There’s a lot of skepticism surrounding terms like “all-natural” and “homemade,” much of it for good reason. While some companies are honest when making these claims, others slap them on their products because they know they’re what consumers want. That sort of corporate dishonesty makes it hard to differentiate between legitimate terms and marketing ploys.
If you’re a coffee drinker, you might’ve come across bags of coffee that claim to be “ethically grown.” And, if you’re trying to be a responsible consumer, there’s a good chance that you’re skeptical about that claim.
So what’s the verdict? Is ethically grown coffee legit, or is it just another way to fool good-hearted shoppers?
The human cost
Most coffee drinkers don’t take the time to think about how their caffeine fix arrives in their cup. They know that it comes from a bean on a tree somewhere far away, but that’s about it. However, being a responsible consumer means knowing how what you buy comes to be.
The vast majority of coffee comes from the Global South, from Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Most of the coffee produced in those regions doesn’t stay there—it gets exported to wealthier nations, like the United States.
Unfortunately, the coffee industry is notorious for shady and outright abusive labor practices. In 2016, for example, Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts (two companies that control around 40% of the coffee industry) admitted that some of their Brazillian coffee beans might have come from slave labor. Other reports have unearthed everything from withholding pay and benefits to child labor during the coffee-harvesting season.
The environmental impact
In addition to exploitation, coffee production also has a severe impact on the environment. Over time, coffee plants cause soil quality to deteriorate. This, in turn, decreases productivity, so after a certain point (usually around 12-15 years), coffee plantation owners find it cheaper to destroy their current farms and clear new areas of land to start new ones.
This type of short-term thinking has had a disastrous effect on the environment in places like Brazil, so much so that many areas that used to grow coffee now no longer support agriculture (1).
Coffee production also requires high levels of pesticides and fungicides. These damage the environment and harm the workers spraying them since many of them can’t afford the protective equipment worn by workers in wealthier nations.
A brighter alternative
Of course, no one would want to drink coffee if they knew that it might have been sourced by a child working in inhospitable conditions or that they were helping contribute to environmental degradation. Because of that, it’s essential to raise awareness about the coffee industry conditions.
In a perfect world, the farmers harvesting the coffee beans would receive a fair share of the profits. They would work in safe and manageable conditions, and any environmental damage would be minimal. When you buy ethically sourced coffee, those are the conditions that you help promote.
Next time you’re shopping for a bag of coffee beans, look for coffee that is direct trade or fair trade. These are endorsements given out by non-profits, such as Fair Trade USA. They show that a company follows a stringent set of rules regarding both the environment and labor practices. Buying ethically sourced coffee is the best way to support workers and the environment.
Unlike fruits, vegetables, and meat, most people in countries like the United States can’t get coffee from their local areas. Because of that, one of the only ways to ensure you’re not supporting environmental or labor malpractices around the world is by buying ethically grown coffee.
In addition to being a savvy consumer, it’s worth changing how you view coffee. Instead of viewing it as a daily necessity, start to see it as a luxury that you can go without if necessary. After all, a lot goes into getting it into your mug.