For many of us, there is a defining point of the morning: whether or not we are able to access caffeine before we have to pretend to be awake. So much so that 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily around the globe and, according to the Guardian, it is the “…second most tradable commodity after oil…”. The lifeblood of the university student is clearly being produced in excessive amounts and it has to be asked, how sustainably is this being done?

In our increasingly socially conscious society it is a question that dominates most of our daily commodities. There are aspects of this particular industry that we are already highly aware of. For example, the single use coffee cups that many are choosing to replace with reusable vessels Starbucks is so eagerly capitalizing on. Similarly, the single-serve coffee pods made so popular by Kuerig are now steadily declining in sales, particularly in Canada where sales reportedly dropped by 23.4% between 2014 and 2015.

                  In terms of the actual growth of coffee, however, the awareness is less developed and the movement less overt. As with many contemporary consumables, there is a push towards organic and fair-trade produce, but we certainly know much less about the differences in coffee growth than we do of the environmental impacts of a coffee cup.

Unlike many farmed food products, coffee does not require the deforestation that currently takes place for its production. Coffee farms cultivated in a particular manner “…can support an impressive range of forest biodiversity.” Some coffee types are adapted to be grown in shaded areas and are naturally predisposed to grow under the canopies of other tree varieties. Not only does this promote biodiversity within the plants, but it also provides a good environment for songbirds in the winter and requires less chemicals (yay for less pesticides!). Coffee grown under the shade of other trees has even more environmental benefits beyond this including, but definitely not limited to, lessening the risk of landslides.

Yet capitalism prevails, drawing coffee production away from the traditional beneficial practices of shaded growth and towards sun-tolerant coffee varieties. The reason is simple, more coffee. The yields of sun-tolerant varieties are higher than that of shaded growth. Accordingly, more resources are also required, extending the issues of sustainability further. This method of cultivation “…can contribute as little as 1% or as much as 70% of the total environmental footprint of a cup of coffee.”

However, there are producers out there working to return to traditional farming, directed predominantly by consumer demand. People buying coffee are looking for those labels such as Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance Certified. Though this could be linked to a more general trend for consumers, it still allows for these fair trade practices to develop. And the label does make a difference. Fair Trade commodities come from producers with a completely different set of regulations than those of Rainforest Alliance Certified products.

While the Rainforest Alliance aims to improve “…livelihoods [of coffee farmers] and the health and well-being of their communities”, there are drawbacks to their system; namely the strict nature of their regulations. Though the regulations are important to maintaining fair wages and conditions for the workers as well as good practices in the growth of coffee, they also prevent some from participating in the program.

Coffee farmers that are more marginalized than others are not always able to live up to the expectations of Sustainable Agriculture Standard – the set of regulations outlined by Rainforest Alliance. Some of the equipment required is simply out of reach for poorer farmers.

On the other hand there is Fair Trade, which focuses on these smaller coffee farms and has much less regulation in place. To be a Fair Trade coffee farmer requires only that the “…cooperative keeps an honest set of books, that it operates democratically, and that it treats workers fairly.” A reasonably loose set of expectations by comparison. The drawback with Fair Trade being that the actual production of coffee is not strictly regulated as with Rainforest Alliance.

These certifications are not alone in the world of coffee production, but they do begin to provide us with a better understanding of the way our daily dose of caffeine is having an impact on the world around us. So next time you are at your local coffee spot, have a think about where your pick-me-up is coming from and what you’re doing to improve the environmental impact it is having.

By Annalisse Crosswell

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.