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How Your Daily Cup of Coffee Can Create Change

With 400 million cups of joe poured every day, it’s obvious that we love coffee a latte. Here's how you can drink more sustainable coffee.

Written by
Brightly Staff

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the United States, with 63 percent of US adults drinking coffee on the regular. With 400 million cups of joe poured every day, it’s obvious that we love coffee a latte. But how can we drink more sustainable coffee?

We spend nearly 225 billion dollars on coffee beans each year. That means that if just one in four bags of coffee were ethically and sustainably produced, we could divert 56 billion dollars towards positive supply chains, reforestation, and more. 

International Coffee Day is September 29th, so now is the perfect time to think about how you can sip sustainably.

Where Does Coffee Come From? 

Most coffee comes from outside of the United States. Unsurprisingly, Brazil is the biggest exporter, producing 22,000 60-kilo bags of coffee beans each year. They out-export the other 20 or so coffee-exporting countries by at least four times.

Coffee bushes thrive in subtropical and equatorial regions of the world. That’s why countries like Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala are known for their coffee. Countries like Indonesia, Ethiopia, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam also produce and export coffee.

Preparing Beans for Brewing

The beans we brew are actually the seeds of coffee cherries. These bright, sour fruits aren’t very tasty on their own, but the seeds go through a long, labor-intensive process to become the coffee in your cup. 

Coffee cherries are harvested by hand or by machine, depending on each farm’s preferences and the desired coffee quality. Ripe cherries produce the best beans, so specialty coffees are often hand-picked to ensure only the ripest fruit is included. 

Next, the cherries go through a milling process. This process removes any unnecessary parts of the coffee cherry, such as the pulp, outer skin, and the husk surrounding the bean. Beans are then graded & sorted before exportation to other countries. Lastly, coffee is graded, roasted, and sold.

There are four types of coffee beans: Arabic, Robusta, Liberica, and Exelcelsa. 

If you’ve ever had a cup of Starbucks coffee, you’ve tried the most popular of these beans. Starbucks uses 100% Arabica beans, making it the most common in the United States. These beans are sweeter than the others, with a delicate flavor and less acidity overall. 

Robusta, which is the second most popular bean type, has a harsher flavor and more caffeine. It’s also easier to grow in more diverse climates like those in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. 

Lastly, Liberica and Exelcelsa are rarer bean types, usually reserved for specialty coffee productions or to add a more rounded flavor to Arabica brews. These are grown almost exclusively in Southeast Asia.

How COVID Has Affected The Coffee Trade

Regardless of how popular coffee is, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a  coffee-pricing crisis. 

When COVID first started spreading, many people stockpiled coffee in anticipation of lockdowns, causing coffee prices to rise. Then, as coffee shops around the world closed their doors, coffee prices plummeted to below the cost of production. 

Coffee farms are also experiencing labor shortages as workers stay safe at home. Coupled with the lower demand, it is difficult for coffee producers to predict how much coffee they should produce, what their beans will sell for, and what expenses they can cover. 

Sustainable Coffee Certifications to Look For

There are many different certifications to look for when buying coffee, and they all have sustainable benefits! 

Fair Trade USA

Fair Trade USA’s certification means that the coffee you drink was purchased at or above the minimum base price. The base price means that coffee producers can predict their expenses and profits. Producers with the Fair Trade certification also receive extra funds to reinvest in their worker communities. 

Fair Trade isn’t perfect, of course. There are some criticisms of the base price being too low, especially for high-quality coffee. And Fair Trade USA requires stringent business records produced in English. These are a massive hurdle for coffee producers who have little to no English proficiency. 

Organic Certified

This certification focuses on disrupting the soil as little as possible during the growing process. The coffee bushes and harvesting baskets are free from synthetic agrochemicals. Organic certified farmers must also reduce water pollution and recycle waste. 

Bird-Friendly Certified

Bird-friendly coffee is shade-grown. This reduces deforestation and maintains rainforest habitats for migratory birds. Shade-grown coffee also tastes better because the coffee cherries have more time to mature. The beans develop more natural sugars and a better flavor with more growing time. 

Bird-friendly coffee is also inherently organic, which means you get two certifications for one with this label. 

Sustainable Coffee Brands We Love & Recommend

  • Level Ground Coffee: With a Fair Trade certification and their farmers’ faces right on the package, it’s easy to feel connected to the people who produce Level Ground’s coffee and feel good about the price they were paid for their hard work. Liza is a big fan of Level Ground. 
  • Ampersand Coffee: This coffee brand is Bird-Friendly Certified, Fair Trade Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified, and partners with Cafe Femenino and the International Women’s Coffee Alliance.
  • Birds & Beans: This brand is also Bird-Friendly Certified, Certified Organic, and Fair Trade Certified. Laura loves the taste of their coffee!
  • Honorable mention—Starbucks: Even though Starbucks doesn’t hold any of the above certifications, 99% of their coffee is ethically-sourced (independently-verified by Conservation International)

Five Easy Ways to Sip Coffee Sustainably

  • Ask your barista about the source of your coffee and if it has any certifications.
  • Avoid single-use straws when drinking iced coffee.
  • Invest in a (used!) espresso machine, coffee maker, or milk frother so you can make excellent, sustainable coffee at home. 
  • Buy Fair Trade, Bird-Friendly, or Organic Certified coffee. 
  • Check to ensure that your Nespresso or Keurig pods are recyclable, or buy a reusable pod to fill with your own coffee.