For many of us, getting our days kicked off right requires a steaming hot (or perhaps perfectly iced?) cup of joe. And, people have been enjoying coffee for centuries. Coffee can be traced back to ancient coffee forests in the area of the world we'd call Ethiopia today. But what about coffee’s future?
When it comes to the sustainability of coffee, the climate crisis is making the possibilities for our morning ritual look a little limited. Global rising temperatures are estimated to reduce the viability of growing coffee by 50% by 2050. So, what do we need to know about the relationship between climate change and coffee, and what can we do about it?
Here’s our roundup of helpful hints:
#1 Understand how climate change impacts one of our favorite crops and the people growing it
#2 Buy coffee produced through a Direct Trade model
#3 Opt for reusable or recyclable packaging
#1 Understand how climate change impacts one of our favorite crops and the people growing it.
We all know anecdotally how prominent coffee is as a beverage, but the numbers speak for themselves – it’s estimated that more than 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed annually. Coffee is also central to the economies of many countries, providing livelihoods for at least 60 million people (although this number is likely underestimated). But unfortunately, coffee production is also associated with poverty and child labor, as well as practices that contribute to climate change, like deforestation. And the impacts of climate change, like variable weather, flooding, and disease, also heavily impact coffee production.
Let’s start with the economic impacts of coffee. While the coffee consumer in a coffee shop in the United States may pay upwards of four dollars for a cup of coffee, the farmers actually producing the beans receive between 1 to 2 cents per cup. Coffee is mostly grown by smallholder farmers in low-income countries with little protection or recourse from extractive policies. Many of these farmers experience hunger and poor nutrition, and the US Department of Labor identified instances of child labor in more than 17 countries producing coffee. Few farmers have weather insurance, and when anthropogenic-caused climate change-induced weather and disease destroy crops, many have no form of recourse.
Unfortunately, implementing more sustainable farming practices that can mitigate these kinds of risks is extremely expensive and outside of the means of small farmers. Small farmers bear the brunt of crop loss, low prices, and the increasingly hostile environment as a result of the climate crisis, and have the least amount of capital to pursue stability or protection. This is all to say we have a vested interest in improving the conditions for those producing coffee and making the practice of coffee production more sustainable.
#2 Buy coffee produced through a Direct Trade model
When shopping for more sustainable coffee, we often come across Fair Trade-certified brands. The Fair Trade model is intended to ensure ethical business practices, which encompasses farming and wages. In fact, over 40 percent of the Fair Trade market is now also certified organic. Unfortunately, these kinds of certifications can fall short. Instead of providing a stepping stone towards better behavior, these certifications can generate a “race to the bottom” by creating a lower bar for companies to meet in order to be considered “sustainable”. In other words, they inadvertently encourage companies to meet the bare minimum criteria to be certified, rather than encouraging companies to go above and beyond. The FLO and FTO (Fair Trade International and Fair Trade America) set prices at 20 cents higher than traditional, commodity coffee pricing per the New York Coffee Exchange. This ensures that as prices change, the Fair Trade price reflects that change, intending to protect farmers from price volatility. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Studies from Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California found that Fair Trade-certified coffee had little positive economic impact on coffee growers, especially those making the least money. Enter: the Direct Trade model.
Direct Trade models have a proven, more significant economic impact on laborers. Instead of that 20-cent factor, Direct Trade models require a verifiable price at least 25% higher than the FLO price. Producers using this model receive a higher share of the ultimate retail price paid by consumers. Booyah. The Direct Trade model transfers benefits directly to growers, rather than through product markets, providing them the economic stability to pursue more sustainable farming methods and practices.
An example of the Direct Trade model in action is Stumptown Coffee. In 2018, Stumptown commissioned a third-party impact study on Direct Trade, investigating the El Jordan producer group in Tolima, Columbia (from which they source). They found that Direct Trade incentivized high-quality coffee and improved producers’ livelihoods. They also found that it isn’t perfect, and they encountered some difficulties in managing the climate-related impact on coffee. In turn, they implemented climate monitors to provide actionable insights to individual farms to adapt to these changing conditions. This program illustrates that with consistent investment and volume growth over time, economic viability and sustainability can go hand-in-hand.
#3 Avoid single-use coffee servings and opt for reusable containers instead.
We’ve talked about how we, as consumers, can influence the sustainability of coffee down the supply chain, but what about how we actually drink it? When it comes to making a cup of coffee at home or getting one in stores, avoid single-use options, like K-cups and paper cups, and instead opt for reusable options.
Single-use packaging, when it comes to coffee, can impact the overall sustainability of our cup of joe. For example,
single-serve capsules of aluminum, like those from Nespresso, have some serious environmental repercussions. Aluminum is highly energy-intensive to mine, and even though it is highly recyclable, the EPA estimates that 50% of aluminum cans still get sent to landfill, contributing to our ever-growing waste and resource-use problem.
Paper cups – like those served at Starbucks and McDonald’s – also contribute to climate change. Paper cups are often lined with a thin plastic coating to make them waterproof. In turn, depending on your municipality’s recycling capabilities, these cups may not be recyclable (because they’re mixed material). If they are recyclable in your municipality, recycling could reduce the environmental footprint by up to 40%. However, making the swap to reusable cups (if used between 20-100 times depending on the material it's made of), can achieve a threefold reduction in carbon emissions. If this swap was made globally, it would save the emissions equivalent to twice that of the annual carbon footprint of Malta (the country in Europe).
Remember, this swap is only environmentally impactful if the reusable cup is, well, reused. If you’re in a pinch and forgot your reusable mug, it might be worthwhile just using the paper one, instead of committing to another 100 times use of a new reusable cup.