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Where Does Your Coffee Come From?

Where Does Your Coffee Come From?

Photo by Drew Coffman

Coffee, along with chocolate and cigarettes, is a product with a high chance of being unethically produced, through endangering human life or damaging the environment. If we like drinking a cup of coffee every morning but we don't want to spend our money on products whose manufacturing is ethically dubious, what should we take into consideration while buying coffee?

Working conditions

Coffee is one of the top ten products of child labour (1): coffee beans are harvested by children in 14 countries in Africa (for instance Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda) and South America (El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico). When working on plantations, children are often deprived of education (for instance, according to ILO Report (2), kids in Panama are taken out of school for two or three months to move with their family to work in coffee and sugar harvests or forestry) and may suffer from hazardous work (3). The problem of working conditions and wages on coffee plantations is also faced by adults. For instance:

In 2016 DanWatch (4) revealed that on some Brazilian plantations people work under conditions that contravene international conventions and Brazilian laws.


Cases of child labour as well as examples of violations of the right to a safe and healthy work environment have been reported, e.g. toxic pesticides being applied without appropriate protective equipment being used, human trafficking, working in slavery-like conditions, being trapped in a debt spiral. Moreover, around half of harvesters work without contracts and even if they have one, approximately 40% of them experience violation of their rights, e.g. they work long hours seven days a week or they receive less than minimum wage (about 190 dollars per month in Brazil).

Even though major companies introduced internal policies and codes of conduct in order to exclude plantations that do not adhere to international and national laws concerning working conditions or child labour from their supply chain, they fail to check their suppliers thoroughly. For example:

In 2016, Jacobs Douwe Egberts admitted that their products may come from plantations with poor labour conditions, while Nestlé (which includes coffee brands such as Nescafé, Nespresso, Dolce Gusto, Taster’s Choice, Coffee Mate, Gevalia, Senseo, Jacobs, Maxwell House and Tassimo) acknowledged purchasing coffee from two plantations where workers had been freed from slavery-like conditions in 2015 (4).


One way to avoid purchasing coffee that may come from plantations that neglect international human rights is by only buying products with a Fair Trade Certificate. But it’s debatable whether these certificates are actually fair because receiving and maintaining a certificate requires additional costs and may be unaffordable for farmers from developing countries (see more in Is fair trade fair?).

Another way is to do our own search for companies that we consider to be fair. The best companies seem to be those whose supply chains are relatively short or those that buy directly from plantation farmers. If both roasters and growers cooperate and maintain a close business relationship, they may care more about sustainability, decent wages, working conditions and work ethics. For instance, Equal Exchange (5) builds democratic workers’ cooperatives to trade goods in an honest and fair way, empowering both workers and consumers, Coop Coffees (6) buys beans from small-scale coffee farmers working within their cooperatively organized structures (7), Just Coffee (8), a grower-owned coffee cooperative in Mexico, was formed to address problems of poverty and immigration, and AgroEco Coffee (9), in its alternative trade model, guarantees a higher price than Fair Trade and the purchase of each pound of coffee contributes to a Sustainable Agriculture Fund and a Women’s Unpaid Labor Fund whose investments are managed collectively by farmers.     

Animals and the Environment

Asian palm civet used to produce Kopi luwak, Photo by Surtr

We cannot forget that producing coffee may also cause the exploitation of animals, as is the case with civet coffee and Black Ivory coffee.

Kopi luwak coffee is made from beans excreted by Asian palm civets, who are kept in cages and force-fed.


Black Ivory coffee is made in a similar way but using elephants. Another problems is agriculture: coffee beans can be grown either under the shade of a dense tropical canopy or in an open field with direct sunlight, which is less beneficial for the environment than the first method of cultivation. Products of shade-grown coffee cultivation are considered to be of high quality and the cultivation itself is environmentally friendly as it prevents soil erosion, provides a niche for native species, and decreases the amount of agricultural chemicals used and water consumption (10).

Sun-grown coffee cultivation is not beneficial for the environment due to the use of pesticides (in contrast to shade-grown cultivations, there are no birds that would function as natural pesticides) and chemical fertilizers (coffee is the third most sprayed crop in the world).


Due to the reduction of soil nutrition, such coffee plantations can last only about 15 years and when cultivated areas can no longer be used for agriculture, new lands have to be cleared.

Shade-grown coffee plantation

As sun-grown coffee plantations are more profitable, shade-grown cultivation is being replaced. Countries that are more likely to have sun-grown coffee include Costa Rica, Kenya, Brazil Colombia and Vietnam (11). Another problem is with the processing of coffee beans. Among three methods - dry, wet or both - the first is the most environmentally friendly (10). Instead of wasting water as in wet processing (Arabica coffee beans are often washed), beans are just sorted out and left to dry in the sun.

There are five main certificates that guarantee some level of environmental friendliness: Bird-Friendly by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Rainforest Alliance, Organic, Fair Trade International, Fair Trade USA and UTZ Certified. However, only the first of these certificates includes the implicit requirement of shade-growing, which seems to be the most important (Coffee Habitat (11), more on the drawbacks of certificates at Is fair trade fair?). One company that cares for protecting natural habitats and supports shade-grown coffee plantations is Thanks Giving Coffee (12).

So what's the best choice of coffee when taking into consideration the well-being of people and the environment? Make sure that the company that is roasting and distributing the coffee doesn’t buy from suppliers engaged in child labour, forced labour and sweated labour. Also make sure that the coffee was shade-grown.    

1) United States Department of Labor
2) International Labour Organization
3) Products of Slavery
5) Equal Exchange
6) coop coffees
7) Fair Trade Proof
8) Just Coffee
9) Community Agroecology Network
10) Food Empowerment Project
11) coffeehabitat
12) Thanks Giving Coffee



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