Coffee is one of most consumed drinks in the world. Therefore, how it is produced has a large impact on the nature, and the people involved in the production. As some of my readers may recall, I raged over the horrible methods to produce palm oil in a recent post. Since I discovered how palm oil production in Borneo contributes to deforestation, air pollution, carbon emissions, biodiversity loss and the death of wild orangutans, I have tried to eliminate all palm oil from my diet.

But what about coffee? According to the International Coffee Organization, almost 10 million tons of coffee was produced in 2017 – most of it in Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia; countries with large rainforests and relatively poor populations. In this article, I investigate the environmental and social impacts of coffee production and what sustainable coffee production is. I also share some uplifting examples of sustainable coffee production from around the world.

Environmental and social impacts of coffee production

Some of the main environmental impacts of coffee production are water pollution arising from wet processing, toxic effects from the use of chemical pesticides, deforestation and carbon emissions when rainforest is burned to create new farmland and eutrophication due to application of fertilizers.

On the social side, coffee production can be a health risk if workers are exposed to toxic pesticides. Many farmers in developing countries do not wear sufficient protective equipment when applying pesticides – either because they are unaware of the risks, or because they cannot read the safety instructions. In addition, coffee farmers – 70% of which are smallholders – only receive a fraction of the final retail price which makes it hard for them to improve their living conditions.

What is sustainable coffee production?

Sustainable coffee production is production that considers all three dimensions of sustainability: the financial, environmental and social dimensions. First, production needs to be profitable at every level, and it should especially contribute to economic development at the local level. Second, production should aim to minimize the environmental impacts of production by promoting environmental-friendly production methods and the use of clean technologies. Third, sustainable coffee production should protect the livelihoods of coffee farmers, provide safe working conditions and reduce their vulnerability to market fluctuations.

Luckily, there are many certification schemes and initiatives that work with these issues. In certified organic production, chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are not allowed. Fairtrade certified coffee means that the coffee farmers get a fair share of the profit. Rainforest Alliance aims to stop deforestation in coffee production and conserve biodiversity.

Sustainable coffee production at the corporate level

Many large companies also take their responsibility when it comes to protecting the environment and the livelihoods of farmers. Gourmesso is a company that offers Nespresso compatible pods that are both certified by USDA Organic and Fairtrade. In addition, they offer 100% compostable pods, which is great news for anyone who wants to minimize the plastic waste. Gourmesso capsules are one of the few capsule companies that are committed to sustainability – plus, the coffee tastes amazing!

Shade-grown coffee in Mexico

Traditionally, coffee is grown in the shade of other trees, but with the advent of modern agriculture, large and intensively managed mono-cultures of sun-grown coffee has become the norm. Shade-grown coffee is more eco-friendly since it provides a better habitat for many animals and insects, reduces the need for agrochemicals, required less irrigation water, and reduces soil erosion. A study from Mexico – where shade-grown coffee represents a large share of the production – found that traditional shaded coffee plantations are important repositories of biological richness for trees, mammals, birds, reptiles, and many other organisms.

Rainforest-friendly production in Indonesia

Lampung is a mountainous province in Sumatra with a long history of coffee production. Back in time, child labor, forced labor, and the over-use of agrochemicals were all part of the practice. Further, toxic pesticides were routinely applied without protection. These unsustainable production methods depleted soils, put farmers at risk and destroyed the natural vegetation.

Recently, Rainforest Alliance has implemented a very successful program for sustainable coffee production in Lampung together with multinational corporations, non-profit organizations and local coffee traders. The program has changed production practices fundamentally. Today, organic liquid fertilizers are made from green compost and less agrochemicals are used. At the same time, coffee yields have increased by up to 55% and the median revenue for farmers has increased by 40%. If you ever go to Sumatra, do take the opportunity to visit these villages and see for yourself. Here are some other awesome travel tips in Indonesia that I wrote about recently.

A social coffee enterprise in Kenya

Finally, an example from the African continent. Vava Coffee is a social enterprise in Nairobi, Kenya, that aims to increase the wages of coffee farmers and improve their living conditions. They do this by educating coffee farmers and empowering women, as well as educating the end consumer about ethical coffee. Because in the end, we as consumers are partly responsible for how the coffee is produced. By making ethical choices, for example choosing organic and Fairtrade certified Gourmesso capsules, we can contribute to a positive change.