Sustainable Living

Sustainability in the Coffee Industry

Sustainable Coffee Plantation

With coffee being the second largest commodity in the world, only behind oil, there’s no wonder the words coffee and sustainability have been a hot topic in recent years.

In an ever more environmentally friendly and conscious world, making sure we’re drinking an ethical cuppa on a morning has become more of a priority.

Here’s what’s happening in the industry and how you can do your bit.

What Do We Mean By Sustainability And Why Does It Matter?

The Definition

There is no doubt you will have come across the word ‘sustainability’ in recent years. It seems the people are becoming more and more aware of how unsustainable our current industries are and how much of a problem that is. There are three main pillars when we talk about sustainability which are: environment, society, and economy. 

In simple terms, sustainability means that a process or a state can be maintained at a certain level for as long as needed or wanted, without the depletion of natural resources. 

Why Is It Important?

With all the recent talk about sustainability, you might have gathered that it’s important, but why?

Well, we simply need to ensure that future generations, like our children and grandchildren, can enjoy all the resources the planet has to offer just like we do. The only way to make sure that happens is through, you guessed it, sustainability.

It’s not just the environment though. The people that run the industries like the farmers that grow coffee, need to have a sustainable social environment to be able to work effectively and productively. Which means making sure they have enough money to get by and have good living conditions. 

Coffee cherries in a basket

Sustainability And The Coffee Industry

Sustainability is not a new word in the coffee industry. In fact, going back to 1962 with the first international coffee agreement, there were discussions about how to limit excess on the market to keep economic sustainability. 

It can be a bit much to think about how linked everything is regarding the 3 pillars of sustainability, so let’s break it down.

Environmental Sustainability

One of the biggest problems with the coffee industry is the amount of water it consumes. The Water Footprint Network reports that on average a 125ml cup of coffee uses 140 litres of water in production. 

This problem gets bigger when you consider how precipitation in these coffee growing regions is dropping. Rainy periods are much more volatile making producing coffee much harder, as the Coffea plant is quite picky with its growing conditions. 

With the higher quality coffee growing at higher altitudes, the rising temperatures are causing farmers to increase the altitude to find optimum growing conditions. However the higher you go up a mountain, the less agricultural land there is meaning less coffee production.

The sustainability of biodiversity is also at risk. The higher the demand for coffee, the more land is needed for production. With over 80% of deforestation happening to make room for agricultural land, we need to find more land efficient ways to produce our food. Or at least find a way for our food and the ecosystems that are left to coexist symbiotically. 

All these climatic changes affect coffee production, which then affects the farmers…

Economic and Social Sustainability

Almost every single coffee that’s served in the western world comes from a developing country. A lot of these places have extreme poverty, with very little social infrastructure and support. 

With coffee being such a massive industry, an awful lot of people around the world rely on its production as a source of income. When the production is affected, so are peoples jobs.

This can have a direct impact on their access to things like healthcare, education, housing, food and other things we take for granted. Therefore making sure that farmers get a fair price for their crop is paramount. 

If this happens, then the communities that are responsible for producing the cup of coffee you drank this morning, will happily keep producing it. They’ll be able to afford everything they need to live happy and healthy lives, while harvesting coffee each season. Companies will benefit with the supply and consumers will enjoy great quality coffee. 

Social and economic sustainability is a win-win scenario for everyone.

What’s Being Done And How Can We Help?

There is plenty being done to support sustainability within the coffee industry. As a consumer, we just need to pay attention to what companies we’re supporting. In a world we vote with our wallets choosing the right companies to buy from is crucial to promoting sustainability. Here’s what’s being done and how we can do our bit.

Read The Labels

When companies do good things to protect the environment or to look after their farmers, it’s normally a good thing to show off. For this reason, they’ll normally put it on the packaging.

Organic. Yes, having an organic product means there have been no synthetic pesticides used in it’s production. However, it also means that the farms or companies work to stop excess erosion of land, helping sustainability. Looking for a certified organic label will not only be the healthier choice, but also the better environmental one too.

Rainforest Alliance Certified. The requirements to get this certification aren’t very hard to get, but it’s certainly better than nothing. Their focus is on farms not destroying the environment they use, ensuring ecological harmony, requiring some shade, having certain water rules and protecting against child labour. However, sometimes only around 30% of the coffee produced needs to pass the requirements in order for the label.

FairTrade Certified. When looking for this label make sure it says the complete phrase with the logo, or else it could mean absolutely nothing. It’s a great organisation that requires a minimum price per pound of coffee beans paid to the farmer. This supports social and economic sustainability so certainly something to look out for.

Proudly Made in Africa. This is a relatively new label with the aim to help farmers escape poverty. They help to generate employment opportunities in the African fashion and food industries. 

Photo by Arnie Watkins on

Final Words

The problem of trying to create a greener world is so big and daunting it’s hard to fathom. As one human out of many billions it’s easy to ask yourself if you would have any effect at all. The answer is yes!

Doing your bit, looking for sustainable companies with good brand ethics is one way to help the problem get that little bit smaller. 

Tom has had a passion for coffee for many years now, but it started to grow bigger when visiting different countries and cities around the world with huge coffee cultures. He shares his passion on his blog, giving advice and tips on all things coffee related. If he isn’t sipping a freshly brewed cuppa, he’s either fishing, or booking plane tickets to somewhere new.

3 thoughts on “Sustainability in the Coffee Industry

  1. Very useful information, I was especially surpised the read that it requires 140L of water to enjoy a cup of ceffee. What made me question your dedication to sustainibility was to promote Tom at end of your article who apears to regularly be ‘booking plane tickets to somewhere new’, certainly not a sustainable activity!


  2. To get the mst out of your coffee beans, you must brew it in the best coffee maker, coffee grinder or espresso machines! . Whether you’re just beginning to explore the world of coffee or you’re a long time coffee enthusiast looking for something new, I have something for you. Earl of Coffee will provide you with the best reviews for coffee makers, espresso machines, coffee pots, and more! You will also find all things coffee from my blog, which will surely make your coffee journey superb.


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