How Sustainable Is Your Cup Of Coffee?

February 5, 2021

By Frances Lucraft

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?

In the UK, we now drink approximately 95 million cups of coffee per day. Globally, it’s more like 2.25 billion. With a new wave of concern for sustainability in business and consumer models, our morning caffeine fix is a good place to start.

Fairtrade: just a clever marketing model?

The Fairtrade 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.

Some say that Fairtrade isn’t enough: that minimum pricing can be pushed up by focusing on the quality of coffee and targeting discerning drinkers. “The output of Fairtrade certified production is mostly mass market commodity grade coffee which doesn’t deliver the impact to really change producers’ lives in a significant way,” says Guardian journalist Steven Macatonia. “There is little freedom for the individual farmer and no incentive to focus on quality or innovation. A more sustainable approach would reward excellence.”

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 compared to using the Fairtrade model.

On the flip side, buying coffee from a chain such as Starbucks that promotes its Fairtrade status does not make the company ethical in and of itself. In fact, Starbucks comes bottom of Ethical Consumer’s rating table, citing workers’ rights concerns. Ethical Consumer ranks Muffin Break, Soho Coffee, Greggs, Coffee #1, AMT Coffee and Boston Tea Party as some of the best, with Starbucks, Costa, Caffè Nero, Harris + Hoole, Caffè Ritazza, Coffee Republic, Esquires Coffee House, Pret a Manger, McDonald’s and Puccino’s among the worst. This takes into account:

  • Use of certified coffee and tea
  • Encouraging the use of reusable cups
  • Use of organic milk
  • Tax avoidance
  • Company size
  • Charging extra for dairy-free

While many choose to support Fairtrade, it’s important to consider the entire supply chain, alongside ethics and sustainability.

The rise of coffee capsules in landfill sites

It’s 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 us are choosing to adopt a new method of getting our morning jolt: the coffee capsule.

Almost 200 million capsules are bought in the UK each year and nearly a third of us own a coffee pod 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. UK coffee pods company Mugpods recently announced that it would be switching to biodegradable pods and pouches across its entire range.

What can we do to help?

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.

More and more coffee shops are offering money off your drink if you bring your own cup. 500 billion disposable coffee cups are produced every year. It’s easy for people to fall into a pattern of ordering a coffee drink and throwing out the disposable cup – but a reusable, looked after, will last for many years. Companies such as Boston Tea Party have taken a stand by banning single use cups across all their establishments, with the hope others will follow suit. The Independent has assembled a best reusable coffee cup guide that recommends the rCup as its personal favourite: the world’s first reusable coffee cup made from used paper cups.

Coffee plantations are also destroying the habitats of many rare and endangered migratory birds. Look for retailers that stock bird-friendly coffee. If you’re buying bags of coffee to drink at home, Bird & Wild is Fairtrade, organic and the UK’s leading shade-grown and bird-friendly coffee.

A change as simple as supporting local coffee shops that champion ethically grown coffee and locally sourced, organic produce can go a long way in reducing our daily impact.

Written by Nicola Telford for Grace & Green