Beyond the web of well-over-a-thousand compounds that contribute to a cup, coffee is an ethically complex industry. Throughout my life I’ve been heavily influenced by the foundation world -- by the concept of leaving a better home to those who will come after us -- forcing me to question the impact of my work within coffee. Having studied environmental policy, I often find myself asking, “are we having a positive impact on the environment through our work?”
The answer, as for so many industries, is a painful, “no.”
While I like to think coffee has had a net positive impact on society, its negative impact on the environment is undeniable. Millions of acres have been cleared for the planting of coffee. This invading of ecosystems by a single foreign crop degrades land in often immeasurable ways. Native wildlife loses much of its habitat and what remains often suffers due to runoff; countless pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are deployed on coffee farms, frequently leeching into surrounding ecosystems where they can wreak havoc. Nitrogen-based fertilizers, for example, get into local waterways and cause eutrophication (massive oxygen-consuming algae blooms that suffocate underwater life).
Enough doom and gloom, though!
There is evidence to suggest coffee farms sequester carbon, pulling it from the atmosphere into its root systems, thus helping to reduce greenhouse gas levels within the atmosphere. Some research also suggests a positive correlation between coffee grown in shaded environments (quite often specialty grade) and the sequestering of carbon. Essentially, in supporting more diverse ecosystems than other forms of agriculture, environmentally conscious coffee producers can, at their worst, exist as lesser evils and, at best, genuinely aid damaged ecosystems.
All said, considering our separation from farming, what can we do to encourage such practices?
Simple: if you buy coffee, buy specialty. From us or others, you’re, on average, going to reduce your footprint. (It really does taste better, too)!
(Specialty coffee cherries in the process of being sorted)
Our mission is to responsibly share the world’s best coffee. Towards that end, every input matters. We, like many specialty roasters, carry coffee from producers and importers doing positive work. Operations like Brazil Daterra Farms, for example, are recognized sustainability leaders, being the first Rainforest Alliance certified and ISO 14001 certified coffee farm in Brazil. Furthermore, while other farmers we work with may not be certified Organic or Fair Trade, they are generally paid above the Fair Trade minimum and often meet -- even surpass -- traditional Organic standards.
Stepping back from farming, there are also things we can do at home! For example, our next retail bag, currently in production, is 100% renewable and 60% compostable. We also recycle what we can, giving chaff (the primary solid waste product of roasting) to farmers for use as livestock bedding. Small impact in the grand scheme of things, but it’s better than nothing!
Painful as it is, we can’t turn a blind eye. There is hope, and the sooner we act, the better!
Written by Ben Evans
Edited by Jacob Ryder