ethical coffee: a jute guide

At jute, we drink coffee every day, but we’ll never stop regarding it as a treat. It’s a marvel, after all, that we can enjoy coffee here in the UK – this most special of crops, grown at such giddying altitudes in such far-flung landscapes. When we roast the beans, we know we’re unleashing aromas that this chilly island could never produce under its own steam. The whole thing is magic and we try to remember how lucky we are.

But then we have a head start when it comes to recognising our privilege: we’re well aware of the lengths coffee growers go to before they hand the baton to us to roast and pack and sell the finished product to you. When you hear about the care and toil they put in, you feel a keen responsibility to not mess up their good work.

And you feel a keen responsibility to ensure they’re fairly remunerated for their work, too. We’d never expect or feel comfortable paying pennies for, say, a bunch of English asparagus. We’d wonder who was being exploited to make that price possible – and we’ve always felt similarly queasy about £1.50 bags of coffee.


So, what is ethical coffee?

And so to the labyrinthine topic of ethical coffee. We’d love to give a quick fix and say that paying more equates to doing good (or at least no harm) every single time, but the ethics around coffee – from workers being paid a decent wage to issues around sustainability and environmental impact – are really complex. Neither the price nor the excellence of a coffee necessarily means excellent working conditions. Until the worldwide industry is 100% transparent about processes, expenditure and wages, we can only do our ethical best. Here are some of the things that we at jute bear in mind when it comes to coffee ethics.


Is your coffee fair on the grower?

Around eighty percent of coffee today is produced by smallholders, which is good and bad. It’s good for the grower in the sense that the smallholding system equates, by its very nature, to greater ownership by the worker of their day-to-day labour. It’s good for the environment because industrial processes are not in use. (Sometimes coffee is organic for the simple reason that the grower can’t afford expensive pesticides and fertilisers.) Smallholder coffee is good for us drinkers, too, since smallholdings lend themselves to flavour-profile variety.

Yet smallholders generally get just 7 to 10 percent of the coffee’s retail price – if that – largely because a very small number of huge buyers controls a huge amount of the world’s output, thereby wielding huge influence.

Consider, too, the impact of climate change on coffee cultivation. Ever higher altitudes are required to bring out the best in the crop, which means upheaval for coffee-growing communities, while pests are moving into areas they wouldn’t historically have been found. An already tough livelihood is getting tougher.

As a consumer, it would take some serious investigative work for you to determine who has been paid what down the entire chain that leads from your cup to the soil. Roasters dealing with the wholesale business are, however, in a different position. So speak to your roaster – us! – or to whoever’s making your drink in the café.

Now, you might be wondering why you can’t just rely on accreditations like Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance/UTZ and Smithsonian Bird Friendly, which brings us to…


The certification situation

Even now, growers perpetually teeter on the brink of selling their coffee crop for less than it costs to produce. Sometimes they do sell it for less than it costs to produce. That’s one reason that coffee is arguably the highest-profile Fairtrade product, with the charity’s reckoning of what constitutes a fair price for coffee beans far exceeding the current market price. While the emergence of Fairtrade is, overall, undoubtedly a positive thing, it’s not a flawlessly ethical seal of approval.

First, it takes time, money and bureaucratic know-how for a grower to show it is meeting the standards that Fairtrade set to secure certification – that means the Fairtrade label is beyond a lot of worthy growers. Then there’s the issue of loopholes. Gaining valuable certification like Fairtrade means ticking a lot of boxes, but for unscrupulous operators in the production chain, there are ways of getting boxes ticked without embracing the ‘fair trade’ bit.

Your roaster or café should be able to tell a thorough story about the provenance of the coffee they’re selling you.


Your coffee and the environment

The growing and roasting of coffee don’t have a great impact on the environment. Compare, for example, the 130 litres of water it takes to produce one cup of coffee to the 250 litres for the same amount of milk (or – wait for it – the 15,000 litres per kilogram of beef).

Two coffee-production factors that are harmful, however, are transport (which you can’t do a great deal about, short of moving to a coffee-producing country) and brewing. This is where you come in.

It goes without saying that single-use coffee pods are the kind of product we’ll look back on in thirty years’ time, horrified. At the other end of the scale is cold brew, which produces your pick-me-up without using any electricity or gas. With hot coffee, it’s best to only make as much coffee as you want to drink, to avoid the need to reheat. Keep your equipment clean so that it works efficiently and, for pour-over, heat as little water as possible.

If you do want to zoom in on the growing stage, there are some things you could look out for. One issue is sun-grown coffee versus shade-grown coffee. The latter is the traditional way of growing coffee, with the crop cultivated beneath a tree canopy. The coffee plant forms part of the local ecosystem.

Finally, a word on packaging. You can find out more about our low impact packaging here.