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sustainability in coffee

“Sustainability” has become a buzzword in recent years, but the long-term economic, environmental, and social health of the coffee industry are vital considerations.

Reduced biodiversity and farmers living in poverty are just some of the issues involved.

For years now, SpecialCoffee has been committed to creating value for society and the environment through conscious choices which also involve our customers. Through simple and small gestures you can make a difference. Small Actions = Big Changes

Being a family company affords us the freedom to choose what we do, create a long-term vision, and have the solidity to face whatever challenges the world gives us.

Here at SpecialCoffee, we are proud to partner with Rainforest Alliance which ensures 100% sustainable and traceable coffee.

To celebrate this and heighten the awareness of the importance of sustainable coffee, we delve a little deeper into the question “Why sustainability in coffee?”.
Can the industry support fair wages as well as environmental responsibility? Is a growth economy sustainable?


The word “sustainability” is tossed around a lot and the understanding of what it is has changed somewhat over the years.

More generally, sustainability is the ability to exist constantly, the characteristic of a process or state that can be maintained indefinitely at a certain level. In the environmental, economic and social fields, it is the process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the investment plan, the orientation of technological development and institutional changes are all in harmony and enhance the current and future potential in order to cope with human needs and aspirations.

Sustainable development meets the needs of today without compromising future generations.
Simply put, it is being responsible with the way we use resources to ensure our children and grandchildren have what they need to live comfortably.

But when we talk about sustainability in coffee are we really considering what is known as the triple bottom line (people, planet, and profit)?


Climate change and fair coffee prices are rightfully important topics today, but sustainability is not a new idea in the coffee world.

As far back as the first international coffee agreement in 1962, there was discussion of how to limit the amount of excess on the market to ensure economic sustainability.

It can get overwhelming to consider sustainability in totality and the many ways that people, planet, and profit are interlinked.


Just a few decades ago, coffee-producing countries were able to provide for their basic health and education needs. By cultivating coffee as a forest understory crop, these communities were environmentally balanced.

Today, many cannot say any of those things. The key has been a declining income and more aggressive production systems requiring greater investment and risks. In real-dollar prices, farmers earn less than they did decades ago.

The universal challenge for coffee farmers worldwide is simply to derive a living income from coffee.

Without an economic foundation, it is difficult to conceive of thriving farming communities that can be the basis for a diversified and growing industry.


Many coffee-producing countries have extreme poverty and lack effective social infrastructure.

The economic sustainability of the industry is strongly linked to the social sustainability of communities around the world.

In the highly volatile coffee market, producers and their families are incredibly vulnerable. Unstable coffee prices have a direct impact on access to education, housing, food, healthcare, and other basic necessities. The geographical isolation of many coffee farmers can place prohibitively high costs on practical things like buying tools or transporting a harvest. These things can become inaccessible when coffee prices fall.

One key area in need of improvement is gender inequality: female coffee farmers produce less than their male counterparts because they have far less access to resources. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nationd), if the playing field were made level, women could increase their farm yields by 20 to 30%.

Child labour is another social issue to consider: in some countries, children are widely used as cherry pickers on plantations.

The Rainforest Alliance believes that workers around the world should be paid enough money to provide a decent life for themselves and their families.


Environmental sustainability is perhaps the most pressing issue facing the world today.

Agriculture drives 80% of tropical deforestation and coffee farming requires huge amounts of resources.

Processing and the import-export side of coffee also have environmental impacts.

The effects of coffee wet milling on streams and drinking water is an issue in producing countries. Polluted processing water enters the local waterways and can cause disease or death in plants, animals, and humans.

Water Footprint Network reports that the global average water footprint of a 125 ml cup of coffee is 140 liters. With the global population estimated to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, food security and the environmental impacts of agriculture are more relevant than ever.

Further, farmers are facing new obstacles. Climate change is hitting coffee farmers particularly hard. Precipitation is more volatile, drought and flooding are both more widespread, and rising temperatures threaten coffee farmers, regardless of location.

Unpredictable climates can have a direct impact on crop quality. Heavy rains in an expected dry season can have a devastating impact on an entire crop and, in turn, dramatically reduce a farmer’s income.

Specialty coffee is particularly at risk due to climate change. Because higher-altitude coffees tend to be higher-quality coffees, rising temperatures will force farmers up the mountainside to seek out the cooler temperatures that speciality coffee needs. But as farmers move up the mountainsides, there is less and less land available for coffee.

In general, coffee farming has a negative impact on biodiversity, but some methods are more destructive than others. Coffee farms with shade trees are best for birds and other wildlife populations. But the overwhelming majority of coffee is produced on monoculture farms, which reduces biodiversity.

The World Economic Forum reports that intensive sun-grown coffee farms can have pollination and pest problems, which increases reliance on pesticides and further perpetuates ecological degradation.

Coffee consumers also have a role to play. Both disposable cups and single-use coffee capsules are difficult to recycle and create waste volume with every cup.

While the easy fixes of better packaging and energy efficiency are being addressed, it is the origin side of the business that really needs attention.


So what can we do to reduce our environmental impact and ensure the economic and social wellbeing of farming communities?

People, planet, and profit are interlinked.

We are confident that many of the environmental and social factors that coffee growers face could be addressed adequately if the economic factor was reasonably addressed.

As we learn what actually works and what does not, we are making strides with smarter sustainability programs.

It is possible to get much closer to sustainability. We simply need the courage to make it a priority that is part of and not separate from profit.

It is possible for the coffee industry to meet the triple bottom line. There are good examples of farmers from across the globe implementing good agricultural practices, protecting the environment, providing good working conditions for workers, and earning a decent income from the sale of their certified coffees.

One example of the work that the Rainforest Alliance is doing is with a group of communities that live around some of the last remaining wild coffee forests in the world. These are the forests where Arabica coffee originated, and they are threatened by conversion and deforestation. The Rainforest Alliance worked with these communities and other partners to provide training, technical assistance, and market access for these special coffees. As a result, the local communities are taking a soft touch on the environment, diversifying their income with honey and other crops, and ultimately gaining a better income from some of the most spectacular and important coffees in the world.

It may seem overwhelming to consider all of the effects of the coffee industry. It has huge impacts on communities around the world and the health of the planet.

But there is hope.


Actually we can do our bit every day. It’s simple as enjoying a coffee!

When you buy your coffee, consider its origin and farming method. Think about the most sustainable way to prepare it and consider whether you can support the projects of an organization that encourages sustainability.

How about starting with a doubly good coffee as Verdadero coffee?

Photo credit: thanks to NKG Bero Italia SpA

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