand the challenges faced by the coffee crop and its growing community. Increasing agricultural industrialization over the last century has led to large-scale, unsustainable monocultures. These densely planted rows of coffee trees that are completely reliant upon chemical nutrients and pesticides lie defenseless against the ever-changing climate and unpredictable weather conditions. Coffee farmers, many of whom have families dependent upon their wages, survive at the mercy of large agricultural and chemical supply companies in these situations. As coffee continues to be in high demand worldwide, changes must occur to make its production more sustainable and to protect its farmers.

In the recent years, the industry has seen an increase in what are known as coffee cooperatives. At the most basic level, a coffee cooperative is a coalition of small, independent farmers that work together to achieve fairer prices and production practices. These nonprofit organizations facilitate access to resources, education, training, and business connections, allowing the individual farmers to remain independent of large corporations and in control of their own crop. At the same time, members of the cooperative are given the proper resources to secure international business partnerships and sell their crop at a profitable price. Many of these farmers engage in growing practices that are far more sustainable, such as interspersing their crop among other species of trees. These trees, some of which are significantly taller than the coffee tree, work in conjunction to provide shade for the coffee and a natural source of nutrients for the soil, enriching the crop and protecting it from environmental changes. Coffee farms of this structure have also been found to benefit bird migratory patterns, conserve native biodiversity, and sequester carbon to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

Now that you have a bit more understanding about some of the environmental and societal implications of the coffee industry, let’s talk about the choices you can make to ensure that your coffee is contributing to the development of more sustainable practices.

First, if you’re brewing your own cup, you’ll want to investigate the coffee beans you choose to purchase. There are currently many labels on the market that can point you in the right direction, such as Fair Trade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance certification, and shade grown designation. The Fair Trade label is granted to products that ensure fair wages for farmers and eco-friendly growing practices. Organic crops are grown without synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The Rainforest Alliance certification is similar to Fair Trade in guaranteeing a minimum wage but includes sustainable waste management. “Shade grown” is not an official designation, but it describes the growing of coffee under a natural canopy as was explained earlier. While these labels are a good starting point, it is important to take the research into your own hands as well. Even a short online investigation of a coffee brand can ensure sound growing practices and treatment of workers. Transparency is definitely a must when it comes to selecting a bean.

Once you’ve acquired your bean of choice, it’s important to think about how you choose to brew your coffee. If you’re just making a cup for yourself, consider using a French press or a pour-over coffee system. This practice not only produces far less waste, but also requires no electricity. If you make a whole pot and have leftovers, save the coffee in the fridge or as ice cubes in the freezer for later use. If you’re into gardening like me, you can throw coffee grounds (and even the filters!) into a compost bin with all of your other food scraps to create nutrient-rich soil for the garden.

While it may be difficult to cut down on single-use coffee cups at first, focusing on the sustainability of your coffee could lead to more personal satisfaction (and financial savings) in the long run. You may find that the process of selecting coffee beans from a trusted source that you have researched, brewing the beverage in the simplest way possible, and putting any waste back into the earth as compost will cause you to appreciate and savor your beloved drink even more, from bean to cup.

For further information, check out these resources:

Climate change mitigation: https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cobi.12181

Coffee cooperatives details: https://cafealtura.com/coffee-cooperatives-explained-cafe-altura/

Coffee cooperative interview: https://perfectdailygrind.com/2018/04/what-is-a-coffee-cooperative-how-does-it-support-producers/

Just Coffee Cooperative article: https://justcoffee.coop/coffee-and-climate-little-soldiers-fighting-the-food-fight/