Guide to Ethical Coffee 2023 [Plus 10 Most Sustainable Coffee Brand]

We all love a good coffee don’t we? I definitely do!

But we don’t always know where it’s been sourced and how it’s got to our cup.

This is where it’s useful to know about responsibly sourced ethical coffee.

Humans in a variety cultures have been drinking coffee for centuries. From playing a part in social gatherings to being used in rituals. In today’s world, a cup of coffee is still the focus of many social meet-ups, as well as being the potent drink a lot of people need to get their day going!

One of the most popular drinks in the world, it’s fair to say there’s a lot of love for coffee. But it’s not without it’s negative aspects. The unsavoury side to coffee has impacts on the environment, societies and raises serious ethical questions.

Sustainable coffee does offer a positive way to consume your favourite beverage. It’s important to consider as between 65-80% of coffee consumption across the world is done at home.

This blog 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 environmentally aware decision every time you’re buying coffee without giving in to any greenwashing.

What is ethical coffee?

eco coffee in glass cup
A favourite coffee of mine from an independent on the local highstreet

So, what is ethical coffee exactly?

There isn’t a standard definition to what ethical coffee is, but the idea of encompasses a few different areas.

For me, a truly ethical coffee is one is grown, harvested, transported, roasted and sold to consumers in the fairest manner for farmers and workers whilst causing as little environmental damage as possible.

Until recently, the majority of consumers were not thinking about sourcing ethical coffee.

However, there’s been a clear rise in sustainability, more ethical buying habits and doing better for the environment. Caught up in this has been coffee production, mainly driven by younger generations who’ve grown up global and environmentally aware.

We can break these areas of ethical coffee down a little further.

  • Growing sustainable coffee – is this done without the use of pesticides i.e. organically? Has the land been deforested or is the coffee shade-grown under the canopy of biodiversity-friendly trees?
  • Working conditions – are workers treated fairly and are basic human rights considered?
  • Fair price to the farmers – are the big multinationals involved taking all the profits or is there a more direct route from farm to cup?
  • Sustainable certification – has the coffee been officially certified by a recognised international body?
  • Environmentally friendly packaging – if you’re buying coffee for home, is this packaged in non-recyclable plastic, a recyclable version like LDPE 4 or perhaps something like omnidegradable?

For all these reasons, ethical coffee can also be known as responsible sourced coffee or sustainable coffee. These are all versions of the same thing.

The current pinnacle of environmentally friendly coffee is that which is certified as Bird Friendly. You can learn more about shade grown bird friendly coffee here.

Why is sustainable coffee important?

The coffee industry has two major aspects of impact that needs to be considered from a sustainability perspective:

  • Environmental costs
  • Social impacts

The first thing to consider is coffee’s environmental sustainability.

Coffee plantations requires large areas of land in tropical locations. As most land in these areas contain forest, growing traditional coffee always leads to deforestation.

As you know, deforestation has countless knock on effects on wildlife, biodiversity, carbon storage, ecosystems, and ultimately has a negative impact on climate change.

Growing sustainable coffee should counteract these negative impacts. Responsibly coffee plantations will also be managed in a way that conserves nature, ecosystems and wildlife.

The other aspect as to why sustainable coffee is important is the social side.

It’s thought there are around 125 million farmers who rely on coffee as their main source of income across the world. That’s about the same size population as countries such as Japan and Mexico.

With so many workers, mistreatment in farms under the control of corporate giants is common place. This is because corporate giants only care about profit margins.

Numbers suggest that roughly 25 million smallholder coffee farms produce 80% of the world’s coffee. But the vast majority of profits are made further up the supply chain by corporate giants, multinationals and in the consuming country.

Sustainable coffee is important as it allows workers to be paid a fair wage and allows smallholder coffee farms to thrive.

What are smallholder coffee farmers?

voyager coffee eco friendly coffee compostable packaging
Single origin coffee from smallholder farm in El Salvador

Good ethical coffee usually comes from independent, small-scale operations that are distinct from the big multinational coffee producers.

Small, independent producers can often keep to more environmentally-friendly farming methods, provide fair wages as well as adequate working conditions to their workers.

Some of these small holders join together to form cooperatives. These cooperatives are primarily member-owned and driven by ethics and community.

Independent coffee growers have a bigger focus on high quality coffee, known as specialty coffee. This is opposed to low quality, mass produced beans that end up as the likes of supermarket own brand instant coffee.

The reason these farms are generally small isn’t just to be more sustainable. It’s a legacy from colonial rule. When the invading powers left, land was returned to native producers, but only in small patches.

Ethical issues in the coffee industry – social issues

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

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

Modern slavery is also a concern. Many plantation workers across the Global South are enslaved through owing unfair debts, having no work contracts and through blackmail.

In terms of average pay, coffee workers are only paid 7–10% of the retail price of coffee. In Brazil, this number can go 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.

With this in mind, you have to say that large-scale standard coffee production is unsustainable for workers.

There’s also the environmental impact of coffee production, which can range widely.

Are coffee plantations bad for the environment?

As well as having many negative social impacts, traditional coffee plantations are also bad for the environment.

Large-scale coffee plantations owned by the big conglomerates are linked with:

  • Wide-scale deforestation to plant non-native coffee trees
  • Mono-cultures
  • Wildlife habitat loss
  • High levels of pesticide and herbicide use
  • Carbon emissions
  • Soil erosion
  • High water consumption

This all contributes to the deterioration of some of the most biodiverse areas of the world, including the Amazon and South East Asia.

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 planted as huge mono-cultures.

Coffee grown under the cover trees and forests, is so much better for the environment as there is no unnecessary deforestation. This not only helps atmospheric carbon levels, but keeps diverse habitats for wildlife. For this reason, shade grown coffee is also called bird-friendly coffee.

cafedirect machu picchu organic coffee and cafetiere filter

Deforestation linked with coffee farms

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 a more ethical choice. 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, Balance Coffee, and Voyager!

How do you know if you’re buying ethically sourced coffee?

We know traditional coffee is bad for the environment and bad for workers.

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, where the beans mature at a slower rate.

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 me and you to purchase coffee with a clear conscious.

Many ethical brands however will go well in beyond these logos. They will provide full transparency on how their supply chain works and name the farms in which their coffee has been sourced from.

On top of that, direct trade and straight-to-source operations are also most likely to compensate their workers and farm owners fairly. These are where the best coffee roasters buy 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!

london fields cafedirect coffee
Cafedirect are a good ethical coffee company

What’s the difference between Fairtrade and sustainable coffee?

You can say that Fairtrade is a type of sustainable coffee.

Fairtrade (with a capital F) means the product has been independently certified. This is done by FLOCERT.

When coffee has been independently verified as Fairtrade, it means that social and environmental aspects have been inspected alongside the Fairtrade standards.

Also, Fairtrade farmers will always receive a minimum price for their product, even when the coffee market price falls. In effect, this is a safety to help farmers continue to produce high quality, sustainable coffee.

Please note, it is possible for something to be fair trade (note, non capital letters). Something that is labelled as fair trade has not been certified. It’s a very loose terms with no set definition used in the same way that ‘green’ and ‘eco’ are used.

If you’re interested in this and want to clear up some of the common eco-friendly terms you see, take a look at my eco glossary.

Sustainable coffee brands: 10 best places to buy ethical coffee UK

There are now a large number of online shops to buy ethical and sustainable coffee from in the UK. I’ve personally used many of them and would highly recommend.

Many of these coffee brands have also been given the stamp of approval from magazine Ethical Consumer.

Each sells beans and a range of grounds for your different coffee makers. All of the usual suspects are covered from cafetieres to stove tops and pour over reusable coffee filters.

The list below shows many sustainable coffee brands in no particular order.

  1. Cafedirect – you can read my Cafedirect review here
  2. Cafeology
  3. Bird & Wild
  4. Balance Coffee
  5. Alpaca Coffee – use the code TEHL15 for 15% off your order
  6. Equal Exchange
  7. Union Hand Roasted
  8. Revolver Coffee
  9. Traidcraft
  10. Pact Coffee

Unethical coffee companies to avoid

Alongside choosing my ethically sourced coffee on a regular basis, there are definitely some unethical coffee companies that you should avoid altogether.

The following companies received extremely low marks from Ethical Consumer magazine. They take a sustainable and often unethical approach to business, and in my view, are best avoided altogether if you’d like to drink your coffee with peace of mind.

Unethical coffee companies to avoid:

  1. Nespresso (owned by Nestle)
  2. Nescafe (owned by Nestle)
  3. Starbucks
  4. Tassimo
  5. Douwe Egberts
  6. L’Or
  7. Costa Coffee (owned by Coca-Cola)
  8. Carte Noire
  9. Lavazza
  10. Kenco

FAQs on ethically sourced coffee

Let’s take a look at some of the more common questions about coffee and, in particularly, sustainable coffee.

Where is coffee grown?

So, where exactly is coffee grown?

Coffee is a tropical plant existing in the form of a shrub or small tree. It’s native to tropical Africa and Asia, but is now grown in other areas that fit similar climate conditions. Most of the world’s coffee is now grown in South America.

The expansion of coffee growing regions is linked to a troubled past of colonial rule and slave trading, with European powers establishing plantations in any suitable place they could.

This is just one reason why going more ethical with your coffee is a good option to take.

Believe it or not, there are actually 124 species of coffee. However only two are cultivated for coffee consumption: Arabica and Robusta.

ben jungle trek peru
Me on the jungle trek in Peru where I tasted the best coffee I’ve ever had

Which countries supply responsibly sourced coffee? 

Your research will be more difficult if you only want to buy coffee farmed in countries where ethical and environmental standards are implemented from the top-down.

Your best bet is to purchase from countries that have joined and supported the Fairtrade programme 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 big scale. Ethiopia, 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 Africa, 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 production is will vary from farm to farm within each and every country. So make sure you check our the certified packaging logos as well as company websites.

Is your coffee bag packaging ethical?

Being an environmentally conscious individual, you’ll want to make sure that the whole product your buying is ethical. This includes how the coffee packaging.

When buying coffee, packaging can be an non-eco friendly sticking point.

If you buy ground coffee, much of the packaging on the market is non-recyclable.

However, it is possible to get sustainable coffee bag packaging nowadays with materials such as bioplastics and kraft paper being used, as well as LDPE 4 plastic (look out for the plastic resin code), which is recyclable but not particularly good for the environment.

If you’d like to read more on this area, check this blog out on can coffee bags be recycled.

Can you compost coffee grounds?

Yes coffee grounds can be composted. You can even compost certain types of coffee filter if suitable. For example, unbleached paper filters can be put in your food waste bin.

I always put my coffee grounds in our food waste bin that gets picked up and taken to an industrial composter. I rarely use the spent grounds in my garden as they can be damaging to your plants.

You can read more on can coffee grounds be composted here.

coffee filter and coffee grounds
My portable coffee filter and compostable filter paper

Wrap up on ethical coffee

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

Although sustainable labels, such as Fairtrade and Organic, offer a good indication of company ethics, you can go even further than this if you want.

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 drinking an ethically sourced coffee in the morning – one worth waking up for!

Other eco friendly habits are important too, such as using a reusable coffee cup when you’re out and about – I like to use my Ecoffee cup – rather than single-use non-recyclable cups.

You can even go as far as using an eco friendly kettle or instant hot water tap to save energy use at home.

Enjoy your ethical coffee!

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If you liked that, read more blogs on coffee here

Ben & Murphy Peaks Mam Tor

I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about living a more sustainable, environmentally friendly life. Away from the laptop, I love spending time in nature and with my young family (plus Murphy the dog!). I write and send out the Eco Life Newsletter.