Does coffee have a carbon problem?
Updated: May 25
Where would we be without coffee? Or rather how would we function? A universally beloved beverage that symbolises the morning ritual, an energy boost, a reason to meet up with our family, friends, colleagues. So much goes into that one little cup!
Sadly, it’s a complicated beverage when it comes to environmental and human impact; a fraught supply chain often means that an unrestricted commercial coffee industry contributes to human rights violations, high carbon emissions, and agricultural pollution.
How does coffee stack up? Its unsustainable cultivation and supply chain gives coffee a global carbon footprint equivalent to cheese. That’s around half of the carbon footprint for the notoriously high emitter: beef. When broken down further, an espresso made by the least sustainable means produces 28 grams of CO2 which is roughly the equivalent of charging 3.4 smartphones.
And this is before we even add milk into the equation! A large latte is roughly double that, producing 552 grams of CO2. Having five lattes results in around 2.76 kilograms of CO2, roughly the equivalent of taking a 20-minute drive in a petrol-fueled car. Over the course of a year, having a workday latte would add up to 144 kilograms of CO2— the equivalent of a round trip drive from London to Doncaster!
Switching milk makes a big difference!
If all this has you despairing about your morning fix, don’t throw away your coffee beans just yet! When coffee is made through sustainable means (including using compost rather than fertilizers, and with a regulated supply chain) the carbon footprint of an espresso can shrink down to as small as 0.06 grams. Switching to a dairy alternative makes a massive difference in the amount of carbon emitted, too! Switching from cow’s milk to oat milk or soy milk drops your latte’s footprint down to 288 grams and 308 grams of CO2 respectively.
Be sure to do your research as you switch from dairy milk to plant-based alternatives! While some can seem more sustainable based on their carbon footprint, it is important to check factors such as fair trading and worker’s standards, water usage, and agricultural methods. For example, while almond milk has a smaller carbon footprint, it takes 4.5 litres of water to grow a single almond in California, where most of the world’s almonds are grown. Its high water use means that it’s a less planet-friendly option than oat milk or soy milk. Cashew milk does not use a lot of water nor does it have a large carbon footprint but cashew plantations are notorious for human rights violations.
Check out Ethical Consumer’s guide to non-dairy milks to see how the different kinds of milk stack up when it comes to fair-trade work, agricultural practices, and supply chain sustainability.
How do I find sustainable coffee?
When looking for the right coffee brand, it can be challenging to find options that are not only sustainable but that are also fair to their workers and use sustainable agricultural methods with a transparent supply chain overview. Why can’t we have coffee that’s both good for workers and good for the planet?!
As you are looking for coffees that are healthy for you, for the workers, and for the planet, a good starting point would be to look for coffees that are both certified organic and certified as fair trade. While organic products are normally a good place to start, human rights violations of the people who work on coffee farms and plantations can still be an issue, even with organic products. Making sure that the people who are farming and shipping the coffee we drink every day is the necessary first step.
There are also websites such as Sustainable Coffee Challenge, Owly Choice’s Ethical Coffee List, and the National Coffee Association that can help point you towards brands that are taking their responsibility to the Earth and their workers seriously. Small brands and corporations alike are ramping up their sustainability efforts: Starbucks and Nespresso have announced that they will be carbon neutral by 2030 and 2022 respectively and Illy coffee has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2033, but there’s plenty more work to be done!
Do you have a favourite planet-friendly coffee brand and how did you find it? We’d love to know! Join the conversation via Capture’s Instagram channel or let us know directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.