Waking up to a warm and luscious cup of coffee is now a morning habit most of us have undertaken. Given its reputation as either energetically marking the beginning of the day or representing a means to connect with others, it is no surprise that we envision it as positively related to our lives. However, the reality of this seemingly innocent habit is far more intertwined with a multitude of political, environmental, and economic aspects. Knowing the processes behind our beloved cup of coffee is only the beginning of the quest towards a more sustainable and ethical routine.

Environmental Conditions for Coffee Farming

There are three major types of coffee farming: organic (understandably charging higher prices than the common beans), high production (approximately 4% of the world’s coffee), and small family-owned (80% of the world’s coffee). Generally, the beans require sixteen essential elements for proper nutrition, as well as consistent heat. Altitude affects the quality of the product, hence the pricing. No wonder one of the most popular coffee types, Arabica, is charged with higher prices than its more accessible counterpart, more precisely Robusta. As each difference in growing conditions can affect parts of the industry, coffee farming is highly dependent on the environment. 

A rise in temperature due to climate change and rain scarcity are two of the foes that the industry faces nowadays. Facts best represent the outcomes: South America and Africa will soon experience significant drops in our beloved commodity production due to changing conditions. In this context, let us not forget that Brazil, which faces drastic crop reductions due to climate change, is responsible for a third of the world’s total coffee production.

Here’s the trick: the industry keeps its enemy close, as it is both a victim of climate change and a contributor. Over the last few decades, to respond to the rise in demand for coffee, the plantations have contributed to massive deforestation to ensure the proper environment for the soon-to-be cups of coffee. Naturally, this affects biodiversity. 

Labor in Coffee Production

In 2018, local Brazilian labor inspectors published a series of reports that tied one of the most well-known coffee chains to a plantation in which workers were forced to work and live in degrading conditions. The long and strenuous working hours are usually combined with a lack of a sanitation system, raising multiple question marks on how some chains get to sell their beverage. Coffee pickers typically don’t even have access to healthcare or insurances to safeguard them from uncertain working environments, and education for their children is often unattainable. Worldwide, there are 25 million coffee farming families, all of which depend on the industry up to a certain extent.

Hand-picking coffee beans and ripe cherries is a common practice in the industry. It is usually preferred over mechanized harvesting as a means to ensure a higher quality of the product. The question is: who is picking our coffee? Sometimes, it is children. The United States Department of Labor listed fourteen coffee-growing countries that advanced their coffee production through child and forced labor. Combined with the conditions mentioned above, it is safe to assume that the industry puts workers under the pressure of massive vulnerabilities. 

One might think that the remuneration the hand pickers receive is proportional to their effort. Surprisingly or not, this is definitely not the case. The low coffee prices also significantly affect the workers, as farmers are not usually paid a living income. As a response, rural laborers move to cities to look for better working conditions and salaries. The general issue of forced and inhumane labor is, unfortunately, not novel and not only tied to the coffee production, but it is definitely worth noting its dense, and often subtle, ramifications.

The Politicization of Coffee (Brands)

From planting the seeds to picking and distributing, the coffee is sorted and selected in different brands or cafés. This process can also lead to political partisanship, existing amongst renowned coffee chains as well. 

Let us start with the expression “latte liberals,” familiar in the US. If you take a look at what the Urban Dictionary has to say, this expression means that those who drink overpriced and diluted coffee are also the ones who lament the plight of the poor. This stereotype is often considered unfair by those in question.

Rest assured, there is more to the politicization of coffee than labels. Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz made his disdain for Donald Trump public and his support for Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. His public political orientation led to an incredible amount of praise, as well as calls for a boycott on the other side of the political spectrum. 

The politicization of coffee should not shock us, as its history is entangled with several political aspects. During the Age of Enlightenment, shortly after cafés rose in popularity in Europe, these predestined places for socialization were favored mostly by the politically interested who could not voice their opinions elsewhere. For instance, in the context of British cafés, belittled voices in the public sphere could now enjoy being heard within such a comfortable environment, without having to worry about authorities who would otherwise subjugate them to silence. However, this was not only a reality in Europe: in mid-20th century Colombia, cafés were embraced as the proper place for the intellectuals to gather, as well as activists and artists. This further led to a unification of the general public and a political revitalization, which led to a division between parties. The cafés were considered one of the main threats to Colombia’s already unstable government. 

Check Your Products: What Measures Are Taken?

Rest assured, more and more steps towards a sustainable and ethical consumption of coffee are taken. It is essential to check our products, but fear not a lack of options. Some of your favorite coffee brands include at least one of the following indicators:

Founded in 2002 in the Netherlands, the UTZ certification covers around half of the total sustainable coffee production worldwide. It follows the UTZ Code of Conduct, a set of environmental and social criteria for growing coffee practices, as well as cocoa, hazelnut, and tea. It is based on the International Labour Organization Conventions (ILO Conventions), adopted in 1919. 

A couple of years ago, UTZ merged with Rainforest Alliance, aiming at curbing deforestation. Together, they encompass environmental, economic, and social goals on sustainability. However, it is worth noting that none of these two involve shade cover to combat climate change.

Another certification is Fairtrade, an ethical system that prioritizes farmers and workers in developing countries. Similar to UTZ, the Fairtrade Standards include social, environmental, and economic criteria. They are designed to support small-scale producers and workers from the trading system, inevitably containing coffee as well. 

These are only three of the multiple indexes to look for when purchasing our next coffee stash. Luckily, they have contributed to the improvement of health and safety measures, as well as to better and fairer agricultural practices. They are all approaching different issues in different manners, which is why it might be worth taking a look at how each certification works towards realizing its goals. It is also worth taking a closer look at what these certifications imply for the coffee lovers who also want to help mitigate societal and environmental issues.

A Look Forward

Although there is still room for development in the coffee industry’s ethical and sustainable sphere, the future still looks promising. As consumers, a wide range of coffee brands have approached a sustainable strategy for their products; thus, it gets easier and more comfortable to access our precious commodity ethically. However, the coffee industry’s environmental and social negative implications must still not be overlooked, and the political aspects of significant coffee brands are still part of our public and political lives. Knowing more about the industry is definitely an excellent start to reflect on our habits and how they subtly affect us and the world we live in.

That being said, (responsibly) enjoy your coffee!