coffee cup with heart design in foam next to small plant

by Ryan Landes-Gilman | Pachamama Alliance

There’s no denying it. We live in a coffee culture.

Every year 500 billion cups of coffee are consumed. In the United States alone 146 billion cups of coffee are ordered annually!

But, coffee, like most other mass-marketed goods, has a dark side. Many tropical birds, such as Wintering Warbler, are losing habitat due to coffee industries' growing practices. Workers are exploited and under-compensated for their labor.

Rainforests are cut down in order to make room for a specific coffee cultivation method known as sun-grown coffee. According to a study spanning from 1990 – 1995, 37 of the 50 countries with the most deforestation are coffee growing countries.

A Global Industry

The coffee industry is a globalized one, and the livelihood of over 25 million people worldwide. A great financial divide exists between the countries that produce the most coffee and those that consume the most coffee. Developing countries produce coffee, while developed countries consume it.

As coffee makes its way to our cafes, restaurants, and markets, it goes through many stages of transaction, brokers, exporters, importers, retailers, roasters, and co-ops. This siphons away most of the profits from farmers. Farmers that harvest cheap grocery store coffee receive less than $0.25 per pound.

Underpaying farmers does more than hurt the farmers and their families. It also hurts the environment. Coffee plants are evergreen shrubs, and, thus, they are highly effective at processing carbon. Their presence can stabilize surrounding soil and does little in the way of damage to local bio-diversity. But, financial pressures can cause farmers to switch to growing less sustainable crops and make use of destructive farming practices.

There are many global complications that stem from the coffee industry. So, knowing what we do, what are some ways we can be more conscientious in our coffee habits?

How to Choose Just & Sustainable Coffee

Choose Shade-Grown over Sun-Grown

Two types of coffee are commonly available in stores: coffee arabica and coffee canephora. In order to choose the most sustainable coffee possible, look for coffee labeled 100% arabica.

Coffee Arabica

Coffee arabica is grown in shaded areas. Shade-grown coffee preserves the surrounding forest and allows farmers access to fruit-bearing trees, thus helping farmers and their families feed themselves when harvest season is over. This coffee-growing method is more sustainable than others.

There are many types of arabica coffee. Typica and Bourbon are two types that need shade to grow. Thus, when thinking about purchasing sustainable coffee, these types of arabica are great picks. Conversely, Cacturra and Cactuai, are two varieties of arabica coffee that are often grown in the sun. A coffee being an arabica variant is not a guarantee it is shade-grown.

Coffee Canephora

On the other hand, coffee canephora is grown in deforested areas. Cultivating coffee in deforested areas drains the surrounding land of nutrients – rendering the land infertile. Also, the trees that are cut down to make space for growing sun-grown coffee are an essential food source and habitat for songbirds. Maintaining the cultivation of sun-grown coffee promotes the deforestation process making this method of coffee growing unsustainable.

Robusta coffee, the lower-quality coffee variant, will not be labeled as robusta or canephora.

Mexico, India, El Salvador, Peru, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Bolivia, and Papua Nu Guinea are countries that are more likely to cultivate shade-grown coffee, which is more sustainable. Kenya, Brazil, Columbia, and Vietnam tend to mostly cultivate sun-grown coffee, which is less sustainable.

Look for Fair Trade and Other Labels

There are a variety of labels on coffee packaging that indicate what practices were used in the cultivation.

Different labels address different pieces of the sustainability puzzle. Some labels, such as Fair Trade, indicate that workers are treated and compensated more fairly, while others promise to be conscientious of local bird species. Check out this list of labels to look for when purchasing coffee.

Bring Your Own Cup

Some coffee establishments have better policies regarding sustainability than others. Dunkin Donuts, for example, serves their coffee in styrofoam cups, while Starbucks uses compostable paper-cups made from 10% recycled paper.

Both businesses, however, allow you to bring your own cup, offering a small discount as an incentive. A regular coffee drinker can save over 23lbs of paper a year by bringing their own cup.

Filters, Coffee Grinders, and Coffee Grounds

Besides using a reusable cup, there are many other ways to reduce waste in our coffee consumption.

For example, instead of using disposable filters, you can use reusable filters like the CoffeeSock, which can be used for over a year. And instead of using an electrically powered coffee grinder, a hand-powered grinder can be used instead, saving energy. This can further increase the effectiveness of your sustainable coffee efforts.

You can also compost your coffee grounds and even use them as a deterrent to garden pests, instead of throwing them away.

Discover More Ways to Build a Sustainable World

Improving your daily coffee ritual will help you live a more sustainable life, but there is much more you can do to bring forth a just and sustainable future. Take our Awakening the Dreamer Symposium to discover your role in building a better world.

The Awakening the Dreamer Symposium is an eye-opening transformative multi-media experience, which has reached people in 82 countries across the world bringing them more in touch with themselves and the world at large. Sign up to receive an email notification if a Symposium is coming to your area or search our map to find a symposium near you.

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About The Author

Pachamama Alliance's picture

Pachamama Alliance is a global community that offers people the chance to learn, connect, engage, travel and cherish life for the purpose of creating a sustainable future that works for all. With roots deep in the Amazon rainforest, Pachamama Alliance programs integrate indigenous wisdom with modern knowledge to support personal, and collective, transformation that is the catalyst to bringing forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, socially just human presence on this planet.

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