How sustainable is your morning coffee? 3 Tips to Reduce its Impact

Coffee is cultivated in over 70 countries around the globe and it is considered one of the world's most valuable agricultural commodities.  In the United States alone, the coffee industry is valued at an estimated $30 billion.  But the question for both producers and consumers is:  how sustainable is coffee?

How sustainable is your morning coffee? 3 Tips to Reduce its Impact

Coffee is a resource-intensive crop, and the effects of climate change are creating important disruptions in its production and trade. Irregular rainfall and rising temperatures have created less favorable conditions for coffee production. Our region in particular has already begun to see the negative outcomes as Central American countries have lost up to 30% of their production capabilities.  Brazil, the top coffee exporter in the world and responsible for 40% of global coffee supply, is facing severe droughts in the the states with the largest coffee production, such as Minas Gerais.

Water is needed in several stages of coffee production.  It is estimated that a single cup of espresso needs about 140 liters of water to get it from the plantation to your breakfast table.

This raises the question: how to engage in a more sustainable pattern of consumption? We all know that the most obvious response is consuming less; however, considering that global consumption is expected to increase by 25% in the next five years, our next best choice is to find solutions that will decrease the environmental footprint of our intake.

Here are three important consumer choices to consider:

1.       Only certified/verified coffee:

There are a myriad of certification schemes for coffee and consumer choices are made harder by the fact that all of them have a slightly different focus. Which label you feel most comfortable with will ultimately depend on whether you care more for quality, environmental or social aspects, or some combination of all of these.

The good news is that major coffee roasters are sourcing from a variety of certified producers and fortunately, Latin America leads the way in certified coffee exports, supplying about two-thirds of certified coffee globally. Any certification scheme ultimately leads to higher transparency in the supply chain, which is good for producers and consumers, so the confusing variety of labels shouldn’t be an excuse not to buy certified coffee.

2.       Reuse/ Recycle:

Recycling plays a crucial role regarding sustainable intake because it’s embedded in many aspects of our consumption--from what to do with disposable lids and cups and residual coffee grounds to the increasing use of aluminum in our coffee pods.

As consumers, we tend to favor convenience.  Using our favorite coffee mug instead of disposable cups, however, would significantly reduce paper and cardboard waste, which can last more than 500 years. Also the grounds from brewing your morning coffee have a number of benefits and uses. And lastly, there has been an increasing trend in the US of using coffee pods. Companies such as Nespresso and Keurig have implemented different programs to promote recycling of capsules. Nespresso, for instance, is able to separate the aluminum from its capsules and re-use the material as well as recycling the grounds for composting. Yes, it takes a small effort from the consumer, but embracing this type of initiative is an important step we can take.  This short video demonstrates a number of easy steps.

3.       Less or no milk: We already know that producing a cup of espresso is a thirsty proposition in and of itself. However, when milk is factored in, the water footprint of your morning latte could increase by over 200 liters (more than 50 gallons), and the impacts become even more substantial when take sugar, and disposable cups and lids into account. You might also want to consider alternatives to dairy milk such as soy, oat, almond, rice or even quinoa!

As coffee lovers we have the responsibility to drive better environmental and social practices along this commodity’s value chain by making conscious consumer choices. On the other hand, environmentally and socially sound management practices can become a blueprint for companies and producers to deal with climate change and other stress factors and ensure sustainable production for generations to come.


Vanessa Matos Tudela

Vanessa Matos es candidata a MBA de la Universidad de Toronto. Previamente, trabajó como consultora en temas de inversión para el cambio climático, en

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