Drinking Coffee Sustainably, From the Beans to Your Cup

It wakes us up, energizes us, and may be the only thing that makes us tolerable in the morning. On September 29, we celebrate our favorite way to start the day, with National Coffee Day. How can you make sure you’re enjoying this beverage in a responsible way that’s good for the planet? Here are some tips.

Picking the Right Type of Coffee

There are plenty of labels you may see while perusing the coffee aisle, and they all mean different things. Here’s a breakdown for the conscientious consumer.

woman drinking coffee on a hike

Fair Trade

The label you’re probably most familiar with is fair trade. This type of coffee production guarantees a minimum price for farmers to sustain them in tough years, provides fair working conditions, and uses sustainable growing methods. Producers who follow these standards also earn more per pound with Community Development Funds. That money can be invested in improving quality and productivity, as well as in local programs that address community needs. That may include things like scholarship programs and healthcare services.

coffee cup sitting next to window

Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Alliance certification focuses on environmental impacts, as well as social and economic issues. Third-party auditors examine these three areas before certification can be awarded or renewed. Producers who follow these standards embrace practices that protect forests, soils, and waterways. They also work to curb deforestation and focus on increasing carbon storage. One of the aims of their production methods is to help farmers survive droughts, flooding, and erosion.

Human rights are also an essential focus, with certification addressing issues like child labor, poor working conditions, gender inequality, low wages, and violation of the land rights of indigenous people.

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Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly certification

Though much production has veered from this in recent years, coffee is traditionally grown under the shade of trees. The environmental benefits of this include preventing topsoil erosion and avoiding chemical fertilizers. With a switch to more clear cutting and sun cultivation in the 1990s, the decreasing tree canopy has made things more difficult for migratory birds. This led the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to launch their Bird Friendly certification. This label means that the coffee is 100% organic and shade grown, and producers are working to preserve tropical agroforests that provide habitat for migratory birds.


Organic coffee is grown without synthetic fertilizers. These producers use methods that improve soil and water quality, while conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has rules that must be followed for coffee to achieve this designation. These rules relate to all facets of production, including the plants themselves, pest and weed management, supply chain management, and environmental impacts like carbon sequestration and biodiversity improvement.

woman holding large cup of coffee

Limiting Your Waste

Once you’ve done your homework on sustainable production and chosen a coffee brand, what can you do to make sure your personal consumption is good for the environment? You need to consider how you make your coffee, how you drink it, and what to do with any extra product you have.

How You Brew

One thing to consider is the type of machine you use. Fully-automatic espresso machines or an auto-drip coffee maker are a good start because they don’t use plastic or aluminum capsules. They simply use beans or ground coffee. A French press is also a helpful option, as it doesn’t require the electricity of the other two and you can use an individual cup model to ensure you’re not brewing more than you intend to drink. Additionally, you can use a coffee percolator on your stove top.

Coffee cup on coffee beans

Whichever way you choose, avoiding single-use coffee pods or capsules is something you may want to consider. More than 15 billion of these containers were not recycled after use in 2018. In 2015, the amount we all used was enough to circle the earth 10.5 times. If you’re really attached to pods, some companies are moving toward more environmentally friendly packaging. Check to see if you can find materials you’re more comfortable with.

After You Brew

Another way to avoid single-use items is to make sure you have your own reusable container to drink your coffee. If you’re at a shop, you’re likely to get your drink in a single-use cup, while people often use styrofoam cups if they fill up in the break room at work. It’s fairly easy to avoid producing extra waste in these circumstances. You can get yourself a solid mug for work, or find a reusable cup to take with you to your favorite coffee establishment. These small changes can certainly add up and help you limit a substantial amount of waste.

Cup of coffee sitting on table

If you’re unable to use all your coffee, there are some ways to ensure you don’t waste those leftovers, too. Grounds or coffee itself can be used in dessert recipes, to neutralize odors, or to help you scour pots and pans. They can also be helpful in your garden, as a fertilizer, a pest repellent, or to help increase your yield by mixing them with certain seeds.

Armed with your responsibly raised coffee in a favorite mug, with plans for those extra grounds, let’s drink to our favorite morning beverage!

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