The Complicated Choices in a Cup of Coffee

The Complicated Choices in a Cup of Coffee

Coffee can be complicated, and I’m not even talking about the heated debates over cold-brew versus percolator. Finding a truly sustainable cuppa might be impossible, but coffee’s carbon emissions can vary by up to 77%. A little education about your coffee choices makes it easier to shop your values.

Coffee is made from the beans of a tropical tree that may be grown on small family farms or vast monoculture plantations. Your coffee beans pass from farmers to processors to traders to importers to roasters to retailers before finding their way into your kitchen. At every step of production there are cost, environmental, and ethical tradeoffs. For some, its easier to quit drinking coffee than to find a convenient, sustainable approach to coffee consumption.

Quitting Coffee

Quitting coffee might seem the most sustainable choice. But that might be misguided. Sixty percent of the world’s coffee is produced by 12.5 million smallholder farms that cultivate less than 12 acres and for whom coffee — a woody perennial that can be grown on slopes and even in shade — is one of the most sustainable crops available and who have few other options for income.


The Farm

Only five agricultural products contribute to deforestation more than coffee. More than 2.5 million acres of forest just in Central America have been cleared for coffee. Growing coffee in full sun increases production but requires more chemical inputs and much more water — about 142 liters (34.8 gallons) per serving.

A reliance among small farms on monocropping on previously forested mountainsides destroys habitat for birds and butterflies and increases erosion. Monocultures also increase the risk of crop disease and extinction. Eco-minded farmers can make sun-grown coffee more sustainable.

Coffee naturally grows in the shade of taller trees in high-elevation tropical forests. Some sun-grown coffee is certified organic but shade-grown coffee is a safer choice for sustainability because it requires less water.

The Farmer

Coffee produced on plantations in 17 countries may be utilizing child labor or forced labor. Some of that coffee may be finding its way into the cups of coffee brands known for ethical sourcing standards. But there is very little research to quantify the problem. Small farmers are also vulnerable. The retail price of a cup of coffee is about eight to 10 times what the farmer receives. Wholesale prices often drop below the farmers’ production cost.

Regardless of farm size, workers are often exposed to dangerous levels of agricultural chemicals, and gender inequality is a systemic problem.

Harvesting coffee beans

Numerous fair trade certifications exist to address these issues. But a better choice may be direct trade, where coffee roasters buy their beans directly from the growers. There is no direct trade standard, and the value of the term is already being questioned. But at its best, direct trade allows consumers to learn about the product directly from someone close to its production. Buying direct trade coffee is more work because it means tracking down a local roaster or coffee shop that buys beans directly from the farm. But it may avoid the confusion that comes with larger certification schemes.


There are three different fermentation methods for turning coffee cherries into coffee beans: wet, semi-washed, or dry. The amount of water used for processing is insignificant compared to the water used to grow the beans. But wet coffee processing plants are a major source of river pollution and even dry processors produce incredible amounts of waste. There are sustainable reuse strategies for this waste, including ecological restoration. But many certification systems only look at the farms where coffee is grown, and few farmers process their own beans.


Surprisingly, international transport of coffee is a relatively minor component of its carbon impact. But coffee is a commodity that can be resold multiple times. A greater number of links in the distribution chain drives down prices for farmers while also obscuring the ethical and environmental standards of production


Is there a perfect product? Different certifications prioritize different aspects of sustainability. Although none of them is perfect, all of them are meaningful.

Coffee Certifications

USDA Certified Organic

Organic certification ensures that coffee is grown and processed without the use of synthetic chemicals. USDA standards for coffee also include manufacturing and supply chain controls, but do not explicitly provide protections for farmers or regulate waste produced by farms and processors. Some dilution of the product is permitted.

USDA Organic logo

Rainforest Alliance

This certification forbids deforestation, encourages shade-farming, and guarantees farmers a “Sustainability Differential” payment. It allows dilution of the product with uncertified beans under some circumstances. After merging with UTZ in 2018, the Rainforest Alliance developed a certification standard that replaced the pass/fail model and out an emphasis on context and progress beyond simply achieving baseline requirements. Rainforest Alliance doesn’t automatically decertify farms when human rights abuses are detected.

Rainforest Alliance logo

Bird Friendly Coffee

The Smithsonian’s shade-grown certification includes and goes beyond organic farming standards, with specifications for canopy height and insect biodiversity. It does not allow any portion of uncertified coffee to be mixed into the product. This certification has the highest environmental standards, but it does not explicitly protect workers.

Bird-friendly coffee logo

Fair Trade USA

Fair Trade USA offers coffee farmers a guaranteed minimum price; since 2011, it has been $1.40/lb ($1.70/lb for certified organic). This may not be sufficient to keep farmers afloat. However, the last time coffee traded above this minimum was in 2017. The organization prohibits child and forced labor but admits no product certification system can provide a 100% guarantee. Consumers can trace Fair Trade coffee beans back to the source. Fair Trade USA was the American affiliate of Fair Trade International until 2011. Despite its flaws, it still provides value.

Fair Trade Certified and Fairtrade America logos

Fairtrade America

Fairtrade America launched as the American affiliate of Fair Trade International in 2013. It focuses on a handful of food products, including coffee. There is significant overlap between Fairtrade America’s standards and those of Fair Trade USA.

What You Control

A life cycle analysis of coffee found that how you drink your coffee can have a major impact on how sustainable it is.

Environmental Footprint of Coffee

Milk makes the latte the most carbon-intensive cup, while espresso has the lowest impact. Instant coffee is also a lower-carbon option, primarily because so little coffee is used per serving. The common practice of brewing a whole pot of coffee when only a few cups are needed, then leaving the warming plate on, is as wasteful as single-serve capsules. Ceramic mugs washed in a dishwasher outperform all single-use cups.

Even though laminate bags and vacuum-sealed “brick packs” are not recyclable, these two packaging types have the lowest impact, while the steel can, which is recyclable, performed worst. Coffee grounds can be composted or used in other ways to reduce waste.

Bottom Line

Harmful farming practices developed to produce the most coffee at the lowest price, so more sustainable options will always cost more.

If you can afford to maintain your current habits of drinking certified coffee, that’s great. But if certified coffee seems too expensive, try this: commit to spending your current coffee budget on certified or direct trade coffee. Instead of mindlessly guzzling a pot of coffee every day, take time to appreciate coffee as the luxury item it really is. Each morning, drink a single cup slowly, savoring the sweet taste of sustainability.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 5, 2021, and was updated in February 2024.


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