Coffee is a lifeline for millions, a major global commodity, and a crop that’s farmed in dozens of countries. It’s a fusion of science and art that forms the start of our day, and fuels minds the world over – but how environmentally sustainable is speciality coffee really?
We at Southampton Solent University have teamed up with Union Hand Roasted Coffee Co. and Mettricks Tea & Coffee to answer that exact question. And we’re not limiting ourselves to just the impact on producers, or on deforestation: we’re assessing the environmental and social impacts of production, roasting, and retail brewing and consumption. In other words, the entire coffee supply chain.
Here’s how we’re doing it, and what impact we expect our research to have.
Lee este artículo en español De la Finca a la Taza, ¿Cómo Puede Tu Café Ser Más Sostenible?
Southampton Solent University researchers Dr. Laurie Wright (left) and Sam Williams (middle), and Founder & Director of Mettricks Tea & Coffee, Spencer Bowman (right). Credit: Paul Watts – PBW PIX
Why Does Sustainability Matter?
The global coffee market is vast and vitally important – culturally, socially and economically. As a major global commodity and crop, it has a huge role to play in our quest for a more sustainable society.
Mismanagement of plastic waste leads to over 8 million tonnes entering the world’s oceans annually – something with catastrophic effects on marine fauna and flora (Plastic Oceans Foundation, 2016). Ongoing deforestation in the tropics is another great tragedy, born from the need to provide food for the world’s growing population. An estimated 13 million hectares of forest were lost each year between 2000 and 2010 (WWF Global, 2016).
Then there’s the waste we produce during and after production of goods, such as used coffee grounds. As our population increases, so will total production. The issue of waste will only continue to grow.
Waste in coffee: used coffee grounds. Credit: Sam Williams
How Are We Studying The Entire Supply Chain?
We want to document the processes of the entire specialty coffee supply chain. That means looking from the growth of the coffee in the country of origin to the roasting and retailing in the country of consumption.
By recording all inputs, processes, and outputs on the journey from seed to cup, we can assess the the industry’s impact at any stage. Issues can be identified, quantified and measures can then be taken to mitigate them.
Environmental and social impacts will be identified. For example, we will record how much water is used in the growing, processing, roasting and brewing – providing us with a definitive amount of water used per beverage. Similarly, accounting for the number of cherry pickers, how long they pick for, how much coffee they pick, and what they get paid will determine the fairness of their pay.
This data will then allow us to identify the effect of the coffee industry on human health, resource depletion, global warming, land use, and more.
Our study is focused on the production of a single origin coffee grown in Costa Rica, traded through Exclusive Coffees, roasted by Union Hand Roasted, and served by Mettricks Tea & Coffee. It’s important to understand that there will be regional variations in sustainability, based on climatic conditions, infrastructure, customer praeferences, and more. However, our technique can be repeated multiple times with different coffees, roasters, and cafés, allowing for comparisons.
Union Hand Roasted Coffee of London use direct trade, and so have been able to work with their long-term Costa Rican partners to collect data on every stage of production processing, and transportation. They then record data on their roasting and transportation to Mettricks Tea & Coffee, where Founder Spencer Bowman provides the final data.
Union Hand Roasted Co-Founder Steve Macatonia says, “I think it is a fascinating question that I am not aware has been applied to specialty coffee in this way previously… It could help producers with decision making on how to manage limited natural resources.”
Founders of Union Hand Roasted Coffee, Steven Macatonia (left) and Jeremy Torz (right). Credit: Pascale Schuit
What Results Do We Expect?
The study is still in its early stages, and won’t be completed until July. However, we anticipate water usage to be one of the biggest impact areas, especially in drought-stricken areas, along with energy and milk production.
Our aim is to determine which areas of the supply chain are the most damaging – and which the most efficient. With this information, we as an industry can make improvements.
After the study has been completed and published, we can begin working with farmers, roasters and retailers. This may mean looking at water usage or reusing water in another area of the process. It may mean using less energy-intensive equipment to reduce the overall CO2 outputs. Or it may mean reducing the amount of milk wasted after each milk-based beverage. This will both reduce wastage and save on costs for retailers.
Spencer Bowman, Owner & Founder of Mettricks Tea & Coffee. Credit: Paul Watts – PBW PIX
There are 125 million coffee producers around the world, and they supply an enormous number of roasters and retailers. Our results will reflect on all of them. What’s more, the challenges of sustainability are not isolated to the coffee industry alone. Waste management and resource usage are part of the production of every single thing we consume as a society.
If we are to become a sustainable society, and reduce the burden on our environment, we need to start gathering data on entire supply chains. What’s more, we need to use that data to transform those supply chains – making them more environmentally friendly and more fair.
Written by Sam Willams.
Please note: Exclusive Coffees is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind. Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the other individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.
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