Coffee is a global commodity, usually produced by small-scale cultivators in dozens of tropical countries across the globe. For something you drink every day, a simple cup of coffee can have significant social impacts on farmers and laborers as well as environmental impacts on tropical ecosystems. The most important impacts associated with coffee cultivation include:
Working conditions — coffee plantation laborers are often paid less than legal minimums, experience unsafe working conditions, and have limited access to basic medical care. Workers may also have limited or no labor rights to organize to improve their conditions.
Ecological impacts — When coffee is grown amongst shade trees, plantations can provide a habitat for beneficial native species. Beans grown in the sun produce a higher yield, but require more fertilizers and pesticides. Poor irrigation and waste management practices can result in soil and water degradation.
Energy use — Most of the energy/greenhouse gas impacts for coffee is a result of heating water to make a cup and wash the mug.
Health concerns — Coffee contains caffeine, which can cause adverse health effects in pregnant women and adolescents. Coffee also contains antioxidants, which are beneficial for health.
Buying Guide: What to look for
Certifications ensure your coffee has been produced under industry leading labor and environmental conditions. Fair Trade Certified means that coffee workers receive livable wages, fair labor practices and safe working conditions and that coffee is produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. Bird Friendly certification means coffee is grown in the shade of native vegetation and is in compliance with the USDA’s rules for organic production. Other recognized labor/environmental certifications include Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified. Starbucks is the only major brand to create a similar certification program (C.A.F.E.) for their own products.
Packaging: Brick packs, laminate bags and bulk steel canisters are preferred packaging alternatives over single serve cardboard containers, plastic canisters, and glass jars.
Scoring Coffee and Tea
Environment scores are assigned to bulk coffee and tea by combining product-level environmental indicators with company-level environmental indicators. Based on the relatively extensive product-level information available for coffee, the summary Environmental score is weighted 75% product-level and 25% company-level. The data for teas is as not as comprehensive over the product's life cycle, so the summary Environmental score for teas is weighted 50% product-level and 50% company-level.
Product-level Environment scores for this category are based on:
Product type, because type determines key resource management indicators like the efficiency of flavor extraction per unit of coffee or tea and the amount of hot water heated or wasted. For coffee, there are three product types: whole/ground beans, instant or capsule. For tea, there are two: loose/bagged tea and capsules.
Packaging type, because these are associated with significant energy and waste management impacts.
Certifications, because third parties track product and producer performance across a variety of key environmental metrics like biodiversity impacts and water and energy use.
Society scores are assigned to bulk coffee and tea by combining product-level societal indicators (weighted at 50%) with company-level societal indicators (weighted at 50%). Product-level Society scores for this category are based on certifications, because third-parties track product and producer performance across a variety of key social metrics like working conditions and labor rights.
Health scores are not assigned to bulk coffees and teas because these commodities do not exhibit a consistent set of nutritional attributes – their nutritional quality is determined primarily by whether they are combined with other foods like milk or sugar. In addition, serving sizes are not standardized and data on ingredient composition or other food facts are generally unavailable.