My Coffee Footprint

Figure 1. Coffee leaves a large footprint on both people and the earth. Credit: Soninke Combrinck

Sitting and sipping my meticulously brewed cappuccino, my mind wanders to thoughts of how the coffee made it to my cup, the places the beans have been and the hands they passed through.

What does my morning coffee really cost?

A Carbon and Water Footprint

Many processes contribute to coffee’s carbon and water footprint such as farming, transport and roasting, to name a few.

On the plantation, use of fertilisers and pesticides contaminate both soil and water. Up to 140 litres of water is used per cup, according to a water footprint study conducted in the Netherlands in 2003.

2.5 million hectares of trees have been lost to deforestation in Central America to make way for coffee bean plantations. As stated by WWF, 37 out of 50 countries with highest deforestation rates are coffee producers.

It has been found that out of the whole coffee cycle, consumption and cafes leave the largest stain of the coffee footprint.  3.6 out of 5kg of carbon produced in the bean-to-cup cycle is generated in the coffee shop. It’s not only the bean that stains the coffee cycle, but also firm overheads, transport and waste that contribute to carbon emissions.

A Change is Needed

Coffee plantations are large contributors to global warming, adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and fuelling climate change. An altered climate will in turn negatively impact the coffee industry. According to the Coffee Guide  plantations will be vulnerable to pest infestations and disease, and will require additional intensive irrigation. The quality of the coffee will also be compromised.

The coffee industry employs 125 million people from around the world. Local coffee farmers are most directly affected and therefore vulnerable to both the effects of climate change and fluctuating market prices. Third world farmers receive a meagre 10% of the retail price and coffee pickers can make up to $2-3 per day (R25-35) on which their livelihoods depend. For a lucrative industry whose trade is second only to oil and gas, it leaves locals bereft of the luxurious lifestyle consumers enjoy in cafes.

Most of us are unwilling to give up our caffeine addiction. Instead, we should turn to ethical sources that leave a lighter footprint behind, both environmentally and socially.

Sourcing Ethical Coffee

Fair Trade is an international certification which is a stamp of equality and sustainability in the agricultural sector. Thelatest-fairtrade-logo brand aims to promote improved labour and living conditions as well as environmentally conscious practises.

Lynsay Sampson, Marketing Coordinator at Fair Trade, says that coffee is the core of their industry, and they have experienced a large growth since they were first established in 1980’s. They have eight certified South African coffee brands. Producers are becoming more conscious and are taking steps to get their Fair Trade label.

‘Bean There’ – Done That – Got the Label

Bean There is a trendsetter amongst local South African coffee companies by being the first roastery in the country to be registered with Fair Trade, with roasteries in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Rosette Timothe
Figure 2. Rosetta Timothé, part of the Bean There crew for four years. Credit: Soninke Combrinck

Rojeanne Koen, co-owner of Bean There, acknowledges the traditional exploitative practises that go hand-in-hand with the coffee industry. Bean There attempts to cross the divide between the farmers and the roastery by visiting at least one plantation a year to meet the local community that is growing their beans. “We go in, meet the people and listen to what the community has to say; then we work on that.” It is all about listening to the needs of the local community and providing assistance.

Coffee is an unpredictable industry, associated with fluctuating market prices. However, Fair Trade establishes a premium to ensure the protection of famers, Rojeanne says. She recognizes that stocking Fair Trade coffee is more expensive, but it helps ensure ethical practises at the plantations which benefits everyone.

How to be a Conscious Consumer:

As the final stage of consumption leaves the largest footprint, it is a good place to start curbing the carbon cost. Much waste is generated as a by-product of the coffee industry. First prize is cutting out take-away cups and sticking to reusable mugs and flasks. However, the South African market is being permeated with biodegradable products that are compostable and will break down in a composting facility or at your home. A simple switch to these cups will be a step in the right direction.

Also, look carefully for these labels on your coffee.

  • Rainforest Alliance which supports local communities by maintaining a standard that is economically,
    environmentally and socially beneficial.
  • Birds and Beans supports a sustainable farming method that protects rural communities in Latin America.
  • Smithsonian Bird Friendly encourages shade-grown coffee and the conservation of migratory birds. watch out for the “Bird Friendly®”

Enjoy your cup of coffee consciously!


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