What Makes Coffee Sustainable?

Everyday People Coffee & Tea - April 16th 2020

What Makes Coffee Sustainable? 

Choosing a sustainably-sourced, high-quality coffee can have a major impact on the global ecosystem, but what makes a coffee sustainable? How do we know which coffees to buy to support our planet in the best way possible?

A sustainable farming practice is a cultivation method that benefits the earth and future generations. It supports the biodiversity and soil health of its environment, as well as the farmer’s community. The idea of sustainable coffee is not new, but because of the growing coffee crisis in Latin America in the 1990s, national coffee organizations around the world began to develop processes of cultivating coffee sustainably on a global scale. In fact, a 2016 report commissioned by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the Global Coffee Platform (GCP), and the Sustainable Coffee Challenge (SCC) stated that the coffee industry globally spent about $350 million on sustainability initiatives in regions that produce coffee in 2015. These sustainability measures are necessary for reversing the damage done by cultivating coffees in ways that destroy the environment.

In What Ways Is Coffee Cultivated?

Because the coffee cultivation process has been affected by changing market forces and the restructuring of land ownership in producing countries, there are many cultivation models that have been historically used by coffee farmers1. These models are:
Agro-forest or “rustic”, growing coffee bushes in a natural forest
Coffee garden, growing a variety of food crops in a natural forest
Commercial poly-culture, growing a variety of food crops under a canopy
Shade monoculture, growing coffee with few shade plants
Full sun monoculture, growing coffee with no shade trees3

Sustainable farming practices are built upon traditional farming methods used by smallholder farmers, like the agro-forest and the coffee garden models that incorporate shade trees into the coffee cultivation system2. However beginning in the 18th century, coffee production moved away from traditional practices to focus on maximizing productivity on large coffee plantations owned by colonial and local elites. The large plantation model that uses the full sun monoculture cultivation system has dominated from colonial periods until now.

New varieties of coffee were developed in 1972 to be grown on these plantations.These new varieties grew successfully in full sun conditions and increased yields for farmers. However, their production depended on harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Large tracts of land and forests were cleared to make room for these more productive coffee plants.

These full sun monoculture plantations degraded the environments by facilitating soil erosion and decreasing biodiversity - for example, it was found that there are 97% fewer bird species on full sun plantations. The natural forests that coffee would traditionally be grown in were also found to be necessary carbon sinks, therefore building these coffee cultivation systems eliminated many of these forests thus decreasing the amount of carbon stored. Furthermore, more nutrients are leached from the soil on these plantations.

Other than environmental degradation, full sun coffee plantations use more resources like water and harmful fertilizers. Other than some smallholder farmers who could not afford the chemicals, most exported coffee has historically been grown in this way. As consumers have started to demand more transparency of the coffee they drink and farmers have organized into groups that support more sustainable coffee production, the main cultivation model has started to diversify into systems that move away from monoculture production.

Growing Coffee Sustainably 

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash


Coffee organizations in producing countries are turning towards systematizing their traditional coffee production systems. Traditionally, coffee was primarily grown with shade trees, and this has been found to be more sustainable than cultivating in full sun. The tree network supports biodiversity - one way is through providing a habitat for birds that are predators for pests that may destroy the coffee plants. It’s estimated that one bird can save 23-65 pounds of coffee per hectare from pests in one year. Other than promoting biodiversity, shade trees prevent soil erosion through their extensive root network, provide nutrients from fallen litter, and decrease the amount of carbon in the air through fixation by plant tissues. These trees also regulate the microclimate that the coffee grows in, protecting the plants in the understory from extreme temperatures. There is also research that supports that trees can stop water loss from the ecosystem, allowing more water to be available to coffee plants in the understory and helping it survive through dry seasons.

As for coffee quality, though coffee grown with shade trees tends to yield less fruit, the fruit produced has a higher sugar and lipid content. The coffee in these lower light conditions grows larger and more evenly over a longer period of time, potentially leading to higher quality coffee that coffee buyers now pay a premium for. It is these premium prices that incentivize producers of all sizes to grow more sustainable coffee. Organizing into cooperatives, especially in Mexico, allows smallholder farmers to market their coffees and benefit from long term price incentives involved in organic and Fair Trade certifications3.

Some other tangential methods of sustainable coffee farming are reusing coffee husks as heating fuel or minimizing water consumption, such as reusing processing water for irrigation. A sustainable farming practice also includes standards to ensure good working conditions and fair wages for farmworkers and even additional programs that support the needs of the community, like education or health care support for the community.

What does “Fair Trade” and “organic” mean? 


Fair Trade Standards certify that the coffee is grown with sustainable practices and that the farmers are guaranteed at least a minimum price that pays for all their costs of production.

The organic certification ensures that there are no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers used in the cultivation of the beans. It certifies that the farmer’s practices emphasize soil health and environmental protection. For example in Chiapas, Mexico, organic farming practices can include terrace building for the coffee to prevent erosion or pruning the trees throughout the growing season to facilitate more plant growth2.

These certifications are useful for coffee consumers to know more about the processes the farmers use to grow the coffee. The sustainable coffee movement in producing countries, especially Mexico, have invested in developing more systemic organic practices through grassroots efforts and the development of autonomous coffee organizations4. It is their hope that through connecting farmers with the resources to grow coffee more sustainably, they are able to cultivate better coffee to support their communities.

Understanding the process and mechanism of how coffee has been carefully tended by people all across the world, we at Everyday People Coffee and Tea source sustainable, single origin coffees from farmers, ensuring that those farmers are also provided equitable wages to sustain a livelihood that depends on the coffee trade. We are deeply committed to sourcing quality beans to produce our premium coffees. Our coffee is roasted in a registered and approved FDA facility adhering to sustainable practices.

Let us know how your coffee journey is going at our Instagram @everydaypeople_coffee or our contact form!


Text References:
Trujillo, Laura, Coffee Production Strategies in a Changing Rural Landscape: A Case Study in Central Veracruz, MIT Press, 2008

Martinez-Torres, Maria Elena, The Benefits and Sustainability of Organic Farming by Peasant Coffee Farmers in Chiapas, Mexico, MIT Press, 2008

Bray, David; Plaza Sanchez, Jose Luis; and Contreras Murphy, Ellen, Social Dimensions of Organic Coffee Production in Mexico: Lessons for Eco-Labeling Initiatives, MIT Press, 2008

Bacon, Christopher M.; Mendez, V. Ernesto; and Fox, Jonathan A., Cultivating Sustainable Coffee: Persistent Paradoxes, MIT Press, 2008

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