Sustainability in the coffee industry - how environmentally and socially damaging is coffee really?

Sustainable coffee from unbound

Whether it's a small specialty coffee or a large corporation, everyone advertises that they are even more sustainable. At least once more than the other! Too often, sustainability is used as a marketing tool without creating awareness of which areas actually have an impact on sustainability in the coffee sector.

How do we define this term that constantly surrounds us and what does it mean to you? 

At unbound, we agree that sustainability is important in the coffee industry. Yet each of us has a different idea of what it actually means - as you probably do.

That's why we're going in search of an answer to the question: Can coffee be sustainable at all? And if so, how can it be?

To answer this question, we take a closer look at the long journey of the coffee bean - from the farm to your cup.

Table of contents

What does sustainability mean to you?

In the meantime, the term sustainability has become a trendy word and it is impossible to imagine our linguistic usage without it. However, it is difficult to find an official, all-encompassing definition. Rather, it is an elastic term with guidelines that we can follow in order to consume ecological, economic and sociocultural resources in a long-lasting manner. 

Future generations should have access to these resources to the same extent and, above all, in the same quality as we do now. We must therefore be careful with resources in order to preserve them in the long term. Simply put, coffee should only be consumed to the extent that nature's regeneration allows. But what does this mean for our reality?

Where sustainability begins  

Coffee is considered the most commonly consumed beverage in Austria and Germany. However, the coffee plant grows exclusively in tropical and subtropical climates. This means that it is no longer possible to speak of regionality. 

Added to this is the enormous water consumption in the processing of coffee. The Water Footprint Network developed the so-called water footprint and calculates a water consumption of approximately 21,000 liters of water per 1 kg of coffee. Although a large part of the water occurs naturally - mainly through rain and thus remains in the cycle of nature - other water must be extracted and polluted water must be properly treated. 

In addition to a mindful use of rainwater and treated water, the focus should be on organic production, but this does not always have to be in connection with an organic certificate.

Important here is the ecological and organic pest control, instead of the use of pesticides and herbicides. We therefore also work partly with the EU organic seal. For our non-organic certified green coffee, of course, we also pay attention to the same criteria. 

Means our green coffee is produced with abandonment of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and without any genetic manipulation. The coffee plant is usually grown within a so-called mixed culture and grows in the shade of other plants, such as banana plants.

Coffee cultivation in mixed culture in Peru

The long way from the equator to Tyrol

As soon as the green coffee makes its way to our roastery, we come to the next hurdle - the supply chain. This is probably where most people assume the greatest influence on sustainability. But is that really true? 

The Öko-Institut calculates a CO2 footprint of up to 101.35g CO2 per cup of coffee. However, all emissions are calculated. That is, starting with cultivation and ending with disposal. The greatest influence is exerted by the cultivation and processing of the coffee plant. 

The choice of preparation method also plays a role. Here it makes a difference whether you brew your coffee, for example, with an Aeropress (only "waste": small recyclable paper filter), or a capsule machine (6g packaging waste per 5g coffee). Thus, surprisingly, the actual transport of the green coffee is only in third place in this breakdown. This makes this step comparatively "harmless", but this CO2 emission is far from being balanced.

For example, at our Pacha Mama coffee from Peru, the climate impact is offset by the purchase of climate protection certificates. In concrete terms, this supports forest reforestation projects in Peru and a hydropower project in Uganda. However, we know that we are only at the beginning of a long journey here. Of course, we would prefer to support valuable projects with all our coffees in order to reduce our carbon footprint. Easier said than done, but this is an issue that is very close to our hearts, where we are always trying to improve.    

Aeropress preparation

Seals & certificates - what they promise and what they actually do

To cover costs, a coffee farmer needs a price per kilo of around €1.90. The current exchange price averages €1.50-1.60 per kg. Coffee traded under the fair trade label means that the farmer receives a stable price for the coffee bean independent of the world market.

 Even if such certificates have basically good intentions and create awareness purely by their existence, it often fails in the execution.

Small farms in particular have great difficulty paying for seals. Many farmers grow their coffee under organic conditions, but cannot or do not want to afford an organic label. Ongoing inspections, difficult conditions, the risk of crop failure - all this weighs heavily on the farmers' families. Where does the surcharge of various certificates really go and how much do these organizations actually pay out to their farmers? (Read HERE more about the price structures on the coffee market).

Sustainable green coffee unbound

To Go disposable cups - aka "the big climate polluter"?  

Every Austrian drinks an average of 162 liters of coffee a year. Although around 63 percent of this is consumed at home, what happens to the remaining 37 percent? 

"Now for another coffee to go" That's what not only we think from time to time, but also a large proportion of frahling lovers. However, this "coffee to go" is usually not served in sustainable containers. The average lifespan of such a disposable cup is only 15 minutes! In Austria, approximately 300 million cups - 800,000 per day - went into the trash in 2019.

Before we decided on a more sustainable deposit system, we were also part of the problem. In order not to deny our customers their "coffee to go," we offered it in disposable cups because we simply didn't have a better solution up to that point.

Our answer to this madness is now BPA free recyclable polypropylene coffee cups. These value-added cups can be rinsed up to 1000 times before we send them back to production. There they are melted down, further processed and made into value-added cups again. The whole process not only saves resources and raw materials, but also costs (to the Ökocup). A wonderful, sustainable cycle of life!

In addition to introducing sustainable coffee cups, we are also constantly looking for a better alternative for our coffee packaging, trying to communicate our decisions as transparently as possible. You are welcome to HERE to read more about it.

What we do and what we can and will do even better

As a small Third Wave coffee roastery, we have made it our mission to collect and impart knowledge in order to be able to create a higher awareness for the daily consumption of coffee. So that in the end everyone knows what makes really good coffee, how much passion and hard work is behind it and what is the price you should be willing to pay for it.

All of this only works through transparency, accountability and, above all, a willingness to learn.

We therefore select our farms specifically according to criteria that allow you to enjoy coffee without worries. We stand for fair, transparent trade and the development of long-term, meaningful partnerships with farmers, farms and small farm cooperatives. With our "Trace back to Farm" seal, we want to give you as a consumer the opportunity to trace our coffee back to its origin, in order to offer you a point of contact for independent control. 

The most sustainable way would be to drink little to no coffee, but of course we don't want that. It simply tastes too good for that! That's why we will continue to work on our supply chains and production processes to create the most sustainable product possible and continuously improve. We believe we can only do this by constantly challenging ourselves, being open about our mistakes and challenges, and most importantly, being as transparent as possible about the entire process from farm to cup.

Transparency, roasting team at unbound

You want to know more about coffee? 

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