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

Everything You Need to Know About Sustainable Coffee

The world loves coffee, but is it sustainable? What do labels like the Rainforest Alliance and Bird Friendly Coffee mean?

Updated March 19, 2021. Starbucks recently announced its goal of making its green coffee carbon neutral by 2040. Green coffee refers to the first stages of coffee production when the beans are grown, harvested, and transported. They’re then roasted, which gives coffee beans their characteristic rich, dark brown color. In addition to going carbon neutral in its coffee supply chain, Starbucks intends to halve its water usage in green coffee processing. This recent announcement about making its coffee more sustainable is good news. But, what is sustainable coffee?

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

Coffee’s Environmental Impact

Thought to have been discovered in Ethiopia, coffee is the world’s most widely-traded agricultural commodity, and Americans alone drink about 146 billion cups a year. Coffee is produced in more than 50 countries in South America, Central America, Asia, African nations, and the Caribbean, and Brazil is the largest producer of coffee in the world.

There are a lot of steps behind the world’s favorite way to caffeinate. It takes between four to seven years for a coffee tree to produce its first harvest and trees bear fruit for about 25 years. Then, it is harvested, either by hand or by machine. Then, it’s processed in order to remove the outer fruit, which contains the green coffee bean. This is done via two methods: the traditional sun-drying process or by using a combination of water and machinery. Finally, the beans are hulled, cleaned, sorted, and readied to be exported and shipped around the world. According to USDA data, global coffee production was estimated to reach 175.5 billion 70-kilogram bags in 2020.

Once green coffee beans have arrived at their destination, they are roasted, packaged, and then shipped to their final destination.

Just like any other industry, coffee production has an impact on the environment. According to the Water Footprint Network, the global average water footprint of one 125 milliliter cup of coffee is 140 liters—more than two eight-minute showers’ worth of water. The environmental impact of coffee goes further than just water usage, per Ohio State University’s Environmental Science Bites.

For every cup of coffee consumed, about one square inch of rainforest is destroyed and coffee farms lead to chemical runoffs in rivers, biodiversity loss, and soil erosion.

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. 

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.

Shade-Grown

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.

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.