Coffee’s Environmental Footprint & Worrying Impacts

According to the British Coffee Association, Brits consume around 95 million cups of coffee every day.

The delicious morning pick-me-up invades all households across the UK.

However, with the ever-increasing market for coffee comes some insidious consequences.

If you’re wondering about the most environmentally friendly way to brew your coffee at home, read this article.

Please be warned this post is not to telling you to stop drinking coffee. We couldn’t have made this website without coffee!

Instead, we aim to highlight the most sustainable way to drink that coffee.

The Environmental Impact of Sun-Grown Coffee vs. Shade-Grown Coffee

Traditionally, coffee grew underneath a forest canopy.

This method of coffee growing is mimicked by the shade-grown method that some farmers use today.

However, the 1970s introduced the idea of sun-grown coffee.

Sun-grown coffee produces higher yields and therefore greater profit for the farmers. Yet, the sun-grown approach has the consequence of deforestation to clear any trees shading the coffee plant.

This deforestation comes at the cost of biodiversity loss and carbon being released into the atmosphere. Read our article here on the ways in which deforestation impacts the environment.

Shade-Grown Coffee Bean Plant
A coffee bean plant.

In comparison to sun-grown coffee, shade-grown coffee benefits the environment, the farmers and the taste of the coffee.

Shade-grown coffee is high altitude Arabic coffee which grows best in the shade. Its longer growing time results in a slightly larger and more flavoursome bean.

This higher-quality bean allows the farmers to charge more for the speciality coffee. Moreover, the environmental benefits are vast, including:

  • A diversity of trees planted to create the needed shady-forest-canopy. As the earth’s greatest natural carbon sink, these trees will sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.
  • Less need for pesticides. The greater diversity of trees mentioned increases bird population and biodiversity in the area. These birds return the favour by acting as natural predators for coffee pests, meaning shade-grown coffee is most often organically grown, free of chemical use.
  • The shade-grown environment greatly improves soil quality for a few reasons. Firstly, as mentioned above, there are no harmful pesticides seeping into the soil and potentially infecting local bodies of water. Secondly, the shaded coffee farming reduces soil erosion and improves soil quality. This in turn means the soil, another of nature’s carbon sinks, can sequester more carbon from the atmosphere. Finally, the leaves and foliage that fall from surrounding trees provide nutrients for growing the coffee and other plants as they naturally decompose and the carbon is soaked up by the soil.

The benefits of shade-grown coffee clearly hugely outweigh that of sun-grown. So we would suggest you opt for shade-grown.

We recommend you do your research on your favourite coffee supplier to find out where they get their coffee beans from.

If you can get names of coffee farms, importers and cooperation’s they use you should be able to find out whether they are shade-grown.

Most importantly, make sure they are not only providing one type of shade-grown coffee whilst supporting sun-grown coffee in the rest of their range!

The Waste Issue

Another huge environmental impact of coffee is the disposable coffee cups.

In the UK we use 7 million disposable coffee cups every day – that’s 2.5 billion a year. Half a million of these are littered, and less than 1% of them are recycled.

Moreover, most paper coffee cups are made from virgin materials. This means trees have been cut down to produce these cups which will be briefly used and then likely end up in landfill.

Coffee Cup Waste

Luckily, there is a simple answer to this, reusable coffee cups!

You can get them in all shapes and sizes, even ones which collapse to fit into your bag or pockets so you never have to be without.

Another waste issue is that of the used coffee grounds or pods.

Pods have recently received quite a bit of criticism for their waste, however, as you can read here, pods can be unfairly demonised. The best option is to go for compostable pods and actually compost them rather than letting them go to landfill.

When it comes to coffee grounds, some places do repurpose their coffee waste but about 75% still goes to landfill.

After at least three months in landfill the coffee grounds will begin to decompose in the anaerobic environment. This can create an acidic liquid which damages the surrounding soil and generate greenhouse gases.

At home, we recommend composting your coffee to repurpose as fertiliser.

When buying a coffee out, try to find which of your local chains responsibly dispose of their coffee. For example, Kiss the Hippo in London turn theirs into biofuel!

The Social Consequences

There are three main social consequences that unsustainable coffee has: a large gender pay gap, child labour and unfair pay.

The Rainforest Alliance reports that female coffee farmers produce less than their male counterparts because they have far less access to resources.

Moreover, a 2003 report found that the coffee trade reinforces this gender inequity by maintaining patriarchal supply chain structures. Were the playing field made level, women could increase their farm yields by 20-30%.

Secondly, it has been reported that coffee plantations use child labour.

This is linked to the low pay that many coffee farmers receive.

Typically, coffee farmers earn 7-10% of the retail price, going all the way down to 2% for some workers in Brazil. To earn enough money to survive parents are forced to pull their children from school to work on the coffee plantations. Children can start as young as six working eight to ten-hour days and being exposed to health and safety hazards.

Coffee plantation worker

Many coffees will sport the FairTrade logo, which was developed in an attempt to guarantee plantation workers better pay and working conditions.

However, the certification has come under criticism and the effect of fair-trade coffee on coffee growers is mixed at best.

For this reason, we suggest again researching your favourite coffee company and looking for transparent policies around how they pay their workers. Some make clear statements about how much they pay, often publicising that they pay more than the FairTrade price.

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