Is your coffee worth waking up for?

From local roasters to social enterprise cafés, there are lots of ways we can wake up and smell the (sustainable) coffee. And with the UK now guzzling 70 million cups a day, it’s worth making our lattes improve more than just our concentration.

So, what is sustainable coffee and where can we get a brew?

Buying coffee on fair terms and prices from the coffee producers is often where it starts. For many consumers, the Fairtrade mark, as featured on popular brands, is a sign of this. There’s also the stamp of the Rainforest Alliance. Both are worth looking out for when you’re buying beans, ground coffee or a jar of instant.

However, it’s also worth doing a bit of research on the product because coffee that doesn’t carry a recognisable stamp isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s an example: Black Mountain Roast is a small coffee company, in the foothills of the Black Mountains in Wales, which supplies The Food Assembly in Abergavenny.

Its beans are ethically-sourced, usually from family-owned farms, co-operatives or ‘stations’ that may be working with hundreds of small farms, many that are less than an acre in size.

blackmountain roast
Owner Mungo Leir says: “For various reasons, the set-price of Fairtrade beans can sometimes be less than farmers selling outside of the scheme. And farmers growing desirable beans, that taste fantastic, can yield up to ten times more than the Fairtrade price for lesser quality, commodity beans. So, while our beans may not be Fairtrade, we always trade fairly.”

Which brings us to prices…

Coffee sold in supermarkets is often kept at artificially low prices, so low in fact that they are often loss leaders. For supermarkets, this means they can advertise slashed prices on everyday essentials. For consumers, spending 88p per 100g (that’s the current price of an own-brand supermarket range of ground coffee) means getting the cafetiere out can be an everyday habit.  It’s tempting to opt for the cheap prices – particularly in today’s economy. But because of its high environmental impact (the amount of water it uses to grow, and the acres of forest that have been cleared for coffee growing) coffee should be more of a luxury product.

The price of coffee itself has risen for the last five consecutive months, according to figures from the International Coffee Organisation (ICO). It says that Brazil, which produces around a third of the world’s coffee, has seen its worst droughts for a decade, which was partly why the cost of coffee has risen.

In fact, its research shows that some coffee farmers are operating at a loss. So for a sustainable cup, we may need to forgo the cheap stuff and spend a bit more.

Drinking in or taking away?

Another way to make your caffeine count, is by buying it at a social enterprise cafe. The concept has fast gained popularity with cafés across the UK serving fantastic coffee and ploughing profits back into the community.

You can drink an artisan coffee in east or south London at Brewbird, which trains ex-offenders in barista and baking skills, or at the Square Peg in Swansea, where profits are given to charities, or buy a “suspended coffee” to be given for free to a homeless person, at The Lodge Cafe in Chester.

And it’s not about putting up with a second-rate coffee so you can make a charitable donation. These cafes serve great coffee, compete with local businesses and compare well on price.

“People’s expectation of coffee is very high,” says addiction therapist Brent Clark of Paper & Cup, a café in Shoreditch, which is run by people in recovery. “My thinking was we’d get customers to come for the coffee. And when customers later learned about the work we do with recovering addicts it would be a bonus.”

Brent-Clark-014Photograph: Spitalfields Trust

It’s worked. To the point that even when the cafe runs evening sessions for those in recovery, giving away free cake and coffee, members of the general public come and join in.

“We give them a coffee and explain what’s going on,” says Clark. “The joy for me is when I see everyone mixing together.”

And who knows? You might even mix with an A-list celebrity while you’re drinking your sustainable Americano. Social Bite, a chain of five social enterprise cafes in Scotland, had a visit from George Clooney last year. He reportedly swept in, took selfies with the staff, bought a sandwich and donated £1,000.

However, it’s worth remembering that sustainable coffee is only a small share of the market. Efforts are underway to develop sustainable coffee production in some of the poorest regions of the world and for that impact to be recognised and certified (making it easier for consumers to identify). Hopefully, over the years, the demand for better working and environmental practices in coffee production will grow.

For now, though, we can all do our bit every time we put the kettle on.


Joanne O'Connell

Joanne O'Connell

Joanne O'Connell is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian and The Observer. Her new book The Homemade Vegan is out now. In 2013, she lived without supermarkets for one year.