Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” from “landscape approach” to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s Human Nature blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “What on Earth?”
In this installment, on National Coffee Day, we break down “sustainable coffee,” a term you may have heard before, but might not be able to explain. We’re here to tell you what it means and why it’s important.
UPDATE: This blog post has been updated given the October 5 announcement of McDonald’s joining the Sustainable Coffee Challenge.
So, what is ‘sustainable coffee’?
Defined generally, it’s coffee that is grown in a way that conserves nature and provides better livelihoods for the people who grow and process it.
Wait: Can coffee be grown in a way that doesn’t conserve nature?
It can. Coffee is grown only in the tropics, in places that are home to most of the world’s remaining tropical forests. When farmers want to expand their coffee plantations, the easiest thing for them to do is to cut down some of the surrounding forest. Moreover, coffee is often grown on steep slopes; if care is not taken, it can lead to erosion and sedimentation of waterways. Processing coffee is also water-intensive, and the wastewater can contaminate rivers and streams. Taken together, these practices quickly become unsustainable.