Waking up with a freshly brewed coffee is the best. Or how about walking into a coffee shop, filled with the freshly grounded coffee smell and the subtle sound of the espresso machine? It feels like heaven, whether it’s after or before a long day. Would you be surprised if I said that coffee is the most popular drink worldwide? Apparently, just in the UK, we drink about 95 million cups of coffee per day. This number goes up to two billion worldwide! It’s a huge industry with 125 million depending on it, therefore its environmental and socio-economical impact is significant. Even though the caffeine hit disappears pretty quickly, its environmental and social impact stays, making sustainable and organic coffee production super important.
Sustainable coffee production
To understand what sustainable means in the coffee industry, we need to look at the different cultivating methods. More specifically, the difference between shade-grown and sun-grown coffee.
Shade-grown coffee production, also-known-as traditional coffee farming, requires various large trees to provide a canopy over the coffee plants. Growing coffee plants under the existing trees helps to keep the multi-layered environment and ensures biodiversity. By keeping the existing plants, farmers can also ensure soil conservation, as the existing trees prevent the risk of erosion. Another benefit of shade-grown coffee production is that the existing tree canopy retains moisture, therefore requiring less water consumption. You can think of shade-grown method as the most natural way of cultivating coffee.
In the late 80s and 90s, coffee production started to shift towards sun-grown coffee. Farmers were encouraged to let go of these magnificent agroforestry systems by clearing the coffee plantations from other plants. By growing coffee under the full sun, governments thought that they would prevent the dreaded fungal disease called ‘coffee rust’, which causes a decline in coffee production and threatens coffee farmers.
However, an in-depth scientific study, showed that the shift from shade-grown to sun-grown coffee caused more serious environmental problems by threatening the critical tree canopies and the wildlife that rely on them. It also showed that the sun-grown method decreased the life span of coffee trees from 30 years to 15 years. So, in fact, the shift to sun-grown coffee made the overall process less sustainable. Coffee farmers were also completely dependent on the coffee, making them more susceptible to the changes in the market. On the other hand, the traditional method provides them with firewood, fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants, building materials and many other crops that support them throughout the year.
The next time you’re buying coffee, try to opt for shade-grown coffee beans to support sustainable coffee production. That way, you will also be supporting organic coffee farming, as most of the time, they go hand in hand.
But what does organic mean in terms of coffee?
Every day, we’re seeing more and more brands marketing their coffee as organic, but what does it actually mean? And how can you tell if coffee is really organic? It’s easy to fall into the trap of greenwashing by fancy slogans and marketing material. So let’s look at what makes coffee organic in more detail.
Organic coffee or organic coffee beans are grown sustainably using renewable resources, with a special emphasis on soil health and water consumption. The biggest and most critical requirement for organic coffee production is the use of fertilisers and using pesticides with no chemicals. This helps coffee producers to ensure the health of soil, forests, wildlife and farmers.
But how can we be sure that our organic coffee beans are really organic? The answer to this question is a bit more complicated due to various legislations and regulations. If you want to be on the safe side, then it’s best to opt for coffee brands with verified organic certification, such as Social Association. You can find a complete list of UK approved control bodies on the government’s website to make sure the certification is indeed valid. The majority of the control bodies require valid actions to prevent erosion to give organic certification. They also tend to ask for the farm’s location to be far away from non-organic plants to avoid cross-contamination.
Organic, fair trade coffee certifications you should be paying attention to
There are a lot of different certifications, most of which don’t really mean anything, apart from helping brands promote greenwashing. So, let’s look at two other important certifications, that could help you to choose fair trade and organic coffee beans.
Fair trade coffee certification
To obtain a fair trade certification, coffee producers are required to pay a minimum rate per pound to the farmer. The coffee market is one of the most volatile markets in the world, as the price of coffee depends on many variables, such as weather conditions and presence of fungal disease. It’s quite often that the market price of coffee drops below the minimum rate required for farmers to be able to survive.
Fair trade certification provides a much-needed safety net when market prices start to fall by ensuring farmers are still paid a fair wage. Farmers, who are associated with fair trade certified coffee producers, also receive an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in their businesses or communities, to enhance the productivity and quality of their coffee farms. So by supporting fair trade certified brands, you’re not only making sure that your coffee is ethical, but you’re also encouraging quality coffee production.
Bird-friendly certification is probably the least known, but the most important certification, you should be looking for. Given by Smithsonian Bird Center, bird-friendly certification requires extremely strict adherence to the shade-grown coffee production standards. They don’t just insist on having a canopy but also require a minimum height requirement to ensure the biodiversity and sustainability of coffee plantations. And as a plus, they have a strict requirements for coffee beans to be grown organically. By buying bird-friendly certified coffee, you can be sure that you’re getting sustainably grown, organic coffee.
Is certified organic coffee better?
Unfortunately, having a certification does not always guarantee sustainability or high-quality coffee. But looking out for the above certifications is a good start. Also keep in mind that certification requires a good sum of money to obtain and keep, which many small and local coffee growers don’t have. So what do you do if you want to support small coffee growers while making sure that your coffee is organic, sustainable and fair trade? Ask questions! Try to find out more information from the roasters to get a clear understanding of their supply chain. Ask whether they use shade-grown or sun-grown techniques, or if they support any environmental programs. You can usually find out this information if they are indeed trying to be sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Is it enough to buy fair trade, organic coffee beans?
When it comes to sustainability, there’s no action too small or too big we can take. Every change in our habits, or conscious decisions we make, has a huge impact on the environment. There’s always more we could be doing, but the important thing is to start from somewhere. With coffee, sun-grown monoculture farms are the main issue, therefore supporting shade-grown organic coffee producers is a great start!
If you want to make sure that your overall coffee ritual is sustainable and eco-friendly, there are other small actions you can take.
Use sustainable coffee pods
According to British Coffee Association, single-serve coffee pods are getting more popular each day. They can fill our landfills pretty quickly and cause issues if we don’t opt for sustainable options. If you have indoor composting, then compostable coffee pods are the way to go. If you’re not sure about indoor composting or finding it difficult to find fully recyclable coffee pods, don’t worry. Instead, you can opt for reusable pods that you can refill with your favourite organic ground coffee. You can also look out for recycling programs for coffee pods, such as Podback to easily recycle them.
Reduce your coffee waste
To minimise your waste from your daily cup of coffee, you can try to repurpose the fresh coffee grounds in various ways. For example, you can make a homemade face and body scrub by mixing leftover coffee grounds with a bit of coconut oil. Coffee is a great antioxidant and can act as a superb exfoliant to stimulate better skin. Or alternatively, you can reuse coffee grounds as a fertiliser in your garden by adding it to your compost. Be creative and think of alternative ways to make the most of your organic coffee beans.
Pay attention to your milk choices
If you like to have your coffee with milk, try to opt for sustainable milk alternatives. For example, oat milk is a great alternative with its relatively small water consumption and greenhouse emissions. Plus, it adds a lovely creaminess to any hot drink!
But most importantly, enjoy your cup of coffee! Don’t forget that small habitual changes have a great impact. Even by just asking the right questions, you’re making a difference. Share this article with your coffee loving friends to keep the conversation going!