From Short to Venti:
The Rise of Sustainable Coffee

By Sean Merrill

You wake up Monday morning at 6:00A.M., sleep-deprived and barely functional. With hours of meetings and a sea of paperwork on your plate, you know that without your morning coffee, your mind and body are going to shut down before you even step foot in the office. By the grace of God, you make it to Starbucks. With every ounce of energy you have left, you try to figure out the difference between an iced macchiato and a mocha frappuccino, before haphazardly ordering the drink that sounds better and rushing to work.

During your half-awake pursuit for a morning pick-me-up, what are the odds that you would spend the time and energy to stop and think about the global impact of your purchase? Were the coffee beans for your drink harvested at the expense of destroying natural ecosystems? How many lives were affected when you ordered an extra shot of espresso? Thankfully, a few prominent coffee companies, including Starbucks, are showing their support for sustainable coffee farming so that you can gulp your gourmet coffee guilt-free.


Before the Brew

To get a better sense of sense of what distinguishes sustainable coffee practices from the rest, let’s first take a look at how coffee bean production works, starting in the fields and ending in our favorite coffee shops.

The coffee production chain can be divided into three phases:

  • Cultivation
  • Processing
  • Milling

In the cultivation phase, coffee seeds are selected and planted in large, shaded nurseries, where they germinate (grow) into seedlings over the course of two months. The seedlings are then removed and planted into individual pots, and after another four months, the coffee plants are ready for the fields (Martinez-Torres 14). It takes roughly three to four years before these coffee plants begin to produce fruit known as “coffee cherries”, which are harvested either by hand or machine (National Coffee Association).

There are two different versions of the processing phase: the dry method and the wet method. In the dry method, which has been around for ages, the harvested coffee cherries are spread out on dirt patios to dry in the sun. Once the moisture content drops to 11 percent, the dried cherries are stored in warehouses. In the wet method, which produces higher quality beans, the harvested cherries are passed through a depulping machine and a fermentation tank before going through the same drying process as cherries in the dry method (National Coffee Association).

Finally, in the milling phase, the dried cherries are evaluated based on their size, weight, and color. Smaller beans are favored by European countries and larger beans are a must for the United States market (Martinez-Torres 26). The coffee beans which make the cut are ready to be exported and defective beans are discarded (National Coffee Association).


Coffee from Chiapas

Today, coffee is the second largest commodity in the world after oil. To meet the astronomically high demand for coffee all around the world, many large-scale coffee bean producers in Latin America have adopted technology-based farming techniques which produce higher yields. While more efficient farming practices might seem like an improvement on the surface, their negative impacts on the environment are transparent.

Since analyzing this issue on a global scale would require volumes of text, let’s compare the farming practices of small and large-scale coffee producers in Chiapas, Mexico over the last few decades as an example.

Chiapas produces more coffee than any other Mexican state, “accounting for 37 percent of national production, and making coffee the state’s most important cash crop” (Martinez-Torres 12). In Chiapas, coffee is grown mainly by small farmers who don’t have access to the technologies of large-scale coffee producers. Until recently, the only method of cultivating coffee for Chiapas farmers was the “passive organic” method. In this method, small farmers plant coffee trees under a diverse flora of shade trees, including “legumes, fruit trees, banana plants, and/or hardwood species” and insects serve as a natural pesticide (Bacon 102-103). The passive organic coffee method is considered to be the most ecologically sound system in Mesoamerica because it works with the environment, rather than against it (Bacon 103).

In stark contrast to the passive organic method, large-scale coffee plantations in Chiapas have adopted a method known as “technified production” over the last few decades to dramatically increase their coffee bean yields. In the technified production method, shade trees are removed, coffee plants are replaced with sun-tolerant coffee hybrids, and chemical inputs such as fertilizer, herbicide, and fungicide are used (Bacon 103). In essence, these farmers have warped a natural, eco-friendly process into an agrochemical-reliant, deforestation-dependent coffee bean assembly line.


Nespresso and Starbucks – Harvesting Beans by Ethical Means

While it’s undeniable that the technified production method has a much higher coffee bean yield than the passive organic method, all hope is not lost for traditional small farmers! In fact, some of the most prominent coffee organizations in the world are taking great strides to support sustainable coffee practices and the farmers who abide by them.

In 2003, Nespresso launched the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program in an effort to help small farmers who choose to produce their coffee beans through sustainable harvesting practices. In collaboration with the Rainforest Alliance, a leading environmental NGO, Nespresso’s program provides support to these farmers by helping them adopt the best practices for high-quality coffee, supporting their efforts toward environmental and social responsibility, and helping them implement cost reduction initiatives (Nespresso). After ten years, more than 56,000 farmers have joined (Hower).

Last year, the Colombian organization CRECE conducted an independent study to assess the socio-economic and environmental impacts of the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program among 1,000 farmers. According to the study, farmers in the program “have a net income 87.4 percent higher than those not involved in the program” and “recycle 50 percent more” (Hower). Going forward, Nespresso and the Rainforest Alliance intend to double the amount of coffee sourced from small farmers in Ethiopia and Kenya to 10,000 tons by 2020 (Hower).

Like Nespresso, Starbucks has also taken the initiative to support sustainable coffee practices, but with a slightly more radical approach. In 2001, Starbucks partnered with Conservation International to develop C.A.F.E. Practices (Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices). Its goal was to promote sustainable coffee-farming practices by sourcing its coffee primarily from ethical farmers. While Nespresso and Starbucks have nearly identical goals, Starbucks has undoubtedly made the most progress in its efforts. In 2008, Starbucks set a goal that all of its coffee would be ethically sourced by 2015. As of 2013, “95% of [their] coffee was ethically sourced through C.A.F.E. Practices, Fairtrade, or another externally audited system” (Starbucks). According to Conservation International, this is the equivalent of 376 million pounds of coffee. And if those numbers don’t convince you that Starbucks cares about sustainable coffee, Conservation International reports that “over a million coffee farmers on four continents have benefitted from the program” (Conservation International).

Companies like Nespresso and Starbucks understand that supporting sustainable coffee isn’t just a matter of saving the environment. It’s also about preserving the integrity and well-being of hard-working people who would rather do what is morally right in the face of economic hardships than succumb to those pressures. Hopefully knowing that will make your next triple, venti, half-sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato taste a little bit sweeter.

Work Cited

*Bacon, Christopher M. Confronting the Coffee Crisis: Fair Trade, Sustainable Livelihoods and Ecosystems in Mexico and Central America. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008. Print.

Conservation International. “Partnership with Starbucks Coffee Company.” Conservation International. Web. 20 Sept. 2014. <;.

Hower, Mike. “Study Shows Farmers Working with Rainforest Alliance and Nespresso Earn 87% More.” Sustainable Brands – The Bridge to Better Brands. N.p., 18 July 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <;.

*Martínez-Torres, Maria Elena. Organic Coffee: Sustainable Development by Mayan Farmers. Athens, OH: Ohio U Center for International Studies, 2006. Print. 

Nespresso. “Protecting the Future of Our Highest Quality Coffees.” Nespresso. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <;.

 National Coffee Association. “Ten Steps To Coffee.” National Coffee Association. Web. 21 Sept.<;. 

Starbucks Coffee Company. “Responsibly Grown and Fair Trade Coffee.” Starbucks Coffee Company. Web. 20 Sept. 2014. <>.

*Non-internet origin


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