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Coffee and its Impact on People, Animals and the Planet

Coffee is one of those commodities that we regularly enjoy without often thinking about how ethical it is or the environmental impact it creates on its way to our brimming mugs. Should we be choosing some brands over others, and how much difference will it make if we do?

What’s the Problem?

Coffee is the world’s second most tradable commodity after oil, which means that it makes a lot of money for those who sell it – though not usually for those who grow the coffee beans. The main issue with coffee production is with transparency of what happens overseas. As recently discovered by the horsemeat scandal in the UK, big brands have complex supply chains that make finding out where their products come from and what condition the workers and environment are in near-impossible to find out, which poses pressing questions for the ethical consumer.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that major coffee chains such as Costa, Starbucks and Pret A Manger have a monopoly on the world’s coffee supply, and therefore a lot of say in how the coffee producers are treated and paid. While fair trade coffee retailers such as Cafedirect focus on less complicated buyer-supplier chains that promote consumer-grower visibility, these brands have a very small impact in the world of coffee production, and the certification process has yet to take off beyond the small ethical companies pioneering them.

Human Impact

On average, coffee farmers in developing countries receive only 10 per cent of the retail price of the product. Coupled with this is competition among growers that has led to price reductions and undercutting, which leaves growers with no safety margin when the supply drops or bad weather hits. As with sweatshop labor, growers are not always treated well and often work in poor conditions, all for a fraction of the cost that the final product – the coffee we consume – is sold for.

Animal Impact

Traditionally, coffee beans were grown under a shaded canopy of trees, but modern methods of growing which require high outputs regardless of the weather are stripping away the sustainability of traditional growing methods. In many cases now the canopy which would once have provided a habitat for various animals, insects, flora and fauna has been replaced with intensive ‘sun cultivation’, where coffee is grown in plantations that rely on the use of chemical fertilisers and unsustainable agricultural farming methods.

Environmental Impact

Increasing competition and a drive for increased output are impacting the environment in negative ways, with monocropping becoming the new norm alongside ‘sun cultivation’ methods. WWF reports that because of this, 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America have been cleared to make way for coffee farming, and this deforestation is on the rise in coffee-growing countries. Incidentally, 37 of the 50 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates are also major coffee producers.

What Can We Do?

There’s a simple answer to this question – we need to commit to buying certified coffee brands. Certification standards differ in their focus and sometimes companies choose to do the bare minimum and flaunt it under the label ‘certified’, so it’s important to keep pushing coffee suppliers to improve their certificate ratings, too.

The first certification worth supporting is the fair trade label. This certification means that farmers’ cooperatives deal directly with the retailers and get to sell their coffee for a worthy price. There is more transparency that means the coffee can actually be traced back to the growers, and it also means that a wage is guaranteed to growers so that market fluctuations won’t leave them out of pocket.

The other option is to buy Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee. RA focuses more on environmental standards rather than wages for growers. The argument could be made however that by investing in sustainable lifestyles and encouraging eco-friendly land use practices, RA contributes to the wellbeing of growers in its own way.

The Fairtrade Foundation and Rainforest Alliance do not claim to be solutions to all the problems involved with coffee manufacturing, but they are small, pertinent steps in the right direction – towards fairness and sustainability. As in most cases of consumer goods, the big brands are generally the least ethical and their coffee is likely leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. You can choose to change this by voting with your wallet and saying no to uncertified coffee brands.

If your local supermarket or coffee shop doesn’t stock any certified brands, why not ask them to? You’ll be making a significant difference to people, animals and the environment around the world – and you’ll still get to enjoy that brimming mug of coffee at the end of the day.

Here are 9 amazing fair trade coffees you should considering buying.

Image Source: Penn Waggener/Flickr