3 ways to be a more sustainable coffee drinker

Cup of Colombian coffee.

A cup of Colombian coffee. (© Neil Palmer/CIAT)

Editor’s note: September 29 marks National Coffee Day in the U.S. Throughout the month of September, Human Nature is highlighting Conservation International’s sustainable coffee work. This is the third post in the series.

In just 24 hours, the world consumes approximately 2.25 billion cups of coffee — and demand is growing. At the same time, the area suitable for coffee growing is expected to be cut in half.

To help make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product, we’re working with more than 100 companies, government agencies and NGOs through the Sustainable Coffee Challenge. But what can you do to protect your favorite brew and to support sustainable coffee and the farmers who grow it? Start with these three things.

  1. Make your coffee purchase count:

Look for brands that have made commitments in support of sustainable coffee producers and the environment. You can view the Sustainable Coffee Challenge partners to see which companies are committed to supporting sustainable coffee practices — recently, Nespresso joined. Also, check out coffee with labels such as “Fairtrade,” “Rainforest Alliance,” “Utz” and “Smithsonian Bird Friendly,” all of which are part of the Challenge. 

Right now, the New York Stock Exchange price for a pound of coffee is less than one dollar, which is below the cost of coffee production for a farmer. By aligning with companies that are investing in sustainability programs, paying above the commodity price and making commitments to sourcing sustainable coffee, you’re supporting farmers as the coffee industry struggles through this crisis.

And remember: It’s not just what kind of coffee you buy, it’s how much you drink. If you like cold brew coffee, for example, consider that it takes twice the amount of coffee beans as hot coffee to make a cup. Be a conscientious consumer — if everyone switched to cold brew, we would need to double coffee production!

  1. Inconvenience yourself (for the environment):

Many of us live in a convenience culture, relying on apps and services to do everything for us from ordering our groceries to standing in line. But the disposable coffee cups and single-serve capsules and pods that have made your mornings easier take a serious toll on the environment, whether is is the trees that go into the paper coffee cups or the lack of recycling facilities and recyclability of the actual cups themselves.

“Paper” cups are convenient when you’re on the go, but they are not really just paper — they’ve also got plastic coatings that make them more challenging to recycle and more likely to end up in landfills. It’s a simple switch, but just by asking for your coffee in your own travel thermos or ceramic mug eliminates unnecessary waste. The trick to making this habit stick? If you forget your mug, don’t get coffee to go — in other words, make the convenient option inconvenient.

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And if you can’t give up your K-cup habit, consider switching from single-use options to a reusable basket. The basket functions as a K-cup that you just fill with coffee grounds, use in your machine, dump out, wash and reuse (bonus points if you fill the reusable baskets with coffee from a Sustainable Coffee Challenge brand!). And while there are commitments to making a recyclable K-cup, similar to the commitments to make a fully recyclable coffee cup, the sector needs time to figure out how to do it. Some companies are already making bold strides: Nespresso coffees, for example, are packaged in aluminum, a material that can be repeatedly recycled. Nespresso has implemented recycling programs that enable consumers to easily return their used pods back to the company. As the sector works to become more environmentally friendly, ditching single-use cups and non-recyclable pods in favor of sustainable, recyclable options will go a long way in cutting down on waste.

  1. Be an advocate for change:

When ordering coffee at a restaurant or café, ask the questions: Where does this coffee come from and what are you doing to support sustainability? If your favorite coffee brand isn’t participating in the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, or hasn’t addressed any of these concerns, ask them the same questions about their beans. Starting this dialogue is just as important as supporting the brands that have already transitioned to better sustainability programs. When possible, consider actually putting pen to paper or calling a company’s customer service number. Sometimes, this approach can really resonate with companies.

Of course, you could always take a page out of my book and just not drink coffee — but I know that won’t be everyone’s first choice!

Bambi Semroc is the vice president of sustainable markets and strategy for Conservation International’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business.

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