Know your Joe:What is Sustainable Coffee?

Coffee, I could not image starting my day without it. Whether it’s a normal workday, project weekend, or mountain top camping, I always start my day with a hot cup of joe. American’s alone consume 400 million cups of coffee a day. However, not all coffee is produced equally. Coffee is on the brink of extinction according to scientists at Britain’s Royal Botanical Gardens due to worsening climate conditions and deforestation.  Is your cup of coffee helping or hurting human equality and environmental sustainability?

First let’s talk about how a seed turns into the heavenly magic in your mug. The top coffee producing countries are Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia, and Indonesia. Coffee beans start as a seed in a cherry fruit, the cherries are picked and then de-pulped to remove the fruit from around the bean. The coffee bean is washed and naturally fermented for 18-24 hours and washed again. The coffee beans are then laid out on raised drying beds before they are bagged and shipped for roasting. There are obviously different versions dependent on the purchaser, but you get the gist. The process is very labor and water intensive. Generally, the higher quality premium beans are grown at higher altitudes along mountain ledges adding a very real danger to harvesting.  As global temperatures rise these trees must be planted at even higher elevations to maintain the qualities desired.

A Two Legged Stool

A biodiversity concern comes into play here as well. Industrial farming has settled into farming practices all over the world, where land is being clear cut to grow the most coffee trees possible per square hectare. Why is this a problem? As it is with all agricultural systems, these trees are part of an ecosystem which supports itself. When you strip away the supporting native plants and animals, production decreases so in come the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Those chemicals then contaminate not only the coffee trees (and the coffee in your cup) but also the water and villages downhill, steadily degrading soil. You can see how this becomes an ugly positive feedback loop.

Fair & Steady Price

Once the beans are ready to ship, farmers have to decide how they will take their product to the market. The status quo is to follow market prices which continually ebbs and flows. This makes it very hard for farmers and their families to make a decent wage, let alone invest in improving their practices. A select group of coffee companies are making a big impact in farmers lives by setting a fair flat rate for purchasing coffee beans. Wow, what a game changer, remember your first job when you knew what your check would be every payday? This is a huge step for sustaining the coffee farms that we rely on for our perfect cup of morning coffee.

Other considerations for sustainable coffee include GHG emissions from shipping and business practices, packaging, and supplemental social responsibility programs.

Your Role

The coffee industry is a major lever to improve lives in developing countries as well as mitigate climate change. There is so much potential to not only reduce carbon emissions from growing and processing coffee but also an opportunity to sequester carbon in the process. Now that is the golden ticket! The real question… What can you do about it? Your coffee purchase goes a long way in voting to support human health, fight deforestation, and mitigate climate change.

Do a quick google search on your current preferred coffee brand along with the word sustainability. Certifications to look for include; Organic, Fair Trade, UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, and B Corp. It is worth noting that not all good deeds are certified, however the goal of these certifications is help educate the buyer about what they are selecting. Does the company you get your coffee from publish a sustainability report, transparently showing their impacts? Do you know your joe? I did a few searches on the popular store brands for you.

  • Maxwell House (Kraft): No info found, which in most cases means there are no sustainability efforts underway.
  • Folgers (J.M. Smucker): Though their website indicates they are “committed to purchasing green coffee in a responsible manner”, they do not have a sustainability report accessible nor do they have any certifications.
  • McCafe (McDonald’s): As of 2017, 54% of McDonald’s coffee was sourced through Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, Fair Trade Internationals and Fair-Trade USE certifications. Though the website boasts a goal of 100% sustainable sourced coffee by 2020, sustainable sourced can have many meanings. This is a great goal and shows progress in the right direction, but not as impactful as reaching certified levels as they have for over half of their sourced coffee.
  • Dunkin Donuts (J.M. Smucker): Grocery store coffee is manufactured and distributed by J.M. Smucker, the same company the produces Folgers. As of 2016 all espresso beverages in the US and 16 international markets are made with 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified beans. In the grand scheme, this may be a small percentage of coffee products sold. Dunkin does publish a sustainability report, transparency is key in responsible business.
  • Starbucks: An easily accessible social responsibility report outlines people and planet impact metrics. There seems to be many programs in place to improve positive impacts of their coffee purchases and they report that 99% of their coffee is ethically sourced, however there is no mention of certifications. Starbucks does offer an Organic line, but that only makes up for 1.1% of its coffee sold.

Now let’s look at some of the top sustainable coffee brands and why they rock!

  • Counter Culture Coffee based out of North Carolina has been publishing an annual sustainability report since 2009 and was the first roaster to produce such an in depth report. This document details all GHG emissions, purchasing and contract information, quality scores, initiatives and more. Counter Culture lives and breathes sustainability from the producers they partner with to packaging and business practices.
  • Kickapoo Coffee is located in Wisconsin focused on bridging farmer and roaster relationships. A majority of the electricity needed to run their roastery and offices comes from an onsite 80 panel solar array, in line with their strategy to reduce their carbon footprint. They give back 5% of profit to initiatives that strengthen rural communities. Kickapoo offers organic coffee options however I was not able to find much on additional certifications or growing standards.
  • Larry’s Coffee in North Carolina roasts 100% organic beans and has earned many additional certifications including B corp, Fair Trade, and Shade Grown. Their facilities are designed to require reduced energy and rainwater harvesting, packaging is biodegradable, and they have an active compost. Larry’s is really a star pupil, setting an example of how coffee and other commodities should be produced.

There are a lot of other great roasteries, look for something nearest to you. The biggest thing to take away from this article to be aware of what you are buying and consuming. Every dollar you spend it s vote to support an organization. Do you have a favorite coffee roaster that is making a positive impact in on people and the planet? Let us know in the comments, I would love to check them out!

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