Sustainable coffee: how to make your morning brew environmentally friendly
From Fair Trade and ethical sourcing to packaging and waste, read our expert guide to make it easier to make more environmentally minded choices around your morning brew
When choosing a sustainable coffee brand, there are several important issues to consider. Sometimes it can be hard to spot because of the tricky and misleading claims. Often it relies on companies being transparent in their supply chains, knowing which certifications are related to sustainability, worker welfare, environmental impacts of coffee production and packaging.
How to make coffee sustainable
There are a number of factors to consider when you're looking to keep your coffee sustainable. By considering these factors, you can make a more informed choice when selecting a sustainable coffee brand that aligns with your values and supports a more responsible coffee industry.
Look for recognised certifications like Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, B Corp, or organic when choosing coffee brands. These certifications ensure sustainable practices, fair treatment of workers, biodiversity protection, and reduced chemical use for a healthier environment. B Corp certification legally binds companies to social and environmental impact. Glasgow-based Dear Green Coffee Roasters recently achieved this notable certification with its coffee bean subscription service.
For more choices read our guide to the best coffee beans.
Sustainable coffee brands prioritise environmental conservation through shade-grown or bird-friendly practices, water resource conservation, and renewable energy use. 1% For The Planet is a commendable initiative where businesses commit to donating 1 per cent of their annual sales to environmental organisations.
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Look for brands promoting sustainable farming methods like agroforestry, which fosters biodiversity and soil health. Regions known for shade-grown coffee include Southern Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Sumatra, Timor, New Guinea, and Ethiopia.
Fair Trade and ethical sourcing
Fair Trade means that farmers are paid a fair price for their coffee beans, providing them with a sustainable livelihood. Look for brands that have direct relationships with coffee growers and prioritise transparency in their supply chains.
Consider the brand's commitment to social responsibility, including the welfare of coffee workers and their communities. Look for brands that invest in education, healthcare, and infrastructure development in coffee-producing regions like water stations. Good examples include Caravan Coffee and Origin Coffee Roasters. Some brands may also support initiatives to empower women in coffee-growing communities, like Tate Modern Coffee who have a brilliant Gender Equality Project.
Packaging and waste
In the past it has been hard to source sustainable packaging because coffee needs to have a strong oxygen barrier. Now though, there are many packaging options that use plant-based, organic materials over chemically manufactured materials. Look for brands that use sustainable packaging, such as recyclable or compostable materials.
Recycling is often easier than composting at this stage, as the latter is still relatively complicated with only around 60% of bags being compostable or biodegradable and certain equipment and the right microbes are needed to break down the organic matter. The degassing valve to let CO2 escape in coffee bags is still often the difficult piece to recycle.
Some brands have initiatives to reduce waste and promote recycling throughout their operations, like UK/NZ packaging brand Decent Packaging which supplies cafes and restaurants. It has a compostable partnership with a waste management company, First Mile which is able to complete the process correctly.
Transparency and traceability
Choose coffee brands that provide transparent information about their sourcing and production processes. Brands should be able to provide details about the origin of their coffee beans, including the specific farms or cooperatives involved. This helps ensure accountability and makes it easier for us to make informed choices. A good example is Union Coffee.
Support for farmers
Consider brands that actively support the long-term viability of coffee farmers. This can include initiatives such as offering technical assistance, access to credit, and training programs to improve farming practices. Some brands also contribute to projects that improve the quality of life for coffee-growing communities. A great example is Pact Coffee.
What is sustainable coffee?
The language on coffee packaging can make it confusing when you're keeping an eye out for sustainability. Here are some words to look out for and what they mean to help make your journey to sustainable coffee a little easier.
Certifications such as:
- Rainforest Alliance
- Bird-friendly — helps preserve forest ecosystems
Indication of environmentally friendly farming practises include:
- Regenerative agriculture
- Carbon-neutral production
Brands will sometimes have further information into their traceability. Other indications of sustainability include transparency around accountability, a commitment to ethical sourcing and detailed information about sourcing and production processes.
Watch out for vague terms like 'eco-friendly', 'green' and 'natural' or overly broad, generic sustainability claims which lack substance. 'Greenwashing' can occur when a brand's marketing messages conflict with its actual practices, using images and symbols ambiguously, or when it claims to be eco-friendly but doesn't have recyclable packaging.
Recyclable and compostable coffee pods are eco-friendly alternatives to traditional single-use pods. They reduce environmental impact with less waste and encourage recycling or composting. Recyclable pods are usually made from aluminium or plastic and in the past it has been inconvenient to recycle properly via specific waste management systems.
There are also inexpensive coffee capsule recycler devices that help make taking the coffee out of the pods easier like the Morning Coffee pod machine, which scored five stars when tested by our reviews experts. Read our guide to the best coffee pod machines for the top rated machines.
But compostable pods made from biodegradable materials like plant-based plastics or paper are another way to ensure a more natural breakdown into the environment, though some believe the packaging can affect the ‘freshness’ and taste of the coffee due to the more porous nature of the material, but in my opinion nothing too major if you are drinking them regularly and not storing them.
Another option is refillable capsules like a Waycap that you fill with ground coffee of your choice. It can be a little messy and less convenient, and you’ll need to make sure you buy the right size for your pod/capsule machine, but it is a good option to waste.
Sustainable coffee brands to look out for and try
Want to learn more about becoming an expert at-home barista? Read our guides here:
Celeste Wong's best eco-friendly coffee pods
Celeste Wong's best moka pots
Celeste Wong's best coffee grinders
Celeste Wong's best decaf coffee to try
Celeste Wong's best gooseneck kettles to try
Celeste Wong's best coffee beans to try
Celeste Wong's best cafetières to buy
Celeste Wong's best coffee bags