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A Cup of Coffee: Sustainability and Ethics

0 commentPost by : Jasmin Tétreault

We all know and love coffee. That delicious morning cup (or three) gets us going, helps us push through long work days, and gives us a little pick-me-up in the afternoon. But how much do we really know about where our coffee comes from?

The process of growing and harvesting coffee is extremely labor-intensive. It's estimated that 125 million people around the world rely on coffee for their livelihoods and of those 12.5 million are farmers. Unfortunately, many of these workers are paid very little for their hard work. In some cases, they may not even earn enough to cover their basic needs

As coffee becomes more popular than ever, it's important to remember that behind every cup of coffee are the workers who labored to grow, pick, and roast the beans. In recent years, there has been increasing public pressure on the coffee industry to improve sustainability and ethical worker treatment. But what does that mean, exactly? Let's break it down. 

Why does sustainability matter? 

The simple answer is that if we want to keep drinking delicious coffee long into the future, we need to make sure that the industry is sustainable. That means supporting farmers who are growing coffee sustainably and working to improve conditions for workers throughout the supply chain. It also means being conscious of our impact on the environment and doing what we can to reduce our footprint. 

What does it mean for coffee to be sustainable? 

Paying attention to where your coffee comes from is a key part of sustainability. This means being mindful of the farming practices used to grow the coffee beans, as well as how the coffee is processed and roasted.

The coffee industry has made strides in recent years in terms of sustainability, but there's still room for improvement. For example, many coffee growers still use pesticides that can pollute nearby waterways. And although more roasters are using renewable energy sources, fossil fuels are still the primary source of power for most coffee roasting operations.

When we talk about sustainability in the context of coffee, we're usually talking about three different types of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental.  

Economic sustainability - Worker Pay

Unfortunately, the majority of coffee growers earn very little money. In fact, according to Rushton, more than 5.5 million coffee farmers live in poverty. This is due in part to the low prices paid for raw coffee beans on the global market.

An important aspect of sustainability has to do with making sure that small-scale farmers who grow coffee can make a decent living doing so. This means ensuring that they're paid a fair price for their beans and that they have access to the resources they need to produce high-quality coffee. 

Social sustainability - Worker's rights

The coffee industry has come under fire in recent years for its treatment of workers. Additionally, they may not have access to things like healthcare or education. Improving social sustainability means ensuring that workers are treated fairly, providing them with safe working conditions, and giving them access to things like healthcare and education.   

In addition, child labor is still widespread in the coffee industry; it's estimated that over two million children are involved in growing and harvesting coffee beans each year. According to Dr. Chen, no single organism can solve these issues. We have to act collectively to make a change

Environmental sustainability

Coffee farmers face several challenges when it comes to sustaining their crops. Climate change has caused extreme weather conditions that can damage crops, while pests and diseases can also wreak havoc on plantations. In addition, many farmers struggle to access the resources and financing they need to invest in sustainable practices. 

Environmental sustainability is all about protecting the environment in which coffee is grown. This includes things like conserving water resources, promoting biodiversity, and using environmentally-friendly farming practices. 

Given all of these issues, it's important that we only buy coffee from companies that prioritize the ethical treatment of workers. We have done the work for you and created an ethical coffee subscription. We only buy coffee from roasters who have impeccable sourcing practices.

Trading Coffee

The process of trading coffee is complicated. There are various actors involved in getting coffee from farm to cup, including growers, cooperatives, importers, roasters, and retailers. Each middleman takes a cut of the sale, which leaves less money for the growers—the people who do the majority of the work.

The majority of coffee is still traded on the New York Stock Exchange through commodity futures contracts. This means that the price is set by supply and demand, rather than being based on the actual cost of production. In most cases, the price paid to the producer is impossible to know. The most common way for producers to sell their coffee is to a cooperative which buys it at the market value. 

Another way of trading coffee is for importers to buy directly from the producers. This type of relationship allows for greater transparency and often results in a higher price paid to the producer. Some importers will even go as far as publishing how much they paid the producer.

Direct Trade

In recent years, more and more roasters have been working directly with growers to buy coffee beans. This direct trade relationship allows roasters to cut out the middlemen and pay growers a higher price for their beans.

However, not all direct trade relationships are created equal. Some roasters may only buy small quantities of coffee from a grower, which doesn't provide much stability for the farmer. The best buying practice is for roasters to be recurring customers as this allows growers to plan for the future and invest in sustainable practices.

The Problem with Fair Trade

Fair Trade is a program that gives growers a guaranteed minimum price for their beans. While this sounds like a good idea, Fair Trade does not live up to its promises. 

The Fair Trade program only certifies coffee that has been produced by fair labor and environmental standards. Growers who participate in these programs are guaranteed a price for their beans. This price however does not fluctuate with the market. This means that sometimes, the market might pay more than the guaranteed price of Fair Trade.

A New Cooperative Model

To improve the lives of coffee farmers, the cooperative model could be revised. Studies have shown a call for a renewed commitment to existing relationships with small-scale producer cooperatives and their communities. This new model of cooperatives should will link governments, small-scale farmer organizations, civil society organizations certification agencies, and specialty coffee industry together. It's only with a collective effort that we can achieve better outcomes for the producers.

How can you make sure your cup of coffee is sustainable? 

The best way to make sure your coffee is sustainable is to only buy from companies that have transparent and ethical sourcing practices. This is a hard thing to do as it does require some research. Most roasters do not want to share how much they pay.

FOB vs Farmgate

If you ask your roaster, and they give you a price, there is another question to ask them! Coffee prices can vary depending on where the beans are purchased. Farmgate prices refer to the price that growers receive for their coffee beans, while FOB prices reflect the cost of the beans when they are sold at the port of export.

There are two main types of prices for coffee: Farmgate and FOB. FOB, or Freight on Board, is the price that coffee buyers pay when they purchase coffee from an exporter. This includes the cost of the beans, transportation to the buyer's location, and any other fees associated with the transaction.

Farmgate, on the other hand, is the price that coffee producers receive when they sell their coffee. This price includes the cost of production, but not transportation or other fees. It is important for coffee buyers to be aware of farmgate if you want to be sure that the producer is paid their worth.

If you want to be sure that your coffee is ethical, take a look at Nucleus Coffee!


The next time you reach for a cup of coffee, take a moment to think about where it came from and what went into making it possible for you to enjoy it. By choosing sustainably grown beans and supporting companies that prioritize ethical treatment of workers, we can all help make the global coffee industry more sustainable—and preserve our precious coffee long into the future. 


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