This Is The Easiest Way To Tell If Your Coffee Is Good For The Planet

The average American drinks 3.1 cups of coffee a day. But the beans supporting this habit often come from farms that have foregone sustainable growing techniques in favor of higher yields. Here's how to be sure your coffee doesn't hurt the planet.


May 23 2019, Updated 12:14 p.m. ET

The average American drinks 3.1 cups of coffee a day. That’s a big business, amounting to around $40 billion a year.

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To support this habit, the world needs a lot of coffee farms. And to heighten productivity on said farms, traditional growing techniques have been sidelined in order to grow varieties of coffee that produce higher yields. And that is causing untold amounts of ecological damage to areas known for being among the most biologically diverse in the world. But there’s a simple way to ensure your caffeine fix doesn’t come at the cost of the environment.

Coffee’s dark little secret

Coffea arabica, the world’s most popular coffee, grows in Ethiopia under rainforest canopies in partial shade. For other varieties like that to grow, the beans need to be cultivated underneath shading plants—which can be single trees, or a cluster of many different plants. That cuts down on productivity, since only so many coffee plants can grow on an acre when you need to have non-coffee plants next to them providing shade. So farmers have developed and imported higher-yield, sun-tolerant coffees that can grow without shade cover (albeit with more water and fertilizers) than the traditional, native beans.

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ABC reports that farms growing these coffee beans "support fewer native species, store less carbon, experience higher levels of erosion, and leach more nutrients." And that’s not good for anyone.

An educated consumer is a sustainable consumer 

The good news is you don’t have to forego your next latte in order to stop this coffee craziness. Cultivation is key. Traditionally grown beans require minimal mechanization and support ecosystems of local birds, insects and waterways.

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Sustainably grown beans are clearly stamped with sustainability certification logos that tell you everything you need to know about the beans, such as whether they’re “Smithsonian Bird Friendly” or “Fair Trade Certified” or “Organic,” or some combination therein.

Two certifications to definitely look for are The Rainforest Alliance and Australian Certified Organic. The Rainforest Alliance certification requires a certain amount of native vegetation to be grown and maintained on each coffee farm; while the Australian Certified Organic implies the coffee company is protecting the biodiversity of its region with efficient water use, and minimizing chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

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Some small farms can’t afford certifications in spite of employing sustainable growing practices. The only way to know for sure to is to contact your local roaster, who should have all complete information on the beans he or she is buying.

By paying a minimal amount of attention to where those 3.1 cups a day are coming, you'll be making a world of difference to the environment where your caffeine grows. 


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