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10. How sustainable is “sustainable coffee”?

The “sustainable coffees” segment of the specialty market is more crowded than ever with certifications and concepts that advance different — sometimes competing — ideas about what constitutes sustainability when it comes to coffee.  Together these certifications are claiming a growing share of the specialty coffee market.  Farmers who don’t want to be left behind have rushed to climb aboard the sustainability train, often at considerable expense.  I believe that all these approaches generate benefits and move in the right direction.  The question I struggle with is how much benefit they need to generate — and for whom — to be truly sustainable?

There is a whole stable of certifications that emphasize elements of environmental sustainability, including biodiversity conservation, sustainable production systems, habitat conservation, etc.  Other certifications focus primarily on the economic and social sustainability of  relationships between different actors along the coffee chain.  Still others are working to combine these into a more comprenhensive sustainability framework at the company and industry levels.  But these standards don’t always reflect the lived realities of farmers as indicators of sustainability — what they eat, how they make ends meet and what the possibilities are for themselves and their children moving forward.

What if a coffee is triple-certified but the farmer who grows that coffee still struggles to make ends meet?  Is it still sustainable?  What if he and his family reduce their overall dietary intake and go without “animal-source proteins” (meat, chicken, eggs, cheese, etc.) altogether?  Is it sustainable then?  What if he and his wife have to take their kids out of school a few months a year when there is no money flowing in and the family needs additional revenue from their labor?  What if he stays away from the farm and his family for two months a year instead of one to earn more money as a wage laborer?

These things happen in the coffeelands, even among farmers who are selling certified “sustainable” coffees.

I understand that true sustainability blends ecological, social and economic concerns.  But I can’t understand how a coffee can be considered sustainable if the livelihood of the person who grows it is not.


  • Great blog, M. I hope you keep it up.

    You know, there is a hidden bomb in the “sustainability” math that almost no one wants to talk about, and it has to do with education and a “better life for the children of coffee farmers.”

    I don’t have time to go into it right now… but at a very basic level: when schools are built and the children do go to school, what do people expect them to do with that education? 9 times out of 10 they move away from their families’ homes and go live in the city. Then who picks the coffee? Migrant workers… and so on….

    I would be interested to see this issue confronted more directly. I’ve been aware of it for some time, but it usually seems to be swept under the rug.

    • Michael says:

      Thanks for the kind words. (And thanks again for the amazing video of women singing in Yirgacheffe. So lovely.) I do plan to keep it up, if for no other reason than to make it harder for people to sweep these issues under the rug.

      There is no doubt about it — the issues facing the coffeelands are huge and complex. The temptation to sweep the complexity under the rug is great. I don’t think there will be a revolution in the ways people engage at origin, but if we can just help people look these issues in the eye before they turn away, I think over time it will get harder for them to do so.

      Thanks for the great blog…


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