How Sustainable Is Your Coffee?

Many people rely on coffee to function. Coffee is essential to my functioning. My personal and professional passions revolve around it, leading initiatives at Heifer International on equitable and inclusive coffee value chains.

Coffee is intricate. Comprehending where and how it is manufactured is difficult. It includes not only what ends up in a cup, but also the beautiful process that begins as a crop: growing, harvesting, processing, trading, and transforming the green bean into an aromatic elixir.

Despite the tendency to reduce sustainability claims to similar phrases — ethically sourced, fairly priced, environmentally friendly, livelihood supportive, socially responsible, shade grown, directly traded, farmer-friendly, etc. — sustainability claims are equally complex. But behind these narratives are nuances, such as economic sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability. Each one is a distinct category, and few businesses address all three equally, let alone across all operations.

Some claims may imply sustainability, but they are more pertinent to the origin of the coffee and/or its quality potential. Single origin and micro-lot are terms that refer to a single country and farm, respectively. Elevation merely indicates the altitude of the growing region, which is important for quality potential but is unrelated to particular practises or standards. Anything claiming to be 100 percent Arabica is simply identifying a species, one that is typically more flavorful and more difficult to cultivate. Similarly, varieties and cultivars with fancy-sounding names like Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, Gesha, and SL28 have nothing to do with positive or negative externalities.

Certifications only provide partial information. Fair Trade has relatively few ecosystem protections in its standards, and its minimum price does not reflect what is required for a dignified standard of living, as does the Verified Living Income standard. Rainforest Alliance does not imply that all coffee is produced using an agroforestry or regenerative system, nor that producers are compensated fairly. Organic has virtually no social or economic safeguards, despite the fact that many farms follow organic practises but lack the financial resources to purchase the certification label. Numerous common labels, including Direct Trade and Deforestation-Free, are unregulated.

Alternatively, and perhaps most astonishingly, a large proportion of coffee is certified at the farm level; however, because it is not purchased by a company as certified coffee, farmers have very few tangible returns on their investment.

What should you purchase? These are some of my favourite brands that demonstrate at least one pillar of sustainable sourcing. Many strike multiple spheres with varying depth and capacity.

Pachamama Coffee is fiscally sound. Not only is this roaster-café cooperatively owned by (and for) farmers, but the prices are also determined by farmers. The farmer-owned model ensures complete equity and inclusivity by making farmgate prices public (how much is earned, per pound, at the coffee farming family household level).

Onyx, Driftaway, Thrive Farmers, and Seattle Coffee Works are additional companies that support pricing transparency and living wages for coffee farmers.

Social: Equal Exchange. This democratic worker cooperative is committed to full inclusion and equality, including running campaigns for policy reform against human rights violations, establishing essential services for vulnerable populations, working with communities to meet self-identified needs, and supporting indigenous preservations. The organisation promotes respect, social justice, and unity.

Check out Dean’s Beans, Just Coffee, Peace Coffee, and Thanksgiving Coffee for additional brands that share a mindset of unity (as opposed to charity), treating farmers as valued business partners and friends.

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