Coffee Industry’s Contribution to Environmental Destruction (and What We Can Do About It)

Written by: Rachel Simone & Shai Davis

Photos by: Jackson Wood

It is fair to say that coffee is an important backbone of society. From the morning fuel it provides people to its status as an afternoon pickup, it makes sense why coffee is desired by so many around the world. However, the dark-roasted drink has its downfalls from its environmental impact and issues with the exploitation of its farmers.

Problems in Coffee Production

Deforestation

There is no surprise that coffee is high in demand being the third most consumed beverage in the world (following water and tea), most likely due to its high concentration of caffeine, yet its current production is placing an enormous burden on our environment. Latin American countries are the leading coffee producers in the world and the home to many biodiverse tropical rainforests. To keep up with the demand, these forests are cleared to make way for coffee crops: contributing to deforestation. Forests are typically considered carbon sinks, meaning they absorb more carbon than they release. Except, with the removal of the trees and soil, carbon remains in the atmosphere and heats up the surrounding regions. Deforestation also leads to less water absorption in the soil, which then allows for droughts to persist. Brazil, the leading coffee producer, is currently witnessing the worst drought in a century.

Shade-Grown vs. Sun-Grown

In addition to the problems that come with preparing the fields, just the way a producer chooses to grow their coffee can cause more issues in itself, such as whether the coffee is shade-grown or sun-grown. Likewise, while there are numerous species of coffee plants, only two of them are mainly cultivated to give us our daily cup of coffee: arabica and robusta. The plant that your coffee originates from can be key in knowing whether it is shade-grown or sun-grown and telling of the scale of its environmental impact.

Robusta generally has a considerably intensive style of farming that utilizes the sun-grown method to make inexpensive coffee and increase short-term yields and profit, yet it lowers the quality of the coffee and exacerbates deforestation and water use for low elevation, flat fields. Arabica, on the other hand, is able to produce higher-quality coffee using the shade-grown method that allows it to grow in the natural habitat of the area under the diverse forest canopy. Eminently, shade-grown coffee is the more sustainable choice, as it helps increase pollination, purify the water and air, prevent landslides, replenish the land, and provide habitats for the wonderful biodiversity of the forest (especially birds). Sadly, with the pressure on farmers to use the devastating sun-grown method, land used for shade-grown coffee fell around 20% just between 1996 and 2015 alone, even while global coffee production increased.

Coffee Production is Water-Intensive

Producing a cup of coffee from the beans after harvesting involves a water-intensive process in addition to the excessive amount of water needed to maintain a sun-grown coffee plant. For coffee beans to be extracted from the coffee cherry, they must be placed in huge vats of water and then washed. This process alone can take millions of liters of water. Considering this process takes place in regions suffering from drought, this is not ideal. This procedure results in coffee wastewater, which can contribute to water pollution.

Packaging

Single-serving coffee pods, such as K-Cups, debuted in the 1990s and over time have become popular due to the quickness of preparing a cup. After the coffee is brewed, single-serve pods are then disposed of. While some single-use pods made of plastic are recyclable, some are not, and they end up in landfills to contribute to plastic pollution. Companies, such as Nespresso, create pods made of aluminum, yet this also has drawbacks as some cities might not recycle the type of aluminum used. Even if the pod is recyclable, the cup must be taken apart to separate the recyclable, trash, and compostable components. The dismantling can be difficult, and the city may not have the resources to allocate to such a system.

Plus, it is important to note that the manufacturing process of packaging and transportation of the coffee itself and the product contribute greatly to greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, it is best to source as locally as possible to mitigate this distance of transportation and its consequential emissions.

Exploitation of Farmers

The coffee industry has a trade issue: from farmers being exploited to child slaves being used to expedite production. Growing is a tedious job as a result of its incredibly intensive processes and safety concerns. Yet, most farmers receive less than six percent of what the buyers pay for their coffee at the grocery store. Family farmers can find themselves the victims of wage theft, as they are forced to sell their products at half the market value. In Guatemala, farmers are only paid $3 for picking 100 pounds of coffee in one day. Guatemala, along with Colombia, are both reported to have child labor in their coffee production. These children, often the kids of workers or victims of human trafficking, can be as young as five and are subjected to dangerous work conditions using machete tools and pesticides. This is not only unethical, but also illegal as the minimum employment age in Guatemala is 14 and 15 in Colombia.

What We Can Do About It

Fairtrade, Bird-Friendly, & Rainforest Alliance Certified Products

One of the best ways to ensure your coffee is sustainable: simply look for the label marking it as Fairtrade, Bird-Friendly, and/or Rainforest Alliance Certified!

Fairtrade: Fairtrade certified coffee ensures ethical standards in production by connecting businesses with farmers that are able to take more control over their lives from receiving fair pay and providing safe working conditions. Along with the extra Fairtrade Premium, in such an unstable market, the Fairtrade Minimum Price is set to guarantee the security of these farmers from unprecedented price drops. While acknowledging that farming is the predominant cause of deforestation in the world, products created under Fairtrade guidelines also enforce environmental protection and sustainability practices. With growing coffee, these standards ensure more shade-grown coffee plants by establishing protected forests that are unable to be cut down for commercial use, as well as restricting the use of many agrochemicals, managing water quality and waste production, and supporting the growth of local biodiversity.

Bird-Friendly: As mentioned above, shade-grown coffee has its many benefits for biodiversity and the most prominent of which: birds. Backed by years of research, this is why the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center formed their Bird Friendly Coffee Program, the first of its kind, in efforts to protect migratory birds and support shade-grown coffee farms being second only to natural forests. In the same manner as Fairtrade, this program supports farmers with their own premium as well.

Rainforest Alliance: Lastly, also similar to Fairtrade, becoming Rainforest Alliance certified works to ensure sustainability in both the environment and in human rights. Their Assess-and-Address approach realizes the ineffectiveness of a full-out ban and seeks to raise awareness and the prevention of child and forced labor and gender inequality. Committees are formed for this prevention and help to support families if cases do, ultimately, arise. For the environment, the Rainforest Alliance takes a climate-smart approach, meaning that the right approach to sustainability differs between the situation from farm to farm. All, however, encourage specific use of agrochemicals, soil sampling, native shade-grown methods, and the forbiddance of deforestation.

Join UT’s Upcoming Coffee Club: Texas EcoBrew!

Texas EcoBrew’s co-founders (from left to right) Sohni Patel, Jackson Wood, and Dhruv Gaur

For those on the UT campus, try joining Texas EcoBrew! This sustainable coffee club was founded in 2022 by third year Environmental Engineering student and Microfarm Compost Manager, Jackson Wood, along with current barista, Dhruv Gaur, and Sohni Patel. Their aim: spread awareness about coffee processing from harvest to cup, to engage the public in hands-on experiences in every step of the process, and to incorporate coffee byproducts to work towards the more environmentally conscious consumption of this beloved beverage. By joining this club, members will have the opportunity to roast and hand-brew (having a less negative environmental impact) their very own coffee from sustainably sourced beans and learn how to use the byproducts, like coffee grounds and filters, to give back to their environment, like in compost. These beans, provided to members by the club, are sourced through Sweet Maria’s, a sustainable, fair-trade coffee company with a coffee library from every region in the world.

EcoBrew is also looking towards the future in expanding the impact we can make! Having applied for the UT Green Fund, a grant program to fund campus sustainability projects, the club plans to invest in the proper equipment (fair-trade coffee beans, roasters, presses, drip equipment, etc…) to be able to engage its members and the public about the importance of sustainability in making your morning up of wake-me-up (or the one to get you through that essay). Additionally, an initiative the club is aspiring to start is to collaborate with the campus coffee shops, such as O’s Cafe, to collect and use their coffee grounds to be turned into compost for use in the Microfarm. They further seek to work more with the CEC and hope to sell their fresh-made coffee at the UT Farm Stand.

Interested in learning more about Texas EcoBrew?

Email the founders at jacksontwood@utexas.edu and dhruvgaur2@gmail.com.

Austin Local Favorites

Another solution, shop local! While there may seem to be an endless number of coffee shops popping up on every other corner, it may be surprising to know just how many support fair-trade sustainability. Here is only one short list of some of these Austin favorites in no particular order:

  • Cuvée Coffee 2000 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702
    • Cuvée produces their coffee through direct trade, meaning they form relationships directly with their farmers to provide quality coffee, pay fair wages, and maintain sustainability
  • Café Bon Appétit 3001 S Congress Ave, Austin, Texas
    • For those on the St. Edward’s campus, Bon Appétit upholds their Farm to Fork initiative to source their ingredients from direct and local farmers within a 150-mile radius of the cafe, which helps preserve biodiversity, supports farmers, and invests in the community
  • Third Coast Coffee 10515 Old Manchaca Rd., Austin, TX 78748
    • Offering fair-trade coffee and roasting to order, Third Coast sources their beans through Cooperative Coffee, a partnering initiative to import from small-scale farmers for more sustainable and transparent practices for coffee companies
  • Monkey Nest Coffee 5353 Burnet Rd., Austin, TX 78756
    • Monkey Nest, like the others, also serves fair-trade, organic coffee along with sourcing their other ingredients locally with their mission to be an environmentally and socially conscious coffee shop
  • Bouldin Creek Café 1900 S 1st St., Austin, TX 78704
    • As a member of One Fair Wage, the vegan/vegetarian restaurant, Bouldin Creek, implements a 20% Fair Wage Surcharge on guest checks to guarantee fair pay for all their workers and the local and small farmers all their ingredients are sourced from
  • Cherrywood Coffeehouse 1400 E 38th 1/2 St., Austin, TX 78722
    • Cherrywood Coffeehouse serves organic, fair-trade Ruta Maya coffee: all roasted locally!

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