How to Find Coffee That’s Both Sustainable and Ethical

As more of us try to incorporate more sustainable habits into our daily lives, Flora Beverley and research assistant Hattie Webb investigate how eco-friendly our morning cup of coffee is and what we can do as consumers to support ethical and sustainable production.

Global coffee consumption has over doubled in the last 40 years, from 4.2m tonnes in 1970 to 8.7m tonnes in 2015. In the UK alone, we drink around 95 million cups of coffee per day. Grown primarily in tropical conditions, with as many as 125 million people worldwide depending on coffee for their livelihoods, the industry has begun facing questions about its ethical and environmental consequences. As a consequence of less developed social infrastructure and the highly volatile coffee market, producers and their families are often put in vulnerable situations. With so much of the economic sustainability of the industry linked to the social stability of these communities, it is becoming increasingly important to consider the ethical, social and environmental factors of your morning cup of coffee.

So, what are the main environmental issues? 

In general, the monoculture farms often required for coffee production are having a negative impact on the planet’s biodiversity, with more modern cultivation methods proving more destructive than others. With regards to the resources required to actually grow the coffee plants, Water Footprint Network reports that the global average water footprint of a 125ml cup of coffee is 140 litres. In addition to this, there is the increasing use of pesticides and fertilisers to promote higher productivity or to ward off any pollination and pest problems facing intensive sun-grown coffee farms, according to The World Economic Forum. Much the same as the wider food industry, many tonnes of spent coffee grounds are wasted in landfill, rather than being composted or recycled, causing the release of methane – a greenhouse gas known to be 84 times more warming than carbon dioxide.

As more people look to bring coffee culture into their daily at home routines, how we consume our coffee has come under scrutiny. Though often made of non-biodegradable components and unrecyclable materials, products such as coffee pods have been proven to not be the worst environmental offenders due to their precise measurements and consequent reduced waste. Rather, how the coffee is cultivated can come to affect as little as 1% or as much as 70% of the total environmental footprint of a cup. 

Reducing Your Coffee Waste

In an effort to minimise the waste from each cup of coffee, the fresh grounds can be repurposed in beauty products, the garden or in the kitchen. If you are a keen gardener, keep your spent coffee grounds to add to your compost as an effective fertiliser – helping to absorb heavy metals and offer several key minerals for plant growth. Why not use your coffee grounds as a kitchen scourer, sprinkling on tough to clean surfaces and scrubbing (though do be sure to check the surface won’t stain). If #sundayselfcare is the highlight of your routine, add your grounds with a little water and coconut oil to make the perfect face and body scrub; with the caffeine acting as an antioxidant and providing an exfoliant to stimulate better blood flow. Alternatively, mix with soap glycerine and your favourite essential oils to form a zero-waste soap bar.

Coffee Production, Workers and Farming

Requiring a specific climate and growing environment, coffee production can be unpredictable; meaning that without unions or fair-trade agreements, communities are often left without guaranteed of prices that cover their production coast. This can lead to extreme poverty, as witness after the 1989 International Coffee Agreement collapse. According to The Rainforest Alliance, female coffee farmers (of which make up 60-90% of coffee labourers) have far less access to resources and so produce less than their male counterparts. If the playing field were made level, women could increase their farm yields by 20 to 30%. The ICO estimates that closing the gender gap could create an extra 30 billion cups of coffee per year. In a 2003 report on the coffee industry’s sustainability, the IISD suggested that gender inequity may be reinforced by maintaining a patriarchal supply chain structure and suggested alternative structures that could improve the gender imbalance. However, in the 17 years since the release of this report, gender inequality is still a widespread issue in the coffee trade.

Child labour is a social issue deeply ingrained in the industry, with reports suggesting many children are widely used as cherry pickers on plantations. Among health and safety risks, such labour results in lower education levels and subsequently maintains a cycle of poverty over generations. Regulations against child labour do exist in many coffee-producing countries, but economic pressures result in a reluctance to enforce such laws. Poverty has also seen a rise in debt peonage (forced labour to pay off debts) on large coffee estates meaning increased concerns of modern slavery within the industry.

Image: Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

So how do we increase the sustainability of our coffee?

Traditional cultivation methods, such as maintaining crops under the shade of existing trees, help to protect local biodiversity and requires fewer resources. There are also numerous certification programmes that promote a more sustainable and ethical cultivation of coffee; the following are often used to promote sustainable coffee. Here is what they really mean:

Rainforest Alliance and UTZ

The Rainforest Alliance and UTZ merged at the end of 2019, to create a modern-day standard for coffee production (among other products) and is one of the most popular programmes for coffee products. Combining environmental and social standards, it aims to regulate the exploitation of environmental and labour conditions, especially that of child labour. However, both in the past and more recently, there have been concerns over its stringency in its regulations, with queries over farms’ environmental ‘promises’ and unfair pay having been brought to light.


The Fairtrade certification aims to ensure a minimum price was paid to farmers. This is crucial should the already volatile market price of coffee drop below the level required for growers to be able to survive, farmers are still paid a fair wage. This is achieved by buyers paying a premium of around 20% over market rates. However, due to the increase in price, even certified Fairtrade farmers cannot sell all their products at Fairtrade rates. While half of Fairtrade certified products are also organically certified, often lower yields of organic produce mean farmers often do not benefit from a Fairtrade and organic certification. 

Soil Association Organic

For a crop to be certified organic in Europe, it must be grown according to European organic standards, which prioritises techniques such as crop rotation, maintenance of soil fertility, minimal use of non-renewables and, of course, exclusion of pesticides and non-biological fertilisers. The Soil Association does include a few lines on worker’s rights, encouraging employers to adhere to the core standards of the International Labour Organisation, although this isn’t the focus of the certification. Unlike some other certifications, to maintain Soil Association Organic status, the growing and processing sites are audited at least once a year, helping maintain standards. 

Bird Friendly

One of the less well known certifications (but perhaps one of the best) is Bird Friendly. Requiring the adherence to some of the strictest regulations on shade cover (at least 40%, compared to the 15% of Rainforest Alliance) and canopy height, as well as ensuring 100% organic production, all Bird Friendly products aim to reduce any of the environmental impacts of coffee production.

Image: Akha Women harvesting arabica coffee berries

It is important to remember, however, that just because a product hasn’t been certified by one of the above organisations, it doesn’t mean it isn’t sustainable. Many certifications cost significant amounts of money to acquire and maintain, meaning that small, local growers may not be able to afford them. For these smaller, independent growers, finding out more information from the roasters may give a clearer indication on the supply chain. Good questions to ask are whether it is shade grown, whether the cooperative has any certifications at all and whether it is associated with any environmental programmes.

As with so many products being harvested in an environment with little regulation, there is still a long way to go before we can guarantee that even certified coffees provide safe working conditions and minimal environmental damage. Most importantly, it is the questions we ask ourselves when purchasing such a product that can make a difference: how was it farmed, is it certified sustainable and ethical? Consider your own impact, how you choose to prepare and drink it, how you can reduce the waste you produce. Savour the warm glow that will in turn come both the comfort of your morning cup and the knowledge that you’re doing your bit to make it is sustainable as possible.

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