In 2020 48% of coffee launches were for eco-friendly & ethical coffee. But, are the claims worth the buzz?
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Beginning your morning with a warm (or cool) drink is one of life’s simple pleasures. Those of us who choose coffee to get buzzing before the day starts might be concerned about the unsavory parts of the industry– fertilizers and pesticides draining off into water sources, water scarcity, soil degradation, and asymmetric income distribution to vulnerable coffee farmers. These concerns impact where we conscious consumers spend our money. And brands are listening. Nearly half of all new coffee product launches in 2020 carried an ethical or environmental claim. Yet, because waking up to greenwashing can spoil even the most perfect cup of coffee, we’re breaking down ways coffee is grown, harvested, and produced to back up those claims.
As mentioned above, according to a new study from Mintel Global Products Database (GNPD) 48% of coffee launches in 2020 were for sustainable or ethical coffee. Compare that to 2000, when only 25% of coffee launches made ethical or environmental claims. A breakdown of the claims shows the key eco-friendly and ethical areas that brands focused on in 2020.
30% Environmentally Friendly Claim
25% Eco-Friendly Packaging
1.3% Carbon Neutral
28% Human Rights Claim
2% Partnerships with Charities
Consumers are becoming more aware of carbon emissions and coffee is one of the worst offenders.Jonny Forsyth, Associate Director, Mintel Food & Drink
What Is Eco-Friendly Coffee?
Eco-friendly is related to a brand’s environmental impact. It can focus on how the crops are grown to promote reforestation and protect biodiversity or the sustainable initiatives for harvesting and drying coffee beans that utilize solar energy or biofuels instead of wood or fossil fuels. Lastly, some brands use recycled paper or bioplastics (plastic-like materials made from plant sources like corn or sugar) as packaging materials that are biodegradable.
Regenerative farming is a way of farming that meets several goals- protecting water sources, biodiversity, soil health, ecosystem health, and sequestering carbon. One major regenerative farming method is to plant coffee crops in a forest or canopy style instead of a plantation style.
Since the 1970s, conventional coffee farms have moved away from the canopy style that grows crops under shaded canopies of trees to a sun-grown style. Canopies prevent topsoil erosion and provide habitat to a wealth of species. Unfortunately, as the demand for coffee grew, so did the sun-grown style of growing coffee. These plantations cut down trees contributing to deforestation and a loss of biodiversity.
Eco-friendly coffee can refer to shade-grown coffee, or coffee that is planted under a canopy of trees. These coffee farms have been shown to preserve soil loss, reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 20%, and prevent water pollution from herbicides needed for sun-grown coffee. Another added benefit is that trees provide a habitat for birds that eat pests and can reduce the need for pesticides that damage soil health.
After oil, coffee is the world’s most traded commodity. And the second tier after farming- roasting- also has a major environmental impact. Worldwide, coffee roasting was valued at $1.22 billion, with a growth rate of 6.3%. As of 2023, there are 2,167 coffee-roasting businesses in the United States alone. Similar to oil refineries, coffee roasters emit toxins and pollutants. “Traditional roasters produce visible emissions (i.e. smoke), odors, and pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and carbon dioxide unless a filtering system or external afterburner is used,” Dennis Vogel, the Director of Marketing and Sales at Loring, a roaster manufacturer headquartered in California told The Perfect Daily Grind. “In addition, afterburners also consume fuel, which is traditionally natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas (typically propane).”
As more coffee brands commit to sustainability, the manufacturing model is changing too. Energy-efficient roasting technology allows air to be recirculated and energy use to decrease. Yet, while fuel-efficient models are available, it’s not always economically feasible or accessible as traditional roasting machines. So, while it’s a step in the right direction, there is still more room for the industry to grow… sustainably.
What Is Ethical Coffee?
Ethical coffee often refers to fair trade- a product that has been audited by a third party to ensure that labor standards have been met. There are 785,000 farmers that have been Fair Trade certified worldwide.
COVID-19 has made consumers more sensitive to inequalities, and most farmers are poorly paid despite coffee’s huge profits and use of fair trade claims.Jonny Forsyth, Associate Director, Mintel Food & Drink
As a crop that grows in less-regulated climates, the coffee industry has its fair share of labor issues. One of them is slave and child labor. In 2019, Reuters profiled a raid on a coffee farm in Brazil with 13 children working on their farm and dozens of adults working under exploitative conditions. Another issue is poverty wages. Farmers working under grueling conditions for less than $2 per day and receiving a single yearly paycheck after harvest is unsustainable. Yet, these issues exist because of poor regulation and enforcement of labor laws. Some are being addressed by human rights groups that assess farms and work directly with local governments, NGOs, and stakeholders to ensure that farmers are being paid and treated fairly.
While fair trade’s roots go back to the 1940s, it wasn’t until 1992 that the Fairtrade Foundation was formally established to ensure the fair trade of coffee from small-scale Mexican farms. Fighting against inequality is at the heart of the organization. For instance, for companies to receive the seal, farmers, NGOs, and local governments collaborate to ensure that child labor is not tolerated in the supply chain. Other human rights violations like human trafficking and debt bondage are prohibited through collaborations with local organizations to monitor farms and factories.
Cheap food comes at a cost. An estimated 125 million worldwide depend on coffee for their livelihoods. Yet, that livelihood is often tied to various elements like weather conditions and diseases that impact crop yield. To combat the volatility of coffee farming, local coalitions and organizations like Fairtrade have conversations with farmers to negotiate prices to ensure that farmers can earn a profit and that payments are made whether or not quotas are made.
So, there you have it- the multiple ways that coffee is grown, produced, and traded to be more ethical and sustainable. And, we bet that knowing that rigorous standards have been met that protect workers’ rights and the environment and build resilient communities, your morning cup of coffee will be that much sweeter.