Prices to farmers, pesticides and deforestation are all things that affect whether coffee is sustainable.

A guide to sustainable coffee

From direct sourcing to shade-grown, here are the labels and brands to look out for in choosing ethical, sustainable coffee.

What do you look for in a great cup of coffee? Flavour comes first, and how much it costs, but what about sustainability?

According to the Fairtrade Foundation, around 125 million people worldwide depend on coffee for their livelihoods in some way. As the world’s second most traded commodity after petrol, it generates an annual income of $200 billion, but almost 80 per cent of coffee is produced by smallholder farmers, who are the most vulnerable part of the supply chain.

On average no more than 10 per cent of the income generated remains in the countries of origin, with most of the profits being made in the countries where the beans are roasted, sold and consumed.

The structure of the industry – where growers bear the brunt of volatile market prices and can’t reap the rewards of the added value in getting beans to market themselves – means that our purchasing power really does make a huge difference to farmers.

Although we may think the coffee trade has cleaned up its act, Ethical Consumer points out that modern slavery, child labour, pesticide use and deforestation are still happening extensively – including in the coffee supply chains of some multinationals. But there are alternatives which are better for both people and planet – here are ways your spending power can make a difference:

Choose Fairtrade and organic

Fairtrade is a social justice organisation that guarantees farmers a minimum price for coffee, and acts as a safety net for co-operatives when the market price falls. On top of that, they earn a Fairtrade Premium (extra sum of money) to spend on community, business and sustainability projects.

Eleanor Deans, partnership manager at Fairtrade Foundation, explains: “Farmers have told us that climate change is the biggest threat to their livelihoods. Made more vulnerable by the climate crisis, people in low-income countries often prioritise their essential needs first (food, shelter, medicine). However, with the higher incomes they receive through Fairtrade, farmers and workers can afford to invest in their environment.”

Millions of people depend upon coffee for their livelihoods.

Over 80 per cent of Fairtrade coffee is also organic, which means it is free from synthetic pesticides: better for biodiversity, workers’ health and yours. With consumer trends shifting toward more eco-friendly products, the global demand for organic coffee is set to double by 2026, but organic certification alone doesn’t guarantee the rights of workers or set a minimum price.

An affordable way to choose more ethical coffee, CafeDirect is a widely available Fairtrade brand and certified B-Corp, which invests 50 per cent of its profit into a charity that works directly with farmers.

Buy from ethical independents

Whether enjoying coffee at home or out and about, independents often support direct trade – where farmers and roasters work together, enabling farmers to receive more of the profits.  

Cornish independent Yallah Coffee has a direct relationship with family-run co-operatives in Brazil and Nicaragua, and in addition to paying premiums, takes a circular approach to all aspects of the carbon footprint created by coffee production.

“Paying decent prices for coffee and incentivising farmers to grow for quality – this leads to higher quality coffee and a more profitable businesses for the producers,” says founder Richard Blake. “This is how we buy coffee – we’re searching for quality and being very transparent with how much we pay for it. Mainstream coffee is the opposite of this – big blends of commodity-grade coffee with no traceability or financial transparency.” 

Coffee was originally suited to shade but has been bred to grow in broad sunlight.

Part of a movement reviving cargo by sail as a climate-friendly alternative to modern day shipping, Yallah also has an innovative approach to food waste, using the waste product from roasting coffee (chaff) as fuel for its biomass boiler.

Surrey-based Chimney Fire Coffee, recently awarded B Corp sustainability accreditation, says it pays farmers on average 90 per cent over Fairtrade base rates for their coffee, plus a percentage of sales is donated to Re-Cycle, a charity that refurbishes bikes in the UK and sends them to rural communities in Africa.

Look for shade-grown and bird-friendly

How your coffee is grown may come as a surprise – shade-loving coffee plants thrive in a forest environment, but monocultures have been made possible since new varieties were developed in the 1970s to withstand direct sun. Most coffee now is ‘sun-grown’ to provide higher yields, but this is connected to deforestation, soil erosion and vastly reduced biodiversity.

Buying sustainable coffee can support farming that is more resilient to climate change.

Bird & Wild, which grows Fairtrade organic bird-friendly and shade-grown coffee, states that 184 bird species were found on a single shade-grown coffee farm in Mexico, compared with as few as six bird species in unshaded coffee monocultures, while another shade-grown pioneer, Easy Jose, buys directly from indigenous communities in the Peruvian rainforest to ensure they can grow coffee within forest ecosystems and avoid pressure to clear the land.

Shade-grown is not a legally binding term, but if certified bird-friendly by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre (SMBC), producers must meet organic standards plus maintain the forest cover that provides habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Rainforest Alliance – a start, but not enough

Climate change will make some areas unsuitable for coffee growing, meaning deforestation is a huge concern going forward as new plantations are created to meet demand. The Rainforest Alliance certification means good ecological standards plus protection against child labour, but they do not have any current rules regarding fair wages.

As little as 30 per cent of the coffee in a bag can be grown under Rainforest Alliance criteria and the coffee can still carry that label – which is probably why this is one of the most common certifications for multinationals to use.  

The bottom line?

A little research goes a long way. No one certification covers everything, but some excellent brands use a combination of certification plus their own initiatives to cover all the bases. If you find a brand you trust and love, they can be your go-to – and you’ll be supporting positive action with every cup you brew.


Leave a Reply

  1. The corollary to that last paragraph is that by buying non-certified or non-organic, you are supporting the modern slavery, child labour, pesticide use and deforestation in the coffee supply chains of the multinationals, which is not most people like to think they do.

    1. From food to fashion, there are so many ‘out of sight, out of mind’ areas of trade that support the most terrible practices environmentally and socially. We can support businesses that are a force for good in the world and use our spending power to help both people and planet.


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