Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after oil. Coffee is everywhere, cafes, sandwich shops, restaurants, bars, supermarkets and specialist outlets. Millions of us drink coffee everyday but few stop to wonder what environmental impact it has, how it was made and if any of the huge profits from coffee sales filter down to the people actually growing the beans.
Did you know, for example, that according to a report in the Guardian third world coffee farmers typically receive just 10 per cent of the eventual retail price? Or that most coffee growing regions exist alongside some of the most vulnerable ecosystems on earth?
The main source of environmental damage caused by coffee consumption is in growing the actual coffee beans. As demand for coffee has grown, more economically efficient but environmentally damaging agricultural methods have sprung up. The more recent sun grown coffee method in particular involves growing coffee beans on plantations with fertilisers. An estimated 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America alone has been cleared to make way for such coffee growing plantations. There is thus a strong connection between traditionally grown coffee beans and deforestation.
Then there is the connection between coffee growing and water consumption. Otherwise known as embedded water. That is, the total amount of water needed to grow the ingredients and operate all the processes necessary to create the cup of coffee. It actually takes a staggering 246 pints of embedded water to make one cup of coffee.
But it is not all bad news. Fair trade coffee is becoming more popular with millions of cups now being consumed every day according to the Fair Trade Foundation. Though still in a minority, newer ethical brands are gaining ground.
Fair trade coffee helps to reduce poverty through trade by offering a structured minimum price and premium guarantee for producers. Fair trade also cuts out the middleman, which gives farmer cooperatives the chance to deal directly with the retailers and ensure that coffee is bought at a price commensurate with the cost of production. The extra proceeds received by farmers then go towards investment in social and business development projects such as scholarship programmes, healthcare services and quality improvement training.
However, whilst fair trade coffee is ethically produced with respect to remunerating the producers it does not necessarily mean that it is eco friendly. For this reason, the Rainforest Alliance focuses more heavily on environmental concerns with the aim of conserving biodiversity and ensuring sustainability. For example, it forbids deforestation and will not certify farms where there is evidence of such deforestation.
Sadly, there are still some well know coffee brands who have not signed up to fair trade or eco friendly methods of production. Next time you put the kettle on or call into a coffee shop, look out for the labels telling you how green your cup of coffee really is.