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What is sustainable coffee?

We all want to make the ethical choice when it comes to buying coffee – but it’s not as straightforward as it may seem
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
What is sustainable coffee?

This article first appeared in our spring ’18 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Conscious Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 04 May 2018. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Our growing demand for coffee – particularly speciality coffees – should of course be a good thing for coffee farmers and their communities. But while organisations like Fairtrade are a step in the right direction, the International Coffee Organization recently warned that growers in many parts of the world still fail to receive enough money to cover their cost of production. This means coffee’s a long way off being a sustainable commodity, despite being one of the leading performers on commodity markets.

‘We never transport green, unroasted coffee beans’, says Gary Golden, CEO of Not 1 Bean Ltd, a British-based company with a permanent, long-standing presence in Colombia. The company roasts all its coffee in the developing countries it’s grown in – an approach designed to address carbon emissions, farmer poverty and child labour.

The significant extra income and jobs generated by roasting coffee at source remain in the developing countries that grow the coffee, helping to alleviate poverty in coffee-growing communities. ‘This extra income has the knock-on effect of farmers retaining and educating their employees, so they can maximise profits and resources on what are in the main smallholdings’, Gary tells us. ‘Our permanent presence in coffee-growing regions means we are able to guarantee that children are not employed anywhere within our buying chains.’

Transporting roasted beans also means all Not 1 Bean Ltd’s shipping is 20% lighter than conventional coffee cargo, leading to a massive reduction in the number of commercial vessels used – with a corresponding reduction in carbon emissions.

The cost of coffee – coffee is second only to oil when it comes to the world’s most traded commodities, so where do all the profits go?

Defining sustainable coffee

Most coffee brands choose to buy green, unroasted beans from coffee growers and ship them to the west to be roasted. While green beans are cheaper, ethical coffee companies ensure that income from the roasting – which represents 90% of the value in the coffee supply chain – is ploughed back into education, infrastructure and community programmes in the coffee producers’ regions.

‘We encourage this type of operation when it leads to genuine improvements within farming communities’, says Gary. ‘But we believe that directly investing in roasting at source, rather than taking that income away then rerouting part of it to the grower’s community, is more practical than taking the money away and then sending it back.’

Some coffee companies are committed to ensuring a fair price is paid to the coffee farmer, but for Gary the initiatives ‘all seem to revolve around anything other than simply allowing farmers to earn money from roasting their own coffee’. To him it’s as though coffee farm workers are deemed only fit to work in the fields. ‘That’s not something we agree with at all’, Gary tells us. ‘The same knowhow and technology exists in Colombia as it does in California.’

Gary does recognise that some companies genuinely have the interests of the farmer at heart and says Not 1 Bean Ltd is ‘more than happy to work with them’. One such company is The Green Collection, which has a full-time presence across the coffee-growing regions of Colombia to guarantee that children don’t play any part in the coffee production it oversees.

‘The Green Collection pays more to the farmer at the outset and then reinvests a proportion of coffee sales as bonuses directly back to the farmer’, Gary explains. ‘At the end of the day, they are aiming for the same thing that we at Not 1 Bean Ltd are: a sustainable coffee industry with a fairer distribution of the profits.’

If we ever arrive at a commonly accepted blueprint for what ‘sustainable’ is – for coffee and beyond – Gary believes it should be monitored on a permanent basis. ‘In virtually every other industry there are quantifiable procedures in place that verify production process claims have been met, so the consumer can safely assume that each stage of the process has been monitored. For around 20 years I worked in quality assurance and quality control in the oil and gas industry, where virtually every activity was subjected to regular inspection visits. The thought that the end user of a particular item doesn’t have any input until that product lands on their doorstep is unheard of across other industries.’ Gary objects to any arrangement under which there are simply no quality assurance procedures after the initial transaction, other than the sampling of green beans when they arrive at their destination.

Gary suggests marking every bag of coffee with the price paid to the farmer for growing, roasting and packaging it. ‘We’d be happy to adhere to an initiative like this. Or maybe just making it clear on every bag whether the coffee was roasted by the farmer that grew it. Standards like this exist for other products, so why not for coffee and chocolate? The words ‘Estate bottled’ on wine labels inform the buyer that the company that bottled the wine also grew the grapes. It’s applicable in the ‘developed world’, so why not in developing countries?’

Gary remains open to alternative suggestions and says Not 1 Bean is ‘happy to work with other companies’, like The Green Collection, that are working towards real change for coffee farmers. ‘What we can’t do is agree with taking the roasting income and jobs from coffee-farming communities’, he says. ‘That’s a sticking point for us: we just don’t see how denying these profits to the farmers, the very people with the most at stake in the whole process, is ethical or sustainable in the long run. However, we do recognise that a number of different solutions need to be applied: ‘one solution fits all’ isn’t realistic.’

Click here to find out why Not 1 Bean speciality coffee is a MyGreenPod Hero

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Transporting coffee

The vast majority of the coffee sold in the UK arrives here as green coffee, and when Gary asked supermarkets where their coffee was roasted, ‘more often than not’ they said that they didn’t know. ‘We regularly get the standard response: ‘our coffee is Fairtrade certified’, and that is usually the extent of their knowledge on the subject’, Gary says. Ho told us that one leading supermarket chain, with over 600 different coffees on offer, recently admitted that it didn’t offer a single coffee that had been roasted in a developing country. ‘They hadn’t been aware of this before we asked them and they asked their buyers for an answer’, Gary tells us. ‘That’s not right.’

Green coffee beans are approximately 20% heavier than roasted coffee beans; in many cases this same green coffee is then re-exported, further increasing the unnecessary carbon emissions from the cargo. ‘Transportation of every pound of coffee accounts for half a pound of carbon’, Gary tells us, ‘so why does the coffee industry transport millions of tonnes of coffee unnecessarily – often backwards and forwards across the same oceans?’

Gary uses Germany, Europe’s largest importer of green coffee beans, to illustrate the scale of the problem. ‘Germany takes around 32% of all green beans shipped to Europe – which is well over 1 million tonnes every year’, he says. ‘Germany is also the largest re-exporter of green beans in Europe, mainly to Poland and the USA. These green beans are initially transported 20% heavier than they would be if roasted at source, then over 300,000 (still unroasted) tonnes are sent on a further journey across the oceans, once again sending tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, warming the planet further and threatening the very industry they serve.’

The UK and numerous other countries do the same thing, instead of simply roasting at source and shipping 20% less cargo directly to the consuming countries. ‘It’s madness’, Gary says, ‘and it can’t be left unchecked.’

Coffee is second only to oil in terms of trading value, so these unnecessary shipments consist of vast amounts of extra cargo. ‘The recent commitment to reducing shipping emissions will probably mean that this practice is addressed’, Gary tells us. ‘We’re talking to interested parties and will continue to do so until it’s fixed.’

Climate change and coffee

Scientists have now reached unprecedented levels of certainty and consensus about human influence on the climate system; around 97% of climate scientists conclude that humans are directly responsible for changing the climate. For Gary, the practice of choosing to ship heavier coffee beans and then send them out again ‘is surely a perfect example of avoidable climate pollution in action’.

Our atmosphere and oceans are warming at a rate that poses a threat both to human society as we know it and to our natural ecosystems. Through continued global warming, oceans will get warmer, acidify and destroy both coral and marine species. We’re already looking at an ice-free Arctic before the middle of this century, and beginning to see the associated sea level rises and human and economic effects.

Developing countries will be disproportionately hit by food security risks, health problems, the massive displacement of whole populations and economic hardship. It’s estimated that up to 122 million people worldwide could be living in extreme poverty by 2030 as a result of climate change and its impact on the incomes of small farmers. In the next few decades we will need to find food for an extra two billion people; climate change is going to make this virtually impossible unless we drastically change course.

‘If we continue to release greenhouse gas emissions in this way, ignoring solutions like the ones we at Not 1 Bean advocate, we will continue to create devastating, irreversible changes to our climate system and will be negatively impacting our ecosystems and populations, not to mention the effect that will have on coffee production and the communities that rely on them’, Gary says. As an example, current coffee-growing areas in Ethiopia could decrease by up to 60% if global sea level temperatures rise by 4ºC by the end of the century, according to a study by Kew Gardens and collaborators in Ethiopia.

While Gary accepts that not every coffee bean can be roasted prior to transport, he finds it ‘beyond comprehension’ that governments will stand by and allow current coffee production supply chains and practices to continue. ‘The fact that the transportation of every pound of coffee results in half a pound of carbon being left in the atmosphere is eye-opening enough, without then increasing those amounts on what is a truly massive scale by adding 20% more weight to the world’s coffee cargo and then sending cargo ships on journeys that could be avoided’, Gary says.

Click here to order Not 1 Bean speciality coffee from the MyGreenPod Marketplace.

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