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The word “sustainability” is thrown around a lot and the understanding of what it is has changed somewhat over the years. But when we talk about sustainability in coffee we are really considering what is known as the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.

Sustainable development meets the needs of today without compromising future generations. Simply put, it is being responsible with the way we use resources to ensure our children and grandchildren have what they need to live comfortably.


Climate change and fair coffee prices are rightfully important topics today, but sustainability is not a new idea in the coffee world. As far back as the first international coffee agreement in 1962, there was discussion of how to limit the amount of excess on the market to ensure economic sustainability.

It can get overwhelming to consider sustainability in totality and the many ways that people, planet, and profit are interlinked. Let’s get some input from the experts.


Daniele Giovannucci – the president of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) said that the universal challenge for coffee farmers worldwide is simply to derive a living income from coffee.

“Without an economic foundation, it is difficult to conceive of thriving farming communities that can be the basis for a diversified and growing industry,” he says.

“There are visionary leaders who believe that sustainability is the basis of long-term profit and are running their firms that way. Yet, some of the large firms in coffee lack any vision except for the uninspiring one of maximizing their short-term profit.”


Environmental sustainability is perhaps the most pressing issue facing the world today. Agriculture drives 80% of tropical deforestation and coffee farming requires huge amounts of resources. Processing and the import-export side of coffee also have environmental impacts.

The effects of coffee wet milling on streams and drinking water is an issue in producing countries. Polluted processing water enters the local waterways and can cause disease or death in plants, animals, and humans. Water Footprint Network reports that the global average water footprint of a 125 ml cup of coffee is 140 liters. With the global population estimated to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, food security and the environmental impacts of agriculture are more relevant than ever.

Further, farmers are facing new problems. Climate change is hitting coffee farmers exponentialy hard. Precipitation is more volatile, drought and flooding are both more widespread, and rising temperatures threaten coffee farmers, regardless of location.”

Unpredictable climates can have a direct impact on crop quality. Heavy rains in an expected dry season can have a devastating impact on an entire crop and, in turn, dramatically reduce a farmer’s income.

Specialty Coffee is particularly at risk due to climate change. “Because higher-altitude coffees tend to be higher-quality coffees, rising temperatures will force farmers up the mountainside to seek out the cooler temperatures that speciality coffee needs. But as farmers move up the mountainsides, there is less and less land available for coffee.”

In general, coffee farming has a negative impact on biodiversity, but some methods are more destructive than others. Coffee farms with shade trees are best for birds and other wildlife populations. But the overwhelming majority of coffee is produced on monoculture farms, which reduces biodiversity.

The World Economic Forum reports that intensive sun-grown coffee farms can have pollination and pest problems, which increases reliance on pesticides and further perpetuates ecological degradation.

Coffee consumers also have a role to play. Both disposable cups and single-use coffee pods are difficult to recycle and create waste volume. There are some small actions toward more sustainable options, including the proposal of a latte levy and cornstarch pods that are commercially compostable.


Many of the environmental and social factors that coffee growers face could be addressed adequately if the economic factor was reasonably addressed.

As we learn what actually works and what does not, we are making strides with smarter sustainability programs. It is possible to get much closer to sustainability. We simply need the courage to make it a priority that is part of and not separate from profit.

It may seem overwhelming to take all of the effects of the coffee industry into consideration. It has huge effects on communities around the world and the health of Earth. But there is hope.

When you buy your coffee, consider its origin and farming method. Think about the most sustainable way to prepare it. And consider how you can support the projects of an organization that encourages sustainability.

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