A Coffee Roaster's Obligation

How do you like your coffee? No matter whether it's simply black or with cream and sugar, a latte or cappuccino, a mocha or macchiato, or any one of the many other delicious creations, you’re sure to be satisfied because it’s your fave. But now ask yourself, did you give much thought about the production process used to get that cup into your hands?

Probably not, but that's okay. Not many people do, but it's a good bet that most people would agree on the importance of knowing how that coffee was produced. That is, sustainably speaking, how was it grown, delivered, roasted and crafted.

The opening salvo on Keurig’s BrewABetterWorld, “Coffee connects us to the world” heralds the company’s pledge to social and environmental sustainability.

It’s a commitment – some might consider it a cultural obligation – many other coffee producers and retailer also believe. Be it Starbucks, Keurig, Stumptown, Community, Peets, Kicking Horse or you name it, all have a keen eye on sustainability. It’s an industry imperative. 

When people sit down and talk about sustainability, it’s easy to get lost in the discussion; there are many issues at hand; good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, sustainable vs. unsustainable. So hone the focus on something most people are familiar with coffee.

Coffee is the one of the most sought after commodities in the world, where, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast, coffee production for 2018/19 is projected at a record 174.5 million bags, up 15.6 million from the previous year.

With more than 2.25 billion cups of coffee sipped daily worldwide, coffee is considered by some traders to be the second most traded commodity in the world – depending on the measuring stick – behind only crude oil. There’s no dispute that it’s one of the oldest commodities or that people drink a lot of it.

Sustainable coffee production begins at the source – with the farmers and families who grow and sell it to the rest of the world. Sustainability plays an important role in the coffee industry because without growers and fertile lands, the industry would be hard pressed to exist.

Companies such as Keurig Green Mountain and San Francisco Bay Coffee Company have taken steps toward a more sustainable product. They, like many others, have visited the source to learn about the farmers that grow and harvest the coffee beans and the effect on their quality of life. As such, they have made the farmers’ lives a priority and have invested in farming communities to improve the quality of life for residents. In turn, these considerations create larger annual yields per hectare of land, which is a unit of land equal to 2.471 acres.

The principles of sustainability carry beyond the growing fields and are now rooted into many of the coffee roasters’ corporate cultures. Keurig, for example, took a big step in the name of sustainability by creating crib-to-cradle packaging, meaning the packaging for their single use coffee cups are recyclable or biodegradable, creating much less trash than past materials.

Keurig has laid out its strategic plans for its continued commitment to product sustainability. Single-use cups are not a thing of the past, with their popularity rising for convenience in homes and offices worldwide, but the company decided it was time for a change. It has created and will be launching their certified BPI compostable single use cups in November of 2019.

The sustainability of products is determined not only by the ways in which products are sourced, but also by the way in which sustainability refers to production, distribution and supply chain, as well. Keurig outlined its completed and in-process initiatives to create a more sustainable operation – from reducing their greenhouse gasses to creating 100-percent recyclable K-Cups. 

Exploring Global Issues: Social, Economic, and Environmental Interconnections 2nd Edition (EGI) is one of Facing the Future’s best-selling books – and this is for a good reason. Chapter two of EGI delves into the definition and root of sustainability.

It is defined as “…the principle of meeting current needs without limiting the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Expanding on that idea is the practice of sustainable development – the process of economic, social and political transformation using practices that raise standards of living for people around the world without depleting earth’s resources.

This is exactly what companies such as Keurig and The Roger’s Family Company are doing to sustain their coffee business. Without raising the standards of living for coffee growers in countries rich in natural resources that are sought after on a global scale, there will be no long-term business plan that will succeed lacking a protection of those resources and the people working closely with them.

EGI features the background of sustainability and discusses a well-known book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed?, written by Jared Diamond. His book analyzes societies and civilizations that have collapsed over the course of history, many of which collapsed due to decisions that ultimately did not sustain the land they lived on.

This initial understanding of sustainability provides an excellent framework for students to begin to evaluate their own actions and habits and how those might impact their surrounding environment. Although the teaching of sustainability is not required by states in K-12 curriculum plans, there are ways for teachers to implement sustainability curricula or activities into their classroom.

Another spotlight curricula is Big World, Small Planet Module 3: Meeting Human Needs Sustainably. In the first unit of this book, teachers are given an outline to discuss the essentials of sustaining life: food and water. It explains how and where humans and animals get their energy from, and what drives their ways of life. After laying a solid groundwork for understanding energy and sustaining life, students are presented with more thought-provoking issues such as food waste and food security.

Introducing topics such as these creates an environment in which students can learn from themselves and the actions of those around them. Big World, Small Planet gives lessons and activities to help students learn from real world situations – but even discussing sustainability in the classroom is a step in the right direction.

Drawing attention to the necessity of sustaining our world and natural resources for life and generations to come creates a mindset that students will remember and will grow from. This foundational educational experience offers students a pathway to understanding things both in their present and future in the context of sustainable living. Our real and natural world is full of lessons and opportunities to learn.

Give students this powerful information and they will have an opportunity to get involved and find passion in areas they may not have yet been exposed. And maybe when they sip on that favorite cup of coffee, they will better understand the importance of the sustainable process that put it into their hands.


Facing the Future:

Hello Verónica! Thank you for your comment! Virtual water is indeed a large part of the coffee industry, as is the embodied carbon for transporting, selling, and marketing coffee on a global scale. When conducting a life cycle analysis of any resource or commodity it can be difficult to discuss all the variables that contribute to its carbon/water footprint. We will continue to explore all aspects of issues such as these and bring them to our readers’ attention.

Mar 28, 2019

Verónica Alvarez:

What about the use of virtual water in the process of growing and marketing the coffee. This is an important concept I expected this article to mingle with.

Mar 28, 2019


Could you help do a coffee project with my 6th graders at my school?

Mar 28, 2019

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