Coffee, Tea, and Sustainability
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
For this piece, the second addition to my sustainability and beverages series, I decided to discuss my work-time beverages, coffee and tea. These beverages are integral to modern life, with tea ranking as the second most popular beverage in the world (after water) and coffee ranking in the top five. Consumption varies greatly by geography, with much of North and South America and Europe preferring coffee, and much of Asia (and the United Kingdom, as well as many former British colonies) preferring tea (Pew Research). Both coffee and tea are most commonly grown in the developing countries and provide essential jobs and export earnings (Sustainability Issues).
I love coffee. It is my favorite beverage, as I love both the taste and the ritual of preparing and drinking my morning latte. It's an integral part of my morning, and, I must admit, I don't function well until my first cup. But how sustainable is coffee, and what can be done to ensure your cup is as sustainable as possible? This answer can be broken into a few steps, which includes looking at both coffee production and coffee consumption. Coffee production encompasses the cultivation and shipping of the product, and consumption encompasses roasting, brewing, and drinking coffee.
Sustainability in coffee production means taking care of the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit (for a description of this concept, check out my piece on What Sustainability Means). Most immediately think of the environment (“planet” of the triple bottom line), but sustainable treatment of laborers and sustainable economics (including wages and employment for those cultivating the beans) is a critical part of this mix (Perfect Daily Grind).
According to National Geographic and a report by Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens, 60% of all wild coffee species could disappear over the upcoming decades due to climate change, deforestation, and pathogens (National Geographic). Temperature increases due to climate change are forcing farmers to move up mountainsides to seek cooler climates, with less land available on these slopes for coffee cultivation (Perfect Daily Grind).
Cultivating coffee sustainably means ensuring sustainable agricultural practices are used (The Guardian). Traditionally, coffee is cultivated under the shade of tree canopies. This helps indigenous plants, animals, and insects thrive and prevents topsoil erosion. Traditional practices also eschew use of fertilizers and pesticides.
With stiff competition to sell coffee, environmentally friendly practices are often abandoned. Growers stop rotating crops (which helps soil quality) and move to growing the plant under the sun (as opposed to the canopy shaded traditional method). These moves necessitate fertilizers and pesticides, which harms the surrounding biodiversity. Further, coffee growing regions are some of the most ecologically sensitive on the planet, which makes the negative effects of these practices even more damaging. Increased demand means more land is cleared to make way for more crops. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, 37 of the 50 countries with the highest deforestation rates are also coffee producers. Additionally, increased production affects local water availability as coffee uses a significant amount of water in production. Processing can also pollute local waterways with agricultural waste.
People and Profit
Ensuring sustainable coffee production also means ensuring coffee growers are fairly compensated (aka given a living wage). On average, many coffee farmers only receive 10% of the retail pride of coffee. There is intense competition between growers as well, and 70% of growers are “smallholders” (The Guardian). These farmers are exposed to reductions in market prices and undercutting. Income has been declining for producers, meaning that farmers now make less than they did even a decade ago. This affects education, gender equality, eliminating child labor, housing, food, healthcare, and all other aspects of a sustainable community.
How to fix these Issues?
Groups such as the Global Living Wage Coalition are working to improve the lives of coffee growers worldwide. Other groups, such as Rainforest Alliance, are working to help educate growers in sustainable agricultural practices such as diversifying crops (and providing technical assistance) as well as providing market access to isolated growers.
Certifications are one way to help ensure your coffee has been produced sustainable. Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and TechnoServe certify coffee production (Perfect Daily Grind). Fairtrade deals more with ethical coffee production while Rainforest Alliance deals with environmental aspects. Fairtrade is the dominant certification with 27% of the marketplace. It offers guaranteed minimum prices and works directly with the farmers’ cooperatives. However, despite its dominance, Fairtrade has been criticized for not working hard enough to reduce poverty.
Tea has a long history filled with atrocities committed in the pursuit to cultivate and import the commodity viewed by many as essential to daily life (History of Tea Cultivation). It still reigns as the second most popular drink in the world, and its cultivation remains a massive industry.
People and Profit
Many of the same issues that face coffee production face tea cultivation, from the environmental issues to the poor treatment of farmers (Expo2015). Tea cultivation is labor intensive and provides many jobs in rural farming areas. Millions of jobs worldwide involved picking and processing tea. Just as with coffee and other agricultural commodities, over the past three decades tea prices have fallen dramatically. As a result, working conditions and livelihoods have changed for the worse, with little hope for improvement as many of the jobs are temporary and unions don’t exist. According to the UN Environment Programme, most tea workers remain marginalized and poor. An increasing number of producers are smallholders who don't benefit equally from sustainability programs. Further, many smallholders are paid less than the cost of production. A majority of tea trade and distribution is concentrated, with a few large companies controlling and benefiting for stable prices to end consumers.
Many original forests have been cleared to make way for tea plantations, causing massive deforestation. Water shortages affect growers, and climate change, particularly rising temperatures, is affecting growth. Pesticides and fertilizers are applied heavily in certain areas, causing degradation to water quality and biodiversity.
What to do about tea sustainability?
As with coffee production, groups such as Fairtrade International and Rainforest Alliance work with growers to help increase sustainable agricultural practices and ensure a good standard of living. The Rainforest Alliance has worked with the UNEP to help study effects and devise solutions. Oxfam has conducted studies with the Ethical Tea Partnership to ensure minimum wages on tea plantations, as many workers don’t earn close to a living wage (The Guardian).
To ensure your tea is produced sustainably, look for certifications such as Rainforest Alliance/UTZ, Fairtrade International, the Soil Association, and Fair for Life (Ethical Consumer).
Sustainable Coffee and Tea Consumption
Sustainable consumption of coffee and tea can have many positive impacts, such as reducing plastic waste and landfill. I don’t know about you all, but with the pandemic, I have reduced my trips to coffee shops almost completely. This has helped me reduce my consumption of single use coffee cups, and I aim to move to using a reusable mug exclusively (when hygiene restrictions allow).
Single-use cups have an internal plastic coating in order to provide insulation. While this helps make the cup bearable to hold, it makes them unrecyclable. Ultimately, this means they end up in landfill or as litter. Lids for these cups are typically made of plastic as well.
Companies such as Starbucks have eliminated plastic straws from their stores, replacing them instead with a “strawless lid” that allows a user to sip their cold beverage. Anti-straw advocates were thrilled with the announcement, but several outlets have reported that the new lid is heavier than the previous straw/lid combination (e.g. contains more plastic). The new lids are made of a more recyclable material (polypropylene) compared to plastic straws, which cannot be recycled (The Guardian). However, only 9% of the world's plastic is recycled, so this step is largely meaningless unless recycling improves.
An easy solution is to bring a reusable cup or straw with you. Several stores will give discounts for reusable mugs, and they provide better insulation.
When making coffee at home, many opt to use a Keurig or a Nespresso machine. These utilize small pods which contain a single serving of coffee or tea. Many of these pods are non-recyclable and end up in landfill. However, Keurig recently announced that all K-Cups are recyclable, using polypropylene (though this has the same issue as Starbucks’ lids) (Sustainable Brands). Nespresso uses aluminum capsules, which can be recycled for free if they are sent back to the company (Nespresso).
Tea bags also have potential sustainability impacts. Several brands use polypropylene as a sealant to keep the bags from falling apart. This is not biodegradable and makes the bag unrecyclable. Other bags are made completely from plastic. Some brands, such as Twinings Pyramid, Clipper, and Pukka Herbs, have completely biodegradable bags, meaning they can be composted or put into food waste.
Loose leaf tea is a good alternate product, as a reusable tea steeper can be used and the waste tea leaves can be composted (as can used coffee grounds).
Coffee vs. Tea: Sustainability
While sustainable production efforts are involved in both coffee and tea, more green coffee is produced globally than tea (8.5 million metric tons of coffee vs. 4.7 million metric tons of tea, in 2011) (Pew Research). However, it takes 10 grams of coffee to create a cup (on average) as compared to tea, which only requires 2 grams. Therefore the sustainability impact of green tea is actually larger than coffee on a cup to cup basis.
Thanks for reading.
Katie @ Sustainably Yours, LA