How Sustainable Is Your Coffee?

For many, coffee is how they function. For me, coffee is why I function. Both my personal and professional passions revolve around it, leading initiatives on equitable and inclusive coffee value chains at Heifer International.

Coffee is complex. Understanding where and how it is produced is complicated. It includes not only what ultimately goes in a cup, but also the beautiful process that begins as a crop – growing, harvesting, processing, trading and transforming it from green bean to aromatic elixir.

Sustainability claims are equally complex, despite the tendency to reduce to similar phrases—ethically sourced, fairly priced,  environmentally friendly, livelihood supportive, socially responsible, shade grown, directly traded, farmer friendly, etc. But there are nuances behind these narratives, including economic sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability. Each one is a category onto itself, and few companies equally address all three, let alone the trifecta across all operations.

Some claims may imply sustainability but are more relevant to where coffee is grown and/or its quality potential. Terms like single origin and micro-lot refer to one country and one farm, respectively. Elevation only indicates the altitude at which the growing region is located, which is important for quality potential but is not directly associated with specific practices or standards. Anything touting 100 percent Arabica is simply stating a species, one that tends to taste better and be more difficult to grow. Similarly, fancy sounding names like Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, Gesha, SL28 are important varieties and cultivars but have nothing to do with positive or negative externalities.

Certifications only tell part of the story. Fair Trade has relatively few ecosystem protections under its standards and its minimum price does not reflect what’s needed for a dignified livelihood, like Verified Living Income. Rainforest Alliance does not mean all coffee is grown under an agroforestry or regenerative system, nor that producers are paid equitably. Organic has virtually no social or economic safeguards, yet many farms follow organic practices but do not have the financial means of purchasing the label to prove it. Many common labels like Direct Trade and Deforestation-Free aren’t regulated at all.

Alternatively, and perhaps most astoundingly, a large percentage of coffee is certified at the farm-level; however, because it isn’t purchased by a company as certified coffee, farmers have very little hard returns to show for their investment.

So, what should you buy? These are some of my favorite brands that exemplify at least one kind of sustainable sourcing pillar. Many hit multiple spheres, with different depth and levels of capacity.

Economic: Pachamama Coffee. This cooperative-owned roaster-café is not only owned by (and for) farmers, but the prices also set by farmers. The farmer-owned model ensures full equity, as well as inclusivity by publicly sharing farmgate prices (how much is earned, per pound, at the coffee farming family household level).

Others who participate in pricing transparency and livable prices for coffee farmers are OnyxDriftawayThrive Farmers, and Seattle Coffee Works.

Social: Equal Exchange. This democratic worker cooperative is committed to full inclusivity and parity, including running campaigns for policy reform against human rights violation, establishing critical services for vulnerable populations, working with communities to meet self-identified needs, and supporting indigenous preservations. The company champions respect, social justice and solidarity.

Other brands who share a mindset of unity (over charity), treating farmers like respected friends and business, check out Dean’s BeansJust CoffeePeace Coffee, and Thanksgiving Coffee.

Environmental: When it comes to positive environmental outcomes, Tiny Footprint maintains a firm commitment to regenerative agroforestry and forest restoration. They tout the world’s first carbon negative coffee, fostering production that is shade grown, biodiversity supportive, soil building, water conserving and organic. The brand shows coffee’s unique ability to be an ecosystem-beneficial agricultural product.

Others deeply devoted to protecting, preserving and improving coffeelands—and in many case, similarly embedding environmental stewardship into domestic operations—include Larry’s CoffeeConscious CoffeesJim’s Organic Coffee, and again Dean’s Beans. Bird Friendly certified coffee is a fantastic indicator of the most rigorous environmental standards.

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Photo courtesy of Gregory Hayes, Unsplash

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