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What We Talk About When We Talk About Sustainability, Part Two

In my last post on the subject, I identified and defined the most common labels being marketed to consumers as "sustainable," "responsible," or "ethical." Let's talk a little bit more in depth about what the problems are for coffee producers and how coffee roasters and drinkers might address them.

At Origin:

Ecological: deforestation, habitat loss, pollution from pesticides and coffee processing

Social: low wages, slavery, child labor, sexism, lack of market information

At Home: product waste, GHG emissions

Arabica is traditionally a shade crop in most places it grows. It occupies the middle tier of the rainforest, for example, above low-growing peanuts and below the banana canopy (just as an example of what some of our producer partners are doing).

In some places, like Indonesia, there's so much rain that coffee needs all the sun it can get for fruit production and pest resistance. In those cases, there is no canopy, but we also don't call that coffee "sun coffee."

Beginning in the 1970s, coffee farmers began planting sun coffee. Exposure to more sun plus increased fertilizer resulted in higher yields (interestingly, sun exposure alone decreases yields. It's the combination of sun+fertilizer that is successful). Sun coffee requires more inputs and leads to deforestation as land is cleared for coffee production. Bird and other wildlife habitat is destroyed, meaning that there's less of the natural fertilization and insect control those animals provide.

Another important source of pollution, besides runoff from herbicides and pesticides, is the coffee cherry slurry left behind by washing coffee. This used to be a much bigger problem than it is now, due to the use of newer, low-water pulpers and tanks. Capturing and composting the leftover fruit is a great way to get value out of it and reduce pollution. A coffee producer cannot get Organic certification without having a method to dispose of this wastewater.

Also, coffee can be a very effective buffer crop between nature reserves and purely agricultural areas, when managed by ecologically minded producers. Coffee production is not inherently bad for people or the planet. The question is how it is produced.

How can you know that your coffee is produced in ecologically sound ways?

Organic certification tells you that your coffee was grown without the use of synthetic herbicides or fungicides. Organic growers and processors are subject to random audits and detailed inspections. Our company gets inspected yearly, for example, with all our receiving and sales paperwork examined (to make sure we're not selling more Organic coffee than we're buying, see?) and our facility inspected. We've also had random samples taken for testing, without warning.

Most Organic coffee is shade-grown. That's good! Because synthetic fertilizers are prohibited, bird poop and compost are used instead. This prevents nitrogen runoff from entering waterways and the sea. That's good! A crop rotation plan must be in place. This, combined with bulkier organic fertilizers, help prevent erosion and improve soil. That's good!

Organic does not mean that no pesticides or herbicides are used—just that they must be organic. Organic does not taste better (or worse, either, and I'll get to that). Organic does not guarantee no rainforest was cleared for coffee cultivation, per se. 

In short, Certified Organic coffee is better for soil and waterways and decreases the risk of pesticide exposure for both consumer and producer. Conventional green coffee beans can have pesticide residue on them.

Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Bird Friendly is Organic-certified coffee grown under trees that meet a minimum height to be migeratory bird habitat.

Rainforest Alliance has various standards for the use of its label, including waste water management, animal habitat conservation, worker safety, child labor bans and agrochemical guidelines. Utz, like Rainforest Alliance, has both social and ecological goals, including good farm management, environmental conservation, and minimum wage requirements.

The above certifications each have different definitions and goals. Once you know that, you can choose from among them.

Proprietary Labels

Starbucks meets its own set of ecological and social guidelines. They use third-party verifiers to ensure compliance—this is how we know it's not some jive greenwashing. Nestle has the same. As long as there are clear rules and a mechanism for verification, I tip my hat to these efforts, even with their problems. It's not just better than doing nothing. When the biggest coffee buyers make sustainability a priority, real change happens.


"Sustainable" coffee is a multi-billion-dollar business. There's a very great incentive, therefore, to market coffee as such. Last year, S&D, a roaster out of North Carolina, published a survey that found that while almost half of 18-34-year-olds preferred sustainable coffee, less than a quarter could venture a definition of sustainability in coffee terms.

Every roaster has a story about why their coffee is better. Some of these roasters oppose certification because they believe it's arbitrary, ineffective, expensive to the producer, or irrelevant, even detrimental, to quality.

We should definitely acknowledge the ways in which Organic, to take the most important label for example, does not work. Sometimes synthetic herbicides/pesticides are actually less toxic than the Organic-approved ones. Sometimes land is deforested to build Organic farms. Sometimes producers fail to see a return on investment when they commit to Organic production. Absolutely--there are problems.

I will note that there's apparently plenty of bad Organic coffee, but that I have never had difficulty finding exceptional Organic coffees. In that regard, it is exactly like uncertified coffee.

And basically, I don't see how any of these problems are solved with LESS transparency, LESS accountability, and WITHOUT formal definitions and metrics. To the contrary, I think an every-roaster-for-him/herself philosophy moves our industry further from progress and accountability for our role in social and ecological ills.

Furthermore, large-scale investment is desperately needed for coffee infrastructure, like the energy- and water-efficient processing equipment mentioned above. We believe that partnering with established NGOs (which have superior expertise in agriculture, hydrology, poverty, etc than we could hope to) is the best way to support development.

Climate change is already dramatically affecting producers in every coffee country. If major investments are not made (in breeding, processing, irrigation, and pest control), we will not have enough good coffee. These are the sorts of investments no small roaster can make on its own.

Next, I will wade into the social costs of coffee.