The Price of Coffee - by Writer Kitty Flynn

Is the environmental cost of coffee really that bad?

Over the past one hundred years coffee has become a staple of life[1]. Now, it is the second biggest export within developing countries (after oil). And for many, it is hard to begin a day without one. In fact, the global yearly intake of coffee is 400 billion cups - a number which is expected to triple by 2050. Thanks to big brands and suppliers, Costa Coffee and Starbucks and Nescafe, this increasing need is met. And yet - is there an impact of this consumption? How does this affect the environment and producers?

There is an environmental impact of consumerism. The very act of buying coffee has an environmental footprint, with packaging and dairy milk all adding to the total carbon footprint we each emit. There is no doubt in the need for sustainable coffee production, with studies showing that an environmentally friendly coffee has a carbon footprint 77% lower than a regular cup of coffee[2]. And not only that, it is also shown that more environmentally friendly coffee is hugely better for the developing countries that produce it.


One major example of this eco-friendly production is the emergence of Voluntary Environmental Certifications (VECs). It is the VECs’ job to ensure not only the economic performance of manufacturers (creating profits and higher incomes for people in developing countries) but also the environmental sustainability[3]. Think of it as an alternative to FairTrade production. In manufacturing countries such as Costa Rica, VECs have improved the environment by eliminating agrochemicals, increasing biodiversity and decreasing carbon emissions. This has been incredibly successful, to the point of reaching carbon neutrality[4].


Then there is the concern of sustainable production being unattractive to the regular coffee buyer, in a term reflected through the “attitude-behaviour gap”[5], meaning people would rather spend less money on less eco-friendly coffees.

However this trend of ignoring sustainability is on the way out[6]. It is beginning to be seen that coffee lovers within the EU and USA are willing to pay for environmentally sustainable coffee. And as well as this, major brands are now responding to the demand for sustainable production - with Starbucks announcing an impressive 99% ethically sourced production.

The role of major brands themselves are incredibly important, as the more big brands embrace sustainability, the more people are willing to buy into it. There is no doubt that this “green trend” will come into the mainstream.


So what to do? Well, non-dairy coffee that is made sustainably is the best for the environment. These are, in particular, coffees that are bought from a shop, or online. Coffee brands to keep an eye out for are ones with Rainforest Alliance Certifications or Fair Trade Certifications. And as of 2022, there is already a huge decrease in the environmental impact of coffee, a trend which is only promising to increase.

[1] DRWakefield., 2013., A history of coffee in Britain., https://drwakefield.com/news-and-views/a-history-of-coffee-in-britain/ [2] Nab, Carmen., Maslin, Mark., 2020., Life cycle assessment synthesis of the carbon footprint of Arabica coffee: Case study of Brazil and Vietnam conventional and sustainable coffee production and export to the United Kingdom., https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/geo2.96 [3] Valenciano-Salazar, Jorge., Andre, Francisco., Solino, Mario., Paying for Sustainable Coffee in a Developing Country: Consumer’s Profile in Costa Rica., https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/13/16/9360/htm#B33-sustainability-13-09360 [4] Andre, Francisco., Valenciano-Salazar, Jorge., 2020., Becoming Carbon Neutral in Costa Rica to Be More Sustainable: An AHP Approach., https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/12/2/737/htm#sec4-sustainability-12-00737 [5] Pelsmacker, Patrick., Driesen, Liesbeth., Rayp, Glenn., 2005., Do Consumers Care about Ethics? Willingness to Pay for Fair-Trade Coffee., https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1745-6606.2005.00019.x [6] Gallenti, Gianluigi., Troiano, Stefania., Cosmina, Marta., Marangon, Francesco., 2016., Ethical and Sustainable Consumption in the Italian coffee market: a choice experiment to analyse consumers’ willingness to pay., Italian Review of Agricultural Economics, https://scholar.google.com/scholar_lookup?title=Ethical+and+sustainable+consumption+in+the+Italian+coffee+market:+A+choice+experiment+to+analyse+consumers%E2%80%99+willingness+to+pay&author=Gallenti,+G.&author=Troiano,+S.&author=Cosmina,+M.&author=Marangon,+F.&publication_year=2016&journal=Riv.+Econ.+Agrar.&volume=71&pages=153%E2%80%93176&doi=10.13128/REA-20077

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