Do you think of future generations and the Earth they will inherit? Take a minute to ponder this and you are rapidly removed from the box of day-to-day life. Environmental science has inculcated the word “sustainable” into our jargon. It’s a vague term to some, others are aware of its literal definition. But we all generally know it’s a positive for the environment. And have come to expect products we consume to be – sustainable. This includes your coffee, which is either environmentally friendly, or not. Okay, but what does is it really mean to create a sustainable coffee?
Take, for example, coffee concentrate. How do we choose among the products filling our screens to pick the one that’s used “best practices” to serve, and protect Mother Earth? For one, Fair Trade beans must be a starting point. Reducing waste is another. And lastly composting waste – in the case of coffee beans, we’re talking about spent grounds used as fertilizer. Let’s check out what sustainable practices for brewing a fine roast entail.
Where Does Your Coffee Come From?
Is it ethically sourced? In general, coffee crops are grown almost exclusively in tropical forests. Coffee is one of the largest agricultural commodities traded in these areas. If you’re a farmer who wants to expand the crop in the middle of a forest, you have to cut down trees to make it happen. Next up, processing coffee is water intensive which leads to wastewater potentially contaminating rivers, streams, lakes. Low quality pesticides are less expensive for a farmer who is trying to churn a profit. This is all unsustainable. Nature is not being cared for or conserved.
Who grows and picks the crop? Is labor being exploited with unfair wages? Are children forced into labor? Again, for the crop to be profitable for the farmer (often small-scale), corners are sometimes cut. And unethical labor practices may be the norm to produce the cup of coffee that you take for granted every morning. Who wants to pay to support that?
Sustainable coffee means livelihoods are improved, and nature is conserved. Emphasis is on forest conservation or reforestation, water conservation, ethical labor conditions, and finally standards, certifications, and sourcing policies.
An important part of the movement toward sustainable coffee is consumer awareness. So, yes, it’s good to vaguely know that sustainability is a good thing. But to truly make the effort to only buy from certified sustainable brands is to be a part of a collective awareness to create a better planet.
How Does This Translate to My Cup of Coffee?
You matter. All of us together make a difference.
Sure, we are all into our microcosm, living our uniquely personal experience. Like, you have to get to work by 9AM or you’ll miss the conference call with Switzerland. When you wake in the morning groggy from a rough sleep, there’s no time to contemplate global awareness and sustainability. You take the coffee concentrate sitting in the fridge for granted, throw a tablespoon into a glass with some ice cubes, fill the cup up with water, and fly out the door, striving to be sitting pretty in the conference room by 9.
But you, the consumer, have the power. Read labels before you buy. This way, when you’re in a rush throwing coffee down the hatch, you don’t have to think about anything because you already vetted its origins. Consumer consciousness is how each coffee drinker can make an impact. The United States is the largest importer of coffee in the world, tallying over $6 billion per year. We are a land of café aficionados, let’s get to work on supporting sustainability, one person at a time.
A startling figure for any coffee drinker is a prediction that “60 percent of land used for coffee production becomes unsuitable for farming by 2050,” according to John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Okay, yikes. This should prompt anyone with a coffee habit to perk up – not from over-caffeination— but from increased awareness.
You’re not off the hook if you use coffee concentrate! Concentrate might seem a bit removed from the tactical reminder of “agricultural crop” you get from touching—seeing–smelling coffee beans or grinds. But don’t forget the concentrate is pure coffee. Again, make sure to find a brand that uses Fair Trade (ethical labor conditions), organic, sustainably grown beans when shopping for coffee concentrate. Check into the company you’re buying from, and see if the grinds are recycled, not tossed into a garbage receptacle somewhere far away. Don’t underestimate what you can do from your high-rise in a first world urban location worlds away from a coffee farm on the equator to effect change.