Not many of us can imagine starting our day without that glorious cup of coffee! We love our cups of Joe dearly and not visiting our favourite coffee shops, whether to get together with our squad or just to get some work done on the laptop, is unthinkable. Whether you’ve got a French Press or a Moka Pot — if you’re a coffee-lover, you’ve probably taken to brewing at home. The British Coffee Association’s study shows that the world consumes around two billion coffee cups every day. Well, you get the drift; coffee is irresistible! No wonder it is the world’s second-most tradable asset after oil. But is it sustainable?
As per Water Footprint Network’s report, in the Netherlands alone, it takes about 140 litres of water to produce a cup of coffee, and most of it goes into growing the coffee plant itself. Water consumption depends on the regions where coffee grows, but no matter where it grows — coffee processing plants discharge waste that contaminate water bodies around the factories. Another report by Sustainable Business Toolkit shows that in six months in Central America, around 547,000 tons of coffee caused 1.1 million tons of pulp and polluted
110,00 cubic meters of water every day. Coffee Habitat also states that the global coffee market has only 8 per cent of certified sustainable coffee. But when we talk about the connection between coffee and sustainability, it’s not confined to the environment. Globally, several coffee farmers don’t even earn fair profits.
What Makes Coffee Unsustainable?
Once upon a time, coffee farming was predominantly shade-grown, and coffee plantations co-existed with diverse plants. The spike in demand for coffee has changed things in the industry; coffee farmers often resort to deforestation and choose areas where sun exposure is at an optimum. While shade-grown coffee promotes biodiversity, sun-grown coffee uses vast stretches of land, and in some cases, they require pesticides and chemical laden fertilisers. Often, farmers resort to single-crop agriculture. This degradation of soil, over-use of resources, loss of habitat for the local biodiversity and short-term profits overriding long term ecological concerns have been making coffee unsustainable.
What About the Consumers?
The act of picking up coffee in takeout cups seems innocuous enough, but do you know over a billion takeout cups end up in landfills every year?
Our disposable coffee cups are usually made from Styrofoam, and most coffee shops prefer this as it’s inexpensive. But here’s the thing — Styrofoam is a polystyrene product, which uses plastics, synthetic resins, and polyesters, and it takes more than a million years to decompose in a landfill. A shuddering fact that almost made you look twice at your cuppa, isn’t it?
Coffee shop chains are beginning to shift to recyclable or biodegradable coffee cups. And
we consumers can take things in our hands too — by carrying our own reusable takeout cup
whenever picking up coffee.
The Impact on Coffee Farmers and Workers
Coffee is ruling the world, but the coffee farmers and workers are suffering. From low profits to human trafficking — coffee production is problematic. International Institute of Sustainable Development’s global market report on coffee states that about 90 per cent of coffee is exported from developing nations such as Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam, Colombia. Child labour and trafficking are rampant; here is a startling figure, around 34,131 children work at coffee farms in Vietnam alone, with 12,526 kids under 15, as per the Bureau of International Labor Affairs.
According to No Child for Sale, coffee farmers make only 7-10 per cent of their coffee’s supermarket price, leading to low wages and unhygienic working conditions for their employees. Besides, in developing countries, this workforce is often subjected to punishing working hours. Most coffee brands source their coffee from these locations or farmers, and when we shop from those brands, we are complicit in the exploitative process too. And this is why supporting single-origin or specialty coffee by conscious and responsible brands is the way to go. But more on this later.
Even animals aren’t spared! Some coffee connoisseurs swear by the Indonesian speciality, Kopi Luwak (also known as civet coffee), which is the most expensive coffee globally. In India, a cup of Kopi Luwak sets you back by INR 2,500-3,000, and it is produced from civets’ faeces. After consuming coffee beans, they excrete coffee beans as they cannot digest them.
With a sharp increase in demand, civets are now caged and forced to eat these coffee beans. Forget wandering in the wild; they barely have access to clean water and have to endure living in unhygienic cages filled with their faeces and urine. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a drastic fall in the quality of Kopi Luwak. When civets roam in the wild in their free will, they pick high-quality coffee. But when the civets are force-fed, everything changes including the coffee quality. Because that’s just how nature works!
What Can We Do?
Several Indian coffee shops promote single-origin coffee and work with coffee farmers to provide a farm-to-table coffee experience. Indian coffee farmers have been largely sustainable in their farming practices; they cultivate coffee in the shade — Economic Times reports that 98 per cent of coffee in the Western Ghats are shade-grown crops. Indian coffee farmers have also been promoting organic and fair-trade coffee, which means transparency is the key to their operations.
You might have often come across coffee aficionados supporting single-origin coffee because, unlike mass-market coffee, this coffee comes from small farms where farmers earn fair prices. Their sustainable cultivation involves producing in small batches, which promotes biodiversity while also offering quality coffee.
You might have often come across coffee aficionados supporting single-origin coffee because, unlike mass-market coffee, this coffee comes from small farms where farmers earn fair prices.
As a consumer, ask your local coffee shops how and where they are sourcing their coffee from. Look out for certifications like Fairtrade, that are an assurance of fair wages and environmentally sustainable practices by the brand. Alternatively, you can also visit those cafes or baristas who brew homegrown coffee, such as Tribe-O Project, Black Baza, or Blue Tokai. For those brewing at home, you can grab your coffee online from Marc’s Coffees or Something’s Brewing Store. They curate coffee from diverse Indian coffee estates, and you can pick based on your roast preference.
Carry your reusable cups for coffee take-outs, and you’re already making a difference. And extra points for you if you are composting the used coffee beans or using it in your beauty regimen! You don’t have to sacrifice sipping on your morning elixir; all you’ve got to do is support the ecosystem that provides you that cup of joy.