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What on Earth is ‘sustainable’ coffee?

© Starbucks

Editor’s note:From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” from “landscape approach” to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s Human Nature blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “ What on Earth?”

This post was updated on September 17, 2020.

In this installment we break down “sustainable coffee,” a term you may have heard before, but might not be able to explain. We’re here to tell you what it means and why it’s important.

So, what is ‘sustainable coffee’?

Defined generally, it’s coffee that is grown in a way that conserves nature and provides better livelihoods for the people who grow and process it.

Wait: Can coffee be grown in a way that doesn’t conserve nature?

It can. Coffee is grown almost only in the tropics, in places that are home to most of the world’s remaining tropical forests. When farmers want to expand their coffee plantations, the easiest thing for them to do is to cut down some of the surrounding forest. Moreover, coffee is often grown on steep slopes; if care is not taken, it can lead to erosion and sedimentation of waterways. Processing coffee is also water-intensive, and the wastewater can contaminate rivers and streams. Taken together, these practices quickly become unsustainable.

Got it. But about the other part: What do livelihoods have to do with it?

Some 120 million people rely on coffee for their livelihoods, the majority of them small-scale farmers and farm workers. As in any other sector, coffee buyers want to buy low and sell high — but in increasingly volatile markets, this does not always work in the favor of farmers and farm workers and can lead to exploitation of workers to maintain artificially low prices. Meeting these low prices can compel farmers to clear more forests, use low-quality pesticides and rely on cheap labor — child labor, in some cases — to make a profit.

That’s bad. I like inexpensive coffee, though.

We all do — but we’re all going to pay a much steeper price if things don’t change soon.

What do you mean?

Coffee is already the most widely traded tropical agricultural commodity, and demand for it is rising in places such as China and India that have traditionally favored tea. This rising demand could encourage expansion of coffee production into new areas, leading to more deforestation. Given that clearing natural forests releases the carbon stored in the trees into the atmosphere, unsustainable coffee expansion is literally contributing to climate change. Coffee will, in turn, suffer from the effects of climate change, as will the communities that depend on the other services that those forests provide.

Coffee will suffer from climate change? How?

As climate change alters temperatures and rainfall patterns, the areas that were once suitable for growing coffee — which requires a specific kind of climate — won’t be suitable anymore. This is already starting to cause problems in coffee-growing areas such as Mexico, where some farmers are switching to other crops that are less susceptible to the effects of climate change (and less subject to price swings caused by market volatility). This reduces the supply of coffee, which means that in the long run, prices will go up. We could even see coffee shortages in the future.

Now you’ve got my attention. How soon is ‘the future,’ and what will happen?

Hard to say. Since a coffee tree produces for 20 to 30 years, the impact of climate change might cause producers to prematurely abandon existing farms, disrupting supply chains or destabilizing the long-term economic return that underpins the entire system.

Abandon their farms? Isn’t there anything else farmers can do?

Coffee producers have limited options. They can move their coffee farms into higher altitudes that are becoming more suitable for coffee production — the weather is a bit cooler on average the higher you go. They can convert coffee crops that were formerly grown in lower altitudes to an alternative crop such as cocoa. Or they can try to stick it out and ward off pests, high temperatures and variable rainfall by doubling down on good agricultural practices and improved farm management, including the replacing of old, diseased coffee trees with improved, disease-resistant varieties.

Is anybody helping them?

You’ll be happy to know that many companies, governments and civil society organization are already doing something. But there is a sense of urgency to do more. One of the big efforts right now is called the Sustainable Coffee Challenge. It’s a major new initiative to make coffee the world’s first completely sustainable agricultural product by uniting all the players in the coffee sector — growers, traders, roasters and retailers — to stimulate greater demand for (and spark bigger investments in) sustainable coffee.

Further reading:

Sounds really ambitious. How do you actually get to total sustainability?

Glad you asked. It’s going to take hard work and collaboration to create greater demand for sustainability — to the extent that there is no longer a choice between buying a sustainable cup of coffee and a non-sustainable cup. But we’ve shown that something can be done: For over 20 years, Conservation International has been working with Starbucks to make ethical sourcing the norm for their supply chain. Today, 99 percent of their coffee is sourced through a verified sustainability standard that continues to promote improved performance over time.

According to one expert, this achievement set the stage: “Reaching this milestone led us to collectively challenge ourselves to think bigger about how to transition the entire coffee sector to sustainable production and launch the Sustainable Coffee Challenge,” says Bambi Semroc, a senior strategic adviser at Conservation International.

So how is the Challenge going?

Since its launch in December 2015, the Sustainable Coffee Challenge has grown to more than 155 partners, including the governments of Rwanda and Mexico.

“From Starbucks, who are planting a coffee tree for every bag of coffee purchased, and Farmer Brothers, who have committed to 100 percent sustainably sourcing by 2025, to the governments of Rwanda and Mexico, who are improving farm productivity, providing access to credit programs and improving the capacity and skills of the producers — all of these efforts are adding up to make a big impact,” Semroc says.

In 2016, another new partner joined the Challenge: McDonald’s. The company has announced its plans to buy all of its coffee from sustainable sources by 2020, and as such, they’ve developed a sourcing framework with CI and the Sustainable Coffee Challenge to meet that goal. Given the size and scale of McDonald’s business and their incredible global brand recognition, their actions will have a tremendous influence on the entire coffee sector. They’re not only sharing their journey with the world, but are also educating their billions of customers on why sustainability matters. The ripple effect McDonald’s is helping to create will be critical in making a real change. In fact, many other major companies and organizations are following in McDonald's footsteps by joining the challenge, such as the National Coffee Association, Target and Dunkin’.

That’s great — but what can I do?

Pay attention: Read labels before you buy, and buy carefully. Find out how your favorite coffee shops and retailers are committed to sustainability. Go to to find out more about the members of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge and to help support their efforts.

Bruno Vander Velde is Conservation International’s senior communications director.

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