How Sustainable Is Your Cup Of Coffee?

29 November 2018 - by Stephanie Kovero

For a lot of us, a cup of coffee in the morning gives us the get up and go to face the day.

But have you ever stopped and thought about the impact you are having: Where did this come from? How was it made? Is it sustainable?

With a new wave of concern for sustainability in business and consumer models, as over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed around the world everyday, our morning caffeine fix is a good place to start.

The Fair trade model was set up in 1997 following a long history of boom-bust cycles in the coffee industry and a growing concern for the sustainable development of small-scale producers and agricultural workers in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Since its conception, however, the model has barely changed while the industry has developed, leaving a quality problem in Fairtade coffee. This is because Fairtrade coffee can come in any quality grade, but the coffee is considered part of the specialty coffee market due to its production requirements and pricing structure. Therefore, if a coffee farmer can sell their higher quality product for a higher price then they will do so, and then sell their lower quality product at the Fairtrade price.

There are also concerns that the premiums charged for Fairtrade coffee are retained by the cooperative that farmers are required to be a part of, not the farmers themselves. Instead, a vote is held by the farmers to decide how the money will be used for collective benefit.

To its credit, Fairtrade has been an excellent marketing model for ethical consumerism.

It has raised the profile for concerns regarding sustainability and the supply chain in countless households. However, it has also been argued by the likes of Jeff Teter, president of Allegro Coffee, that “[Fairtrade] have done an amazing job convincing a small group of vocal and active consumers… to be suspicious of anybody who isn’t Fairtrade.”

Due to these concerns with the Fairtrade model, many major coffee retailers have now chosen to consider social issues and maintain a sustainable supply chain in their own way. Some adopt other certifications and others have developed their own programs. In many cases, it has been reported that these models have managed to get more money to the farmers directly than using the Fairtrade model.

On the other side of the same token, buying coffee from a coffee shop chain such as Starbucks, that spruiks its Fairtrade status, does not make the company ethical in and of itself. In fact, Starbucks comes bottom of the Ethical Consumer’s rating table.

Whilst many choose to support Fairtrade, it is also important to consider the entire supply chain alongside the ethics and sustainability of the business itself.

It is not only the social aspects of coffee consumption that are cause for concern in the industry. In today’s society, consumers want high quality products in an instant. As such, in the past decade, more of our population have chosen to adopt a new method of getting their morning jolt: the coffee capsule.

Almost 200 million capsules are now bought in the UK each year and 1 in 5 of us own a coffee capsule machine. Generally speaking, due to the complex packaging (often a mixture of plastic and aluminium or foil) these pods cannot be recycled easily and regular recycling facilities across the country reject these items. Worryingly, this means the majority end up in landfill.

In Hamburg, Germany, the authorities have taken a harsh stance on this environmental menace by banning the use of these pods in any state-run building. The move was a message to residents that the taxpayers money should and would not be spent on something that is ultimately damaging the environment. Should we be doing the same?


Some retailers have heard the environmental concern from users or see that sustainability concerns have probably dampened the growth of the coffee capsule sector. This includes Lavazza, who unveiled a fully biodegradable coffee cup made from thistles in 2015.

Other major coffee companies are taking a different approach by implementing their own recycling schemes and Nespresso has now teamed up with councils in London to trial a more convenient recycling service in line with the resident’s normal recycling practices.

Regardless of these new initiatives, as coffee drinkers, we need to think about the sustainability of the coffee we drink, where it has come from and the environmental impact of our waste generation.

It is important to remember that whilst some companies are genuinely concerned with their impact on people and the planet, their ultimate goals are usually profit related, leaving it up to consumers to call these major retailers to action through voicing concerns with sustainability practices and not just convenience.

Written by Nicola Telford for Grace & Green.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

About the author

Stephanie Kovero


Love reading the Green Room?
Subscribe for updates

Browse the Green Room