Coffee Drinkers Have The Power To Make The Habit More Sustainable

Ecolabels are a means of providing environmental and social assurance of how a product is made
TARIK KIZILKAYA via Getty Images

We’ve all seen the posters: “Today I will conquer the world. But first, coffee”.

Our societal love of coffee and the associated power boost it gives drinkers is unprecedented these days, from T-shirts, mugs, and memes boasting everything from “Sorry for everything I said before coffee” to “First coffee, then workee.” And though the debate often goes back and forth on how much coffee (caffeine) is actually good for your health – a study in 2018 released by the British Medical Journal determined that 3-4 cups per day can decrease chance of stroke and heart disease among other benefits – coffee drinkers worldwide will concur that it’s absolutely imperative to their productivity.

So what’s the extent of coffee drinkers’ power? Arguably, it’s the ability to change the world. Nearly 75% of the world’s coffee farms destroy forest habitat to grow coffee in the sun, and these plantations will typically use pesticides and fertilisers that poison the environment and contaminate the water supply. Sometimes the creation of these plantations, owned by multinational corporations, will oust indigenous and local communities from their own land. The environmental degradation and social injustices that can be associated with our global coffee addiction are vast, which is precisely why coffee drinkers have such power to influence how this beloved brew is harvested.

Ecolabels are a means of providing environmental and social assurance of how a product is made. They are typically voluntary certifications for products, which means the more that consumers demand products with ecolabels, the more prominent and effective they will become. Coffee drinkers might be familiar with some ecolabels like the Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade Foundation. But there’s also USDA Organic (found in the States) and partners to the ISEAL Alliance, which some of the aforementioned certifications are members of. There’s also the science-backed Smithsonian Certified Bird-Friendly ecolabel. As global awareness of sustainability and eco-friendliness is increasing, and the desire to make good choices for future generations fuels decision-making, distinguishing among so many certifications can be overwhelming. So here’s a breakdown:

ISEAL Alliance – A voluntary program for organisations, businesses, and governments using certification to strengthen sustainability standards for the benefit of people and the environment. If you’ve found a new kind of certification and you’d like to know if it’s credible, it might be a member here. Because the program is voluntary, not all certifications will be members.

Fairtrade International – This seal certifies that the supply chain of your goods are free of child labour, forced labour, GMOs, and encourage environmentally-friendly production (but do not require it). The standard does however require “improved working conditions, better prices and wages for farmers and workers, and more transparent trade practices,” including sustainable production and farming.

USDA Organic – Products with this label are at least 95% organic, contain zero GMOs, and include ingredients that comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, whether they are organic or not.

Smithsonian Bird Friendly – Bird friendly coffee is made on farms that maintain critical bird habitat, as opposed to deforesting regions to create sun plantations. With a combination of foliage cover, tree height and diversity, birds and other wildlife may continue to live and thrive in their natural habitat – a habitat that sequesters carbon and fights climate change. Coffee bearing this certification is 100% organic and shade grown. In addition, researchers from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center continually investigate new ways that farmers can maintain productive farms.

Rainforest Alliance – This prominent ecolabel boasts a commitment to preserving biodiversity and community development in regions where coffee beans are harvested. Buying products with the Rainforest Alliance label also assures buyers that workers’ rights and productive agricultural practices are integrated into the process as part of sustainable farm management.

With an estimated 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed daily, coffee drinkers have a unique power; a purchasing power that can sustain livelihoods, protect wildlife, even mitigate climate change. While not all ecolabels are equal in what they represent, they do offer insight into the impact our consumption can have on farmers across the globe, on migrating bird species that frequent our backyards in summertime, on wildlife habitat home to thousands of unique species, on water supply to millions of homes, and much more.

Coffee might be the powerful daily fuel craved by millions to boost energy and productivity, but it’s the coffee drinkers themselves with the real power.

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