• Almost all of coffee’s environmental impact comes from bean production, not disposable cups and other packaging, expert says
  • Coffee industry is seeking to cut its sizeable carbon output, and doing so will require more than eliminating single-use cups.
  • Sustainability investing in the coffee industry is reaching beyond packaging to cultivation and roasting.

Drinking sustainable coffee involves a lot more than choosing fair-trade blends and handing baristas insulated mugs to eliminate packaging waste.

Nearly all of coffee’s impact on the environment comes from producing coffee cherries — 95% of the so-called environmental load and 86% of the carbon footprint — from that cup of joe comes from cultivation, according to Chahan Yeretzian of the Coffee Excellence Centre at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences. Packaging, transportation, roasting and other steps consume a surprisingly small amount of the impact.

“When you really do an impact analysis, the packaging itself has a really small impact,” he said in a video conference sponsored by Boundless Impact Investing about new sustainable coffee technology. “The huge impact on the environment is due to cultivation in growing countries.”

Boundless held the event to address what it sees as systemic challenges to the impact-investment market for coffee that go far beyond eliminating single-use packaging. They include what it says is a lack of independent and objective research, a lack of science-based data in measuring impact and limited access to quality investments.

Sustainability isn’t a new concept for coffee growers and producers. Starbucks, for example, says it’s worked over the past two decades to source 99% of its coffee ethically. CEO Kevin Johnson said in January that the chain was working on new climate goals for 2030, which it plans to announce next year. Preliminary targets include cutting carbon emissions by 50%, reducing net water usage for operations and coffee production by 50% and sending 50% less waste to landfills.  

“Our aspiration is to become resource positive — storing more carbon than we emit, eliminating waste and providing more clean freshwater than we use,” he said in the letter, posted to the company’s website.

Bean roasting is also being eyed for an overhaul, as companies boost efforts to cut emissions, Yeretzian said.

That’s where Bellwether Coffee, a Berkeley, California, startup which makes electric ventless coffee roasters for cafes and groceries, comes in.

“Coffee roasting today is a real hub-and-spoke model,” CEO Nathan Gilliland said at the conference, noting that the coffee is “shipped from the tropics to a roastery where it’s roasted and put in bags and shipped all over the country.” That leaves a “huge carbon footprint,” and the beans degrade over time, affecting product freshness. It also adds a level to the coffee supply chain, which increases the brew’s carbon footprint.

With coffee the most-consumed beverage in the U.S., at a rate of 400 million cups a day, roasters have an opportunity to make skies cleaner, he said. Bellwether’s system involves shipping green coffee directly to the stores from the farm, roasting the coffee in the store and providing software services that include an ability to tip farmers directly, he said.

Fernanda Avila Swinburn, a Boundless Impact Investing research analyst, said that Bellwether’s footprint of greenhouse-gas emissions is 24% lower than a “legacy scenario” overall, and it produces 80% less packaging. 

Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images