Everything You Need to Know About Sustainable Coffee
How sustainable is coffee farming? | Mai Rodriguez/Unsplash

Coffee is the most popular beverage in the world, with more than 400 billion cups consumed every year. Whether you drink it black, iced, in espresso form, or like your plant-based milk with a little bit of coffee, it’s the saving grace of millions of mornings across the globe.

Coffee was almost always beloved by the masses, but there was pushback from the ruling class, according to NPR. Drinking it was a capital offense under Sultan Murad IV, a ruler of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century. In England, a six-page manifesto titled “The Womens Petition Against Coffee” warned that it caused impotence. Religious leaders dubbed it “Satan’s drink” until Pope Clement VIII tried it and claimed that “it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.

Everything You Need to Know About Sustainable Coffee
Unroasted coffee beans have a light color. | Rainforest Alliance

Coffee, Sustainability, and Climate Change

Thought to have been discovered in Ethiopia, coffee is the world’s most widely-traded agricultural commodity, produced by more than 50 countries in South America, Central America, Asia, African nations, and the Caribbean. Not all farming practices are sustainable. Coffee was grown under the canopies of tropical forests until the 1970s. But, rising global demand, as well as new hybrid species that required agrochemicals, pushed farmers to pivot to sun-grown coffee en-masse, leading them to clear forests. This causes strain on the environment, including deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, and wildlife habitat loss. Environmental destruction can also negatively affect locals.

Climate change may also be a threat to coffee; according to research from the British Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 60 percent of wild coffee species are at risk of extinction due to the climate crisis, deforestation, and the increased severity of fungal pathogens and pests. Coffea arabica, the world’s most popular coffee, is now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as an endangered species.

What Is Sustainable Coffee?

Coffee production can be made more sustainable by incorporating practices such as better crop-management and water use practices, using pheromone boxes to ward away insects in lieu of pesticides, composting coffee bean waste to use as fertilizer, using coffee hulls as fuel instead of cutting down eucalyptus trees, shade-growing, and reforestation. 

What about vegan coffee? Most coffee is vegan, except for the kopi luwak, partially digested coffee beans pooped out by civet cats. This process involves holding civets in captivity on coffee plantations in Indonesia, which is also considered a tourist attraction. A 2016 study from Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit found grim living conditions across 16 plantations in Bali. Researchers found tiny, unclean cages and wire flooring with no padding that causes abrasions on the animals’ feet. Many civets were either overweight from lack of exercise or malnourished from being fed only coffee cherries (their natural diet includes insects, small reptiles, and fruit).

If you’re looking to caffeinate responsibly, you might notice the following packaging labels on coffee. We get it—labels can be confusing. Here’s how to decipher them.

Everything You Need to Know About Sustainable Coffee
What do all of the coffee labels mean? | Rainforest Alliance

What Do Coffee Labels Mean?

Third-party certification labels have emerged over the last few decades, promoting various changes related to environment and social justice, including farming practices, conservation, safeguarding local communities, and protecting farmers’ rights.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

Considered one of the most comprehensive labels, the Rainforest Alliance has been working with coffee farmers since 1995 for its certification. It audits farms based on a number of criteria, including biodiversity, protecting the health of soil and water, waste management, and carbon sequestering. This certification also promotes better living and working conditions for employees, gender equality, and education access for children from farming communities. The certification aims to help farmers improve their livelihoods and the land, helping them build a more financially secure future.

The Rainforest Alliance updated its coffee certification standards in June 2020. This weakened some of the standards that help protect biodiversity, such as canopy cover. Under the new standards, there is no requirement for shade. It is mandatory that by the sixth year, at least 15 percent of the total area for farming is covered by natural vegetation. Bags must contain at least 90 percent certified beans in order to obtain the seal. It is audited by the Rainforest Alliance.


Modern coffee farms tend to look like forests, featuring a mix of coffee plants and trees. However, these don’t provide the canopy cover that migratory birds and other native wildlife thrive in. If coffee is labeled “shade-grown,” it means that a farm has returned to traditional coffee farming methods. These farms feature an assortment of native trees that create a natural canopy under which the coffee bushes are cultivated. Shade-grown coffee helps boost biodiversity, it helps prevent soil erosion, and it acts as a carbon sink.

Look for coffee labeled “shade-grown,” “bird-friendly,” or with the Rainforest Alliance certification. There is also the Bird Friendly certification, which was created by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which has stricter rules for canopy cover and pesticide use. Bird-Friendly coffee is also organic.


If Rainforest Alliance certified or shade-grown coffees are not accessible, then USDA Organic coffee is the next best thing. Organic coffee farms do not require canopy cover, but it bans the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. It also requires farmers to use methods that prevent soil erosion. This is audited by accredited certifying agencies.

Choosing your coffee goes beyond your preferred flavor profile, brewing method, and which dairy-free creamer you use. Coffee farming has the potential to be much better for the planet than what the majority of brands offer. Thankfully, these labels set some guidelines that can help move plantations toward more sustainable farming methods, so you can wake up with a cup of joe that’s better for the planet, wildlife, and farmers.

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