Coffee is amazing stuff. Setting aside for just a moment the burst of flavor a perfect espresso casts on the tongue,or the crucial morning wake up call it offers many of us, coffee is also one of the clearest symbols of the intense interconnectedness of the modern world. As a result, we often find ourselves enjoying coffees grown in South America, roasted in Europe, and finally sold in American coffee shops; truly, each coffee variety and even bean carries a unique and lengthy history.
But outside of the inner-workings of the industry, we as consumers see so little of that history. For the love of our planet, fellow human beings, living creatures, and our beverage of choice, it’s crucial that we lift the veil. Both technological advances and the fruits of activism now offer coffee lovers a plethora of choices and a newfound power to make a difference. Much of this difference comes from understanding our roles in a process that stretches far beyond the comforts our favorite cafés. We can choose to be engaged and to help reduce coffee’s environmental impact and make life much better for its growers.
Organic coffee on paper seems like a no-brainer. After all, this is a beverage coffee drinkers put in their bodies every day. However, many still overlook its numerous benefits as well as the plentiful costs that come from non-organic farming. From a personal health vantage, industrial-grown coffee is one of the most pesticide-laden crops in modern agriculture, particularly due to the weakened immunity of these plants from sun-grown practices. There is a serious lack of long-term data on the health effects of these chemicals, but their direct impacts on the health of farmers and ecosystems are well documented. Also inorganic fertilizers are a significant cause of greenhouse emissions and are much harsher on the farmland.
We are already seeing many of the tangible results of climate change in the coffee industry—whether in the devastating drought that affected Brazil in 2015, or the coffee rust epidemic that ravaged crops in Central America. To be apathetic towards best practices for coffee growing is to threaten the survival of coffee itself.
Shopping for Ethics: A Sea of Certifications
There are a lot of buzz words floating around in the modern coffee market. It helps to gain a working understanding of what they mean so we can be properly informed with our purchases. In addition to the USDA’s organic certification, there are several other certifications that we need to know about.
Fair Trade: These are coffees from farms that have committed to paying their employees a baseline living wage.
Rainforest Alliance Certified: A middle ground between organic and fair trade, this certification is not quite either of the above, but enforces a number of important environmental standards on growers and advocates fair pay for farmers and many good practices for sustainability.
Bird-friendly/Shade-grown: This important label shows that these coffees are grown very much in the way coffee is meant to be grown. The plants are grown slowly, under the shade of other plants, thereby taking on their flavors and aromas, and posing minimal threat to surrounding animals and ecosystems. In particular, this certification fights the destructive practice of land conversion.
UTZ Certified Coffees: These coffees are held to standards that emphasize transparency of sourcing and practices. Its terms on ecological impact are somewhat vague. It is important across the board to understand the limitations of these certifications and not to assume that one entails or implies another—fair trades are not always organic, and Rainforest Alliance certified coffees today no longer necessarily mean shade-grown. Do a little research and look for brands and practices that align with your concerns. Some roasters have even started using infrared burners to lower CO2 emissions. It never hurts to ask the tough questions.
The Power to Minimize Your Footprint
And then there is our direct role in the process. After choosing wisely on the purchasing end, we still need to prepare the coffee, and do so ideally with the smallest impact possible. Fortunately, these are pretty simple and commonsensical points.
One of the simplest and most cost-effective things we can do is to use a reusable coffee mug or thermos and bring it to the coffee shop—some places will even offer discounts to patrons who do this. We can also make our coffee at home a little greener by measuring out the exact amount of water necessary for our brews, not leaving the pot sitting on the heater all day, using filters made from recycled material, and holding the milk. The significant amount of milk and cream used in many coffee beverages not only loses some nutrition points, but is also one of the least sustainable parts of coffee preparation. This is due to the incredible amount of resources it takes to sustain cattle, as well as their hefty contribution to ozone depletion.
Again, the idea here is to find little ways to be mindful that can have huge impacts on the macro level. Shopping carefully is a great start; minding our footprint on the back end is a surprisingly easy way to keep things green.