Coffee may be the world’s most popular beverage and the fuel of countless Monday mornings.
But, aside from the obvious issue of the mountains of disposable cups going to landfill, (2.5 billion are used annually in the UK, but fewer than one in 400 are recycled) there’s problems surrounding our liquid saviour: namely, a lack of sustainable farming practices and ethical purchasing in the industry.
Studies have indicated that global demand for the crop has resulted in more intensive cultivation, which is bad news for biodiversity, while a 2017 report from Fairtrade America and social enterprise True Price revealed that coffee farmers in Kenya are operating at a net loss for their wares.
If you want to make your flat white fair, direct your pounds towards people working to support earth and people-friendly projects.
Yallah Coffee founder Richard Blake is one such sort, having set up his business in Falmouth, Cornwall four years ago. In 2014, the company formed a partnership with a co-op in Divinolândia, a district of São Paulo, Brazil. Here, Yallah buy beans direct – cherry picking the best produce and paying four times as much as other suppliers. “We believe that we have the most transparent way of trading coffee,” says Richard. “We buy what tastes best, and pay a much higher amount.”
Richard travels once a year to Brazil and once to Nicaragua where Yallah run a similar project. He believes that the key characteristic of these projects is a long-term, nurtured relationship with the farmers, and in turn their product and their livelihood.
“A big problem for coffee growers is that the guarantee of businesses coming back every year isn’t there. We do give that guarantee, we’ve been working with these guys in Brazil for two years and this year we’re planning to give them money before the crop as an even larger guarantee. Other roasters have started to do this, building that trusting relationship with their producers.”
The partnership element between producers and roasters is also key to Jeremy Torz at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. He formed Union with his partner Steven Macatonia back in 2001 after a trip to Guatemala. They found that the incredibly low prices of coffee at the time had had a devastating effect on the local communities.
“Small family farms had been repossessed, families couldn’t afford to do what their ancestors had done for generations. We thought this was crazy and wrong, and there had to be a better way,” he said. Sixteen years later, Union works with 40 different coffee producers in 13 different countries to “promote economic and social sustainability” through Union Direct Trade.
As a roaster, placing themselves between producer and consumer means that “we can get producers to share their interests and problems, throwing knowledge backwards and forwards so that better quality coffee can be produced for the consumer, and the producers are paid more for it.”
Last year, Union partnered with Kew’s Royal Botanic Garden, beginning with a trip to Ethiopia with Kew’s Head of Coffee Research Dr Aaron Davis. What started out as a research project into the effect of climate change on coffee production snowballed into a new Union coffee co-op.
Ethiopia has lost 70% of its forestry in the last century (additionally, a 2017 study found that up to 60% of farming land in the country, the world’s fifth largest coffee producing nation, could be lost by the end of the century, due to climate change) and Union have invested in the Yayu forest to help conserve the remaining land and help to protect the community living there. Coffee production is responsible for 70% of income for over 90% of the population.
“Coffee farming in these countries is cultural, not a business. Families don’t budget, so we spend afternoons with them going through ledgers and numbers. We want them to see that they have a stake in the coffee, focussing on governance and protecting them.”
Twenty-five pence from each pack of coffee funds this project, as well as cash granted by from the Darwin Initiative, a UK government grants scheme that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide. “It’s all about delivering a meaningful contribution. At Union we talk about everything with the farmers - price, how much of the money reaches the household level in the village, how good the co-op board is at making business decisions. We go for both financial and structural transparency.”
One way of choosing the most sustainable coffee is by picking a bag that’s from one co-op of farmers, rather than a blend of origins. If the coffee has come from one farm only, it is much more likely to have been selected for its unique flavours and the farmers producing it have a more direct and unique relationship with their buyers.
Richard is also keen to point out that there are other ways that you can drink coffee more sustainably. Use your coffee grinds as compost, so that the life force in coffee doesn’t end in the bin when you’ve finished your cup. Also, when you’re choosing your coffee, look at the packaging. Not just what they say about their sustainable policies, but whether the bag itself is biodegradable, as this isn’t as common as you may think and makes a big difference.
“A lot of coffee roasters don’t go biodegradable and compostable because it’s difficult and more expensive to do that and keep the coffee airtight,” he says.
Stick to the above and say sustainably strong, caffeinated warrior friends.