Spilling the beans on the coffee industry

I have a confession to make: I am a tragic coffee addict who can’t get through the morning without my fix. Luckily, I never seem to be out of range of at least 5 different cafés from which I am able to feed my habit. With coffee now a staple in so many peoples’ lives, I thought I’d take a closer look at the ethical issues associated with it.

Coffee is the world’s second most tradable commodity after oil, which means it is BIG business. But while those who trade it tend to make plenty of money, this is usually not the case for those who grow it. The coffee industry is dominated by four large, multi- national companies intent on supplying cheap, low quality products in supermarkets. Additionally, changes in farming practices are wreaking havoc on the natural environment in which coffee is grown. These issues pose some pressing questions for the ethical consumer.

What is the impact of the coffee industry on people?

Worldwide coffee is a massive industry but most coffee farmers, the majority of whom live in developing countries, struggle to make a modest living from their crop. On average, coffee farmers receive only 5-10 per cent of the final retail price. Fierce competition among growers, due to pressure from the multi-nationals, has led to price reductions and undercutting. This leaves growers with no safety margin when the supply drops or bad weather hits.  Poverty, human rights abuses and low life expectancy rates are commonplace amongst coffee farmers.

What is the impact of the coffee industry on animals?

Traditionally, coffee beans were grown under a shaded canopy of trees, which provided a habitat for various species of animals, insects and plant life. Modern farming practices, where the forest canopy is removed to make way for intensive, plantation – style coffee farms are undermining the sustainability of traditional growing methods and threatening biodiversity.

What is the impact of the coffee industry on the environment?

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports that 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America have been cleared to make way for coffee farming, and this deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate. Incidentally (but probably not coincidentally), 37 of the 50 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates are also major coffee producers.

What Can We Do?

All coffee drinkers (my fellow addicts!) can vote with their wallets to support companies which value and promote a fair and sustainable coffee trade. To make sure you are buying coffee from companies who are doing the right thing, wherever possible buy coffee that has been certified by a reputable scheme. The Fair Trade Foundation and the Rainforest Alliance (RA) both run schemes worth supporting.

The Fair Trade label enures that the coffee can actually be traced back to the growers and it also means that a minimum wage is guaranteed to growers so that market fluctuations won’t leave them out of pocket.

The Rainforest Alliance scheme focuses on achieving a set of social, environmental and economic standards. By investing in sustainable farming practices, coffee companies certified by RA contribute to the wellbeing of growers, wildlife and the surrounding habitat.

These schemes don’t provide solutions to all the problems involved with coffee production, but they are a step in the right direction towards fairness and sustainability within the industry. Please look for the following logos when you buy your coffee:



Fair Trade


Rainforest Alliance








If your local coffee shop or supermarket doesn’t stock certified brands, why don’t you ask them to? As consumers the choices we make can make a big difference to the people, animals and the environment affected by the coffee industry.









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