Sustainability and coffee, the two make a likely pair. Coffee shops love to advertise their green coffee bean credentials, declaring a fairly traded economy between shop and farmers, but managing to omit the damage the coffee trade creates on an environmental scale.
This is where the line is blurred with those little green leaves, stars and hearts that are plastered on packaging today. Designers know that people’s sense of karma is greater than it’s ever been, given that many customers chose products based on the brownie points they get from their purchases. Plenty of the green credential looking stamps mean that the product is good for the customer, others mean it’s good for the environment, some just mean they tipped the disenfranchised workforce in the factory 16 hours a day.
In the coffee business there are a cornucopia of areas that could garner more of those green stars, but since customers only care about the taste of what’s in their cup and now the godforsaken takeaway cups in the limelight, the impact of practices in growing and processing the coffee along with thrown out coffee grounds is a seemingly expensive afterthought.
Customers leave their favourite coffee establishment with their caffeine fix and a newfound sense of ‘do-good-ery’ because the beans that made their cortado gave Juan’s farm in Costa Rica 25% of what they spent. But Juan’s fair profit isn’t the whole story. Talk of biodiversity, permaculture, and waste are left out of the marketing strategy, regardless of the sensitive climate requirements of the coffee plant which mean it’s one of the crops most vulnerable to global warming.
Naturally, the coffee plant thrives in a diverse environment, be it in the Brazilian rainforest or in African forests. These plants have evolved to co-exist along with animals to create a self-regulating system which manages disease and pests without the need for human intervention via chemicals and pesticides. This environment creates the most delicious coffee since it’s grown as naturally as it should be.
However beautiful and harmonious, a tangle of varied flora and fauna does not copious profit make. To meet our excessive demand for black stuff in a cup and squeeze as much money from it as they can, the coffee industry has done away with the natural way of doing things, chopped down the diversity and wedged as many plants as they can in large, flat expanses. Growing in the full light of the blaring sun without the protection of other plants and requiring extensive amounts of pesticides as a result, these plants grow fast and abundantly. As forced labour they don’t have the time or the environment to grow healthily, so the taste is nothing like that of their shaded cousins.
Once harvested, the coffee beans are processed by various methods, using immense amounts of water which is then flooded back into the environment, picking up chemicals from the man-made environment they’ve been transported. Then it’s flown to us, where it’s roasted and beautifully packaged, proudly wearing stamps with happy faces and green leaves. They’re transported to the shops we walk past on the high street, which will have a couple Starbucks, 12 Costas and an independent if we’re lucky.
To be ground, extracted and thrown away, the prized liquid squeezed into a plastic cup, diluted with milk and drank in 5 minutes. The grounds and the cup end up in a bin to be taken to landfill, and the process starts again.
Isn’t it nearly time for a coffee?