Baseball is a game with a beautifully intricate and colorful language, deeply idiomatic. The phrase, “a cup of coffee” refers to a short time spent by a minor league player at the major league level. One of the most famous cup of coffee moments was by Moonlight Graham, who played in one major league game, got no at bats, no fielding attempts, then waited 77 years to appear in W. P. Kinsella’s novel, A Field of Dreams. This is not that cup of coffee.
My morning ritual is deeply intertwined with the dark, brown stuff. I have deemed it essential for two cups of it, black – no sugar, be poured into me each day in order to function. Beyond the pure sensory pleasure it gives me, I do suspect the caffeine steadies my resolve to face the day, which of late begins with an onslaught of distressing national and local news on all fronts.
Of late, my thoughts have been returning to the impact we humans are having on the environment, and staring at my coffee cup, am beginning to wonder if the act of drinking coffee is hastening that impact? You would think that this would be a relatively simple question to answer. You would be wrong. Come join me down this rabbit hole in a dizzying array of terminology, mis-direction, accusations and backstabbing, and great lack of clarity.
Let me state my moral goals here. I still want my coffee and I want to drink it guilt-free. That means the coffee needs to be sourced from a place where it is not damaging the environment, and, also that the workers who harvest the coffee are not being exploited.
How can growing coffee affect the environment? Traditional methods rely on growing coffee within a larger forest ecosystem. The opposite of traditional methods is monocropping, AKA sun grown, using chemicals and fertilizers to boost production. It came into popularity in the 1970’s, making it the third worst thing to happen to the planet that decade, after Nixon and disco. This is a pattern of agriculture repeated in many parts of the world with many crops. As you might expect, traditional methods are ecologically much less damaging.
The modern equivalent of traditional coffee farming is shade grown coffee, where plants are interspersed under the forest canopy. Shade grown is a thing, so some brands of coffee are so marked. Guess what? Trees store carbon and are actually carbon sinks. So any coffee tree will have a negative carbon footprint. However, the add-ons, the fertilizer, the chemicals, the deforestation all have negative carbon impacts and are harmful to the environment in general, not just in terms of CO2. It takes about 2 pounds of CO2 per pound of coffee to get it planted and harvested, all in. This will be approximately the same regardless of method of farming, but the overall environmental consequences are significantly different.
Now that the coffee has been harvested, how does it get to the store? First, almost all coffee is grown in the Southern Hemisphere. New Cumberland is not in the Southern Hemisphere, so there is significant transport of coffee to the north to reach my cup. When you figure transport, processing, and roasting the beans, you are talking about adding an additional 3.5 pounds of CO2 per pound of coffee. https://theecoguide.org/examining-carbon-footprint-coffee
Once purchased from the store, I need to brew it and fix it to my liking. First, it goes into our coffee maker, powered by electricity from our solar panels. No carbon footprint there. (If you are not using solar, add 21 g of CO2 per cup for heating water.) The coffee filter and grounds go directly into our mulch pile. So far, so good. And no, we are not going to talk about Keurig machines here. Out of the question. I drink it black, so I am not incurring the costs of milk and sugar. Milk production leaves a large carbon footprint. Adding an ounce of milk to your coffee adds 63 g of CO2. Using soy milk would cut that in half.
In having the coffee the way I like it and in the method of brewing, I am adding about 5.5 pounds of CO2 to the environment for each pound of coffee I consume (equivalent to 65g per cup). Two cups a day yields 730 cups a year. I am generating about 105 pounds of CO2 per year. This is the equivalent of taking an additional 240-mile trip in our Prius a year. Which isn’t all that terrible.
As long as I keep drinking it black, and brewing it at home in a traditional coffee maker, I think I may be OK with regard to CO2 emissions. It makes a big difference how the coffee is grown, whether shade grown or sun grown. In general, coffee certified as organic is much more likely to be shade grown and without chemicals and fertilizers. So buying organic may be the simple solution to getting an environmentally clean cup of coffee. On to fairness.
If figuring out CO2 emissions for a cup of coffee was complicated, wait until you get to fairness measures. Matryoshka Dolls.
Fair Trade. “A choice for Fair Trade Certified™ goods is a choice to support responsible companies, empower farmers, workers, and fishermen, and protect the environment.” https://www.fairtradecertified.org
Unfortunately, ensuring a living wage only applies to farms that employ more than 20 workers. Some of the smallholder farms in Ethiopia and Uganda are themselves poor and employ less than 20 workers, who are also poorly paid. The guarantee of certification is less than perfect.https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/may/29/drinking-an-ethical-cup-of-coffee-how-easy-is-it
Rainforest Alliance. This group adheres to sustainable practices but does not guarantee a minimum price for suppliers. https://www.rainforest-alliance.org
Direct Trade. This is where coffee roasters buy directly from suppliers, cutting out the middlemen. While direct traders agree to pay 25 percent above the Fair Trade floor price, it offers flexibility in other aspects, including environmental. And because it skirts the other organizations like Rainforest Alliance, there is no explicit certification label. https://www.ethicalcoffee.net/direct.html
Starbucks. Oh, those guys.
“Starbucks is dedicated to helping farmers overcome the challenges facing coffee communities. We are committed to buying 100 percent ethically sourced coffee in partnership with Conservation International.” https://www.starbucks.com/responsibility/sourcing/coffee
In practice, some groups have questioned whether ethical sourcing is as good as fair trade. This controversy has been brewing for a number of years without clear resolution. In addition, some organic groups are challenging Starbucks on their organic policies. In fairness to this discussion, much of that second controversy is over products other than the coffee sold by Starbucks, e.g. milk additives, etc.
Organic. Not directly related to supporting workers, but most fair trade coffee is organic, so there is some connection there. Organic farming takes greater care and tends to command a higher price. The driver is quality not cost, which probably benefits the farmer. However, to say organic means fair trade does not logically follow.
Organic and fair trade seem to be the answers to the question I posed at the beginning. However, in my local community, finding these certifications is easier said than done.
The following brands of coffee are sold at my local grocery store:
Folgers, Dunkin Donuts, Café Bustelo (owned by JM Smucker),– neither fair trade nor organic
Maxwell House, Yuban (owned by Kraft Foods) – neither fair trade nor organic. Yuban is in partnership with Rainforest Alliance to guarantee 30% of all beans are certified by the Alliance.
Eight O’Clock – no evidence of organic or fair trade
Chock Full o’ Nuts – ditto
Starbucks – organic varieties available. Fair trade available in Europe but not here
Seattle’s Best, owned by Starbucks but does not offer organic or fair trade
Gevalia, owned by Jacobs Douwe Egberts – not fair trade
Peets – direct trade and some certified organic and fair trade
Green Mountain – owned by Keurig – fair trade certified, but as they are owned by Keurig, ouch!
Illy – might not be sustainable, no clear link to fair trade
McCafe – goal of 84% sustainable. Ironically, McCafe could be one of the greener options. https://dailycoffeenews.com/2018/11/30/mcdonalds-may-not-be-saving-the-world-but-its-doing-something-anything-about-coffee/
Newman’s Own – both organic and fair trade
Melita – organic and fair trade
New England Coffee – fair trade coffee available but not in all stores or roasts
The bottom line. I think I can find some local choices, but the effort was exhausting. I may need to find some ethically sourced aspirin.
Ira, a fun (but depressing…!) read, thanks for posting it! The comment about Nixon and disco made my day!