What Is Ethical Coffee & How Can You Tell If It’s Responsibly Sourced?

what is ethical coffee

Who doesn’t love a good coffee? An ethical coffee is even better!

Coffee has been a centuries-long staple in many cultures around the world, serving as a ritualistic tool and an irreplaceable enabler for countless social gatherings. But more often than not, a nice cup of coffee is simply the first thing we need to start the day on the right foot!

What makes coffee a little harder to love, however, is its production process.

From farming to packaging, most coffee brands end up not fairing too well when it comes to company ethics and environmental impact.

Ethical coffee is different, however.

But what is ethical coffee and how can you make sure you’re picking the right kind to fit your ethical and environmental beliefs?

This post will talk you through all you need to know about responsibly sourced coffee. With this information, you’ll be able to make an ethical and conscious decision every time you’re browsing the coffee section in the shop — without any of the greenwashing, of course!

What is ethical coffee?

First things first, let’s answer the most important question of responsibly sourced coffee buying: What is ethical coffee, exactly?

Well, there are usually two main sides to the ethics of coffee production:

  1. Labour conditions
  2. Environmental impact

Ethical coffee usually comes from an independent, small-scale operation setting itself apart from multinational coffee producers. Small, independent producers can often adhere to low-environmental impact farming standards and provide fair wages, as well as adequate working conditions to their farmers.

It might be hard to believe, but the reality of mainstream coffee production is very different from these seemingly basic standards.

ethical coffee and plants

Mass-scale coffee farming, processing, and roasting suffer from the same, well-documented ethical issues that fast fashion does – incredibly low wages, unsafe working conditions and yes, even slave and child labour.

In Brazil, one of the world’s leading coffee suppliers, child labour has been extensively reported. Many undocumented and underpaid adults and minors have been found working on coffee plantations without any of the legally mandated safety equipment.

Modern slavery is also a concern. Many plantation workers across the Global South are enslaved through owing unfair debts, a lack of work contracts, and blackmail.

In terms of average pay, coffee workers are only paid 7–10% of the retail price of coffee, while in Brazil, the number goes as low as 2%.

Unsafe working conditions and inhumane living quarters add even more shadow to the long list of unethical industry standards employed by coffee multinationals.

The environmental side of ethical coffee

But what about the environmental side of coffee?

Unfortunately, the situation isn’t much better on that front either. Coffee plantations are linked with rampant deforestation, wildlife habitat loss, and greenhouse gas emissions. This all contributes to the deterioration of some of the most biodiverse areas of the world, including Brazil and Vietnam.

The environmental impact of coffee farming is actually getting more severe over time. Increased demand for inexpensive coffee has led farmers to pivot to more intensive cultivation methods, phasing out the more eco-friendly shade-grown coffee in favour of sun-exposed coffee. Without cover trees and forests, this just aggravates the deforestation issue.

According to a WWF report, a whopping 2.5 million acres have been cleared in Central America to expand coffee plantations. Furthermore, 37 of the 50 countries with the highest deforestation rates in the world are also leading coffee producers.

In terms of environmental impact, picking shade-grown coffee over sun-grown is always a good step forward. Choosing brands that have committed to sustainable and recyclable packaging will help you reduce waste at home too.

If you’re in need of a little extra inspiration, we have already reviewed some of our favourite responsibly sourced and eco-friendly coffee brands: Cafedirect Machu Picchu and Voyager!

cafedirect machu picchu organic coffee and cafetiere filter

How do you know if coffee is ethically sourced?

So, how can you tell if your coffee is ethically sourced and not just another example of corporate greenwashing?

As a general rule of thumb, multinational producers selling coffee at suspiciously low prices won’t fit the bill. The first sign of an ethically sourced and eco-friendly coffee you’ll notice is a higher price tag. This is justified by fairer wages for workers and the expenses of farming shade-grown coffee. 

Nine times out of ten, ethical coffee brands will showcase their ethical and environmental credentials on their website and packaging by using verified logos. A lack of transparency and certification is the first red flag you should be watching out for when picking your next bag of coffee.

There are a number of well-known sustainable coffee certification schemes, such as:

These certifications are independently verified and are definitely a step in the right direction. They have helped many people just like you to purchase coffee with a clear conscious.

Many ethical brands however will go well in beyond these logos and provide full transparency on how their supply chain works and where their coffee comes from.

On top of that, direct trade and straight-to-source operations are also most likely to compensate their workers fairly. These are where roasters buy coffee directly from the producer, cutting out a third party.

With this in mind, it’s worth researching how exactly your morning cup of coffee is getting to you. The fewer the steps and middlemen, the more the brand is likely to implement ethical practices!

coffee beans in basket

Which countries supply responsibly sourced coffee? 

If you wish to only purchase coffee farmed in countries where ethical and environmental standards are implemented from the top-down, the research is going to be a little harder.

Your best bet is to purchase from countries that have joined and supported the Fairtrade program the longest. By this standard, Mexico and Colombia being two of the most responsible when it comes to fair wages and working conditions in the Americas.

In the African continent, Ethiopia is another leading player when it comes to producing ethical coffee on a mass scale.

The very birthplace of Arabica coffee derives as much as 60% of all its foreign income from coffee production alone, and a whopping 15 million Ethiopians depend on coffee farming for their livelihood. 

Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda are other major ethical coffee suppliers found in the continent, while Peru, Guatemala and Costa Rica are other major players in Central and South America. 

Of course, this is just generally speaking. How ethical coffee is will vary from farm to farm within each and every country.

The wrap up on ethical coffee

Finding out if a bag of coffee really is ethical can be difficult.

Although sustainable labels, such as Fairtrade offer a good indication, go beyond this if you can.

One of your best bets to buying ethical coffee is to check if things have been kept traceable. Look out for the producer’s name on the bag, or the farm or factory where it was produced. This way you know a better price has been paid.

If you have time on your hands, ask more questions to coffee companies, such as how was it grown and what do you have to show for the supply chain process?

The research involved can sure be a time-consuming task. But it’s one of the best ways to put the power back into the hands of the consumer and ensure your morning coffee is ethical – and worth waking up for!


If you liked that, you might like to read these too…