By Wendy Stein

It’s easy to take coffee for granted while deciding drip versus espresso. Grown in equatorial regions, yet exported to nearly every country in the world, coffee has the human race seduced by its aroma, its promise to wake us up, and our love of coffee dates. In 2016/17, worldwide production of coffee was nearly 152 million 60 kilogram bags, while in 2016, in the USA alone, retail sales of coffee were reported at $5.17 billion.


In the coffee supply chain, sustainability involves three aspects: economic, social, and environmental.

Sustainable Economics

Economics appears to be the biggest driver when it comes to sustainability, and like all industries, the coffee market is dependent on supply and demand. While the market is volatile, producers are being hit the hardest, with many farmers struggling for security and profitability. Meanwhile, roasters and retailers, including several large corporations, are making the highest profits.

To counter the inequality, the fair trade designation exists to improve trade relationships by setting fair prices. Informed consumers build social responsibility and protection for farmers through their purchasing power. With fair pricing, coffee could bring prosperity to farmers. However, fair trade is not a perfect system, and it gets tricky when larger plantations, who don’t abide by the farmer-centered business model, get certified. And some compliant coffee farmers lack the fair trade certification due to non-participation in the involved and costly certification process. In all, it pays to know your brand.

Social Sustainability

The social aspect of sustainable coffee growing focuses on cultivating stable communities, maintaining high levels of employment in rural areas, and promoting good standards of living. Ethical choices are a factor in social sustainability, with zero tolerance for child labor and other exploitative abuses.

Environmental Sustainability

The environmental side of sustainable coffee production focuses on growing practices, with an emphasis on certified organics and healthy soils, as well as permaculture, which emphasizes the benefits that come with having diversity in plants.

Environmentally speaking, shade-grown coffee is considered the best, as it provides a habitat for birds and other animals, and requires fewer fertilizers and pesticides. Climate change is driving coffee growers to find new territories for growing, which leads to more clear-cutting of forests.

The certifications that promote healthy environmental practices include eco-friendly, bird-friendly, shade-coffee, along with Rainforest Alliance and UTZ (sustainability certifiers) who recently merged.


Though still only a small part of the total coffee market, sustainable coffee is a growing movement bringing small family farm products direct to the consumer. Look for a label that has all three certifications on it: fair trade, organic, and one of the eco-friendly certifications.

Equal Exchange sources coffee from small independent farmers around the world. They began in 1986 with a social justice mission promoting fair trade principles.They continue working towards a sustainable world through building long-term trade relationships, educating consumers, building socially responsible brands, and supporting democratically operated organizations. Another notable business is the Alabama brand Higher Grounds, who are devoted to ethical coffee through partnerships with nonprofits who aim to protect wild areas.

A great option is to subscribe to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project for coffee, where coffee is delivered to your doorstep. The only farmer-owned brand from the USA is Pachamama Coffee, whose member farmers are organized into collectives, and where you can choose coffees from around the world.

Lastly, source as locally as possible, support small independent farmers and don’t forget to compost your used coffee grounds.