What is sustainable coffee? And is the higher price helping?

What is sustainability and what is sustainable coffee? No, it’s not an IV of black coffee dripping into your system! Like most of you, I care about our environment but many times I don’t act or more importantly, I don’t spend my money like I do. I buy the plastic cup of coffee and know that the plastic components are not good for the environment, but I really don’t know about the coffee that is in the cup, what environmental toll has it had to make its way to my cup.
Here is an outline of the broad strokes of what “sustainable coffee” is and what it really means for Earth and you.

Sustainable Coffee

Like many of these categorizing terms, see single-origin or organic, the word “sustainable” has many criteria and nested terms that make it a more complicated and not always agreed upon concept. But with that being said, there are over-arching ideas that encapsulate sustainable coffee:

combinations of social, environmental, and economic standards independently verified by third parties.

Just the designation of sustainable coffee has itself grown into a multi-billion-dollar coffee segment. So, there is big money in defining and understanding this coffee term. But what kind of social, environmental and economic standards does sustainable coffee aim for.

Under the umbrella of “sustainable coffee”

Certified Organic Coffee

Standards vary worldwide, but organic farming in general features practices that strive to cycle resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Organizations regulating organic products may restrict the use of certain pesticides and fertilizers in farming. In general, organic foods are also usually not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or synthetic food additives.


If you want to discover some really amazing certified organic and apparently “the World’s Most Sustainable Coffee” check out Paradise Mountain Organic Coffee. This company is dedicated to the principles of sustainable coffee and has some amazing awards to backup their hard work. Their Peaberry coffee recently won “best new coffee” at the 2018 Coffee Fest trade show. Furthermore, Paradise Mountain has USDA Organic certification.

Fairtrade Coffee 

Fairtrade is a foundation whose stated goal is to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions. Members of the movement advocate the payment of higher prices to exporters, to improve social and environmental standards.
The movement seeks to promote greater equity in international trading partnerships through dialogue, transparency, and respect. It promotes sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers in developing countries. Fairtrade is grounded in three core beliefs

  1. producers have the power to express unity with consumers.
  2. the world trade practices that currently exist promote the unequal distribution of wealth between nations.
  3. buying products from producers in developing countries at a fair price is a more efficient way of promoting sustainable development than traditional charity and aid.

There are many certified Fairtrade coffees in Thailand but probably the biggest or most well know is Doi Chaang Coffee, the country’s leading coffee exporter with overseas sales of 137,802,000฿ in 2016. I personally enjoy Doi Chaang’s Vienna Roast when making cold brew coffee.

Rainforest Alliance  

To obtain certification, farms must meet the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard including

  1. conserving ecosystems,
  2. protect biodiversity and waterways,
  3. conserve forests,
  4. reduce agrochemical use,
  5. and safeguard the well-being of workers and local communities.

The Rainforest Alliance does not guarantee prices for coffee like Fairtrade Certification does and some criticize them for this while others say this creates more incentive for farmers in the Rainforest Alliance to produce better coffee, where as the Fairtrade guaranteed price provides little incentive for the farmers to improve their product.

One of the companies that is part of the Rainforest Alliance is Nespresso, the coffee pod arm of the Nescafe army of coffee products. At first glance this may seem difficult for the pods to meet the “conserve ecosystems” portion of the Rainforest Alliance goals but Nespresso is taking sustainability seriously. Their pods are not plastic, they are aluminum which is more easily recycled. Also, the used coffee grounds are being recycled and used in power plants and compost. Nespresso encourages making recycling part of your morning routine and offer many recycling points throughout Bangkok, Hua Hin, Pattaya, Phuket, Hat Yai, and Chiang Mai.

A lot of fancy words but is it helping?

These classifications are used to determine the participation of growers (or the supply chain) in various combinations of social, environmental, and economic standards. Coffees fitting such categories and that are independently certified or verified by an accredited third party have been collectively termed “sustainable coffees”.
Now that we know roughly what these terms mean, have they had the impact they intended?
Unfortunately, the data is not great. According to a report by the Center for Global Development which reviewed about 100 studies from the last decade, it is almost impossible to tell if those certifications have any measurable effect on coffee growers. That is discouraging. Some of the problems with trying to figure out if there have been improvements is there was no baseline established when the various certification programs started. There is little to no monitoring of the farmers. For example, there has been an increase in safety equipment. But are the farmers actually using it? And are they healthier? We just don’t have that information.
If you buy Fairtrade coffee, you do know that those farmers were paid a premium and in theory this should help them earn a living wage.

Until there is better monitoring of the farms in and out of certification programs we will probably not know if paying a higher price is really helping those at the beginning of the coffee supply chain. However, by purchasing “sustainable coffee” you signal to the coffee industry at large that the consumer values sustainable coffee sourcing practices.

After learning more about all these certifications, I will be more vigilant to look for coffee that represents what I believe is best for people and the environment even if the impact is very small.