A recent Lancaster Guardian article highlighted the ‘huge increase in the number of coffee shops’ in Lancaster. As I read about the benefits independent coffee shops reap from our growing coffee culture, and how consumers gain from increased choice, I couldn’t help but question: what about coffee farmers? How are they benefiting from our caffeine addiction? And what impact does increased coffee production have on the areas it is grown in?

It was around this time that I was writing a product guide to coffee for Ethical Consumer magazine. As part of this work we reviewed 35 coffee brands and their approach to creating more sustainable supply chains; drawing out the better options and those we should avoid. In doing so it became apparent that the coffee industry follows the familiar food story of monopoly, where coffee farmers and the environment lose control of their production to profit-driven large multinationals. (Despite 25 million smallholder farms producing 80% of the world’s coffee, three companies – ECOM, Neumann and Volcafe – control approximately 50% of the global coffee trade, and ten roasters, including Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts, process about 40% of the coffee drunk worldwide).

The specialty coffee sector appeared to offer a slightly better option to the mainstream ‘commodity’ market, with companies getting more involved in the whole coffee supply chain – from bean to brew. Direct trade relationships and single sourced coffee was emphasised and micro-roasteries established. It begged the question: should coffee be treated as a luxury, with high quality (and generally more expensive) sustainable coffee drunk less often? (Rather than drinking cheap unsustainable coffee multiple times a day?)

Sheena Shah from the Permaculture Research Institute Kenya commented:“Most [people] traditionally drink more instant coffee which does not quite trace back to the producers and is often mixed and blended and of course lower grade. I believe consumers should…support micro lot farmers and at least trace back to the origin, giving them a premium price to continue producing even better quality coffee with precision, taking care of the earth if using shade grown and Permaculture principles to accelerate yield and health of the coffee trees”.

In addition to Sheena’s advice, Ethical Consumer recommended seeking out fairly traded and organic coffee that is ideally shade grown (coffee grown under a mix of larger canopy trees) – providing better bird habitat, soil protection, erosion control and carbon sequestration.

So when you next buy a bag or cup of coffee from a local independent business, question whether the coffee is fairly traded, organic and/ or shade grown, and let us know what you find!

To explore the ethics of coffee further see

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