Going Green 1: Coffee

Generally, coffee is not the most environmentally friendly beverage. This is something we don’t really want to admit, because we love our coffee. We drink it first thing in the morning, we use it as an excuse to go out with friends, we love the smell of it when is brewing and how it can perfectly finish off a fancy meal.

But alas, it is grown in the rainforest, or where rainforests used to be.

It is also grown really far away.

It also has some of the worst abuses for child labour, similar to chocolate.


But that being said, there are things you can definitely do to make your cup of coffee more green. Are you ready for the sliding green scale?


Don’t use a stir stick. That is it. Just don’t use one. Let the cream and sugar just mellow with the coffee. There is no need to take a piece of wood or plastic and then throw it away 3 seconds later. Let it mellow.


Swear off paper cups and invest in a few reusable travel mugs. I like mine so much I use them around the house. They keep my coffee hotter longer, plus they hold more. Not only that, most coffee shops give you a 20 cent discount for using a travel mug. Seriously. As an added bonus, if you don’t use a stir stick as per the above, it is pretty easy to just snap the lid shut and give it a little swirl. So drink your coffee, garbage free. Here are some tips:

  • You will forget your mug. After you make this commitment you will be standing in line at a coffee shop and you will realize that you have forgotten already. This happened to me. Try to resist the urge to buy yet another travel mug on the spot. I walked away folks, I walked away.
  • If you forget your mug and you don’t have the strength to walk away, consider ordering a shot of espresso in a little ceramic cup. This is what they do in Italy, I saw it with my own eyes. Some coffee shops there have no seating at all, just a bar where people stand as they shoot back their espresso and then continue on their way. At the time I thought this was weird. Now I realize how efficient it is. A shot of espresso seems to satisfy my coffee fix, and actually tastes pretty good if you add a little sugar (no stir stick). Plus I feel all cool and European. Usually the girl I am ordering it from doesn’t know what I am talking about. Esspresso? Only? In what kind of cup? Ceramic? Persevere and you will get what you want. It is fun to try something different!
  • Now if you forget your mug and have a bit of time, order it in a ceramic mug to stay. Then sit and read the paper or look out the window for a while. You deserve it.
  • Keep a travel mug at the office, or in your car, or in your bag. If you forget, no problem.
  • Set an example for all your co-workers. Use your travel mug or a ceramic mug. Let them feel the shame of using paper, day after day, week after week.


Choose rainforest alliance, fair trade, organic and shade grown coffee. It is hard to get all 4 of these things in the same coffee, and there is some overlap between them. I try and get as many as I can, and choose coffee with certifications that mean the most to me:

  • Rainforest Alliance – This certification is most comprehensive, as it addresses environmental protection, social equity and economic viability all at once. To be certified, farms must meet standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). Child labour and slave labour are prohibited. The use of pesticides is discouraged and there are limits on the types of agrichemicals that can be used. Soil conservation and water conservation methods are employed. Wildlife is considered and protected. It really is a comprehensive standard, but the resulting product is not completely organic.
  • Fair Trade – fair price to farmers and most importantly, child labour was not used in the production of the coffee. As with chocolate, if it is not fair trade, then most likely child labour was used to produce it.
  • Organic – free of pesticides, so less chemicals for you and less chemicals in the lives of the farmers that picked the beans for you. Also – less chemicals for the soil and the insects and the birds and the wildlife and the ecosystem…. you get the picture.
  • Shade grown – grown within the rainforest, under the canopy, so that the rainforest can still flourish and farmers can still farm their beans. This has the permaculture, edible forest idea that I love, it feels natural, holistic. Plus those rainforests need all the help we can give them.

So for me, I will always choose fair trade, since I worry about the children. It trumps my climate change concern, which is a pretty big deal for me. If it is fair trade and something else, I will buy it. I can normally find fair trade organic pretty easily, or rainforest alliance (which has a fair trade component).

These coffees seem to be only available as beans. So if you don’t have one, you will have to get a coffee bean grinder. This is a bonus, since freshly ground coffee is the best. For extra points, get a hand grinder. My sister has one, and I give her props.


Write letters to your local coffee shops (or multi-national chains, you know the ones) asking that they only use fair trade, organic, rainforest alliance, shade grown coffee, clearly marked. Tell them that coffee farmers deserve a decent living and that they should not be associated with coffee that uses child labour. Tell them that the other coffee shops are doing it, and you would hope that they would do it too, so as to maintain your business. Write one letter and send it many places, over and over. Email is easiest. It doesn’t have to be a perfect letter either. Just whip it off and send it. You would be surprised at the impact, especially if you send it locally. It may stimulate discussion among management. You will be placing additional straw on the camel’s back. It will feel good. I promise.


Stop drinking coffee. Crazy I know. I don’t think I could do it. Maybe you can. No Impact Man did it, as did the 100-Mile Dieters. But they did it as a year-long challenge, and got to talk about it in their books. This did inspire me but I still don’t think I could do it. Local mint tea anyone?


Use a hand powered coffee grinder like my sister. She works for her coffee, and it tastes better somehow.

Use a reusable coffee filter.

Compost your coffee grounds. They are great for the garden!

So what do you think? Where do you fall on the sliding green scale – dabbler, beginner, intermediate, hardcore or ultimate? Any change for the green is a good change, no matter how small. So take the poll!


11 thoughts on “Going Green 1: Coffee

  1. Intermediate. Plus bonus. As I am the very sister who uses that hand grinder.

    The other thing about hand grinders is they’re actually better quality than a regular blade grinder (like the one Mom uses) because they use conical burrs to grind the coffee into a more consistent size than a blade grinder which just chops up the beans so that everything closest to the blade is super fine and farthest away is super coarse.

    It’s not just that I work for my coffee… it’s how the grinder works that makes it taste better too! Although… spending five minutes cranking a handle does make the coffee seem more worth it. Haha.

    Also, they’re cheaper to buy than electric. My hand grinder cost me $28 (well, less, actually, because I got an employee discount at the time), whereas I bought Mom hers for Christmas a few years ago for $50. I encourage you to buy one if your electric craps out!

    I liked this post. I’m excited to read more in the “sliding green scale” series!

  2. I will give up much before my two shots of espresso but I love your post. I have one that I am getting ready to do about my coffee maker. Would you mind if I linked to this?

  3. I’ve been looking carefully at fair trade stuff since your post on child labour and chocolate. I picked up some fair trade chocolate at 10,000 villages and, while reading the inside label, I noted that they make a very particular statement that no forced child labour was used in the production of the chocolate. The qualifier “forced” (it may have something more dramatic) makes me think that paid child labour (perhaps as part of a family production unit) may well have been used. Better than child slavery no doubt, but I’m curious about the “no child labour” assumption I’ve always made about fair trade stuff now.

    • According to the documentary “Chocolate: The Bitter Truth” the farmers are allowed to have their own children work on their farms, provided that the children also go to school. The film producers went into a village and asked a class full of children how many of them work on cocoa farms and half of them raised their hands. However in the same village were children that were slaves, from a different neighbouring country, that did not speak the language and who did not go to school. They were trafficked children, with no parents.

      It is a slippery slope. Many children help their families on the farm even here in Canada, but it cannot be at the expense of schooling. How much help is too much? I don’t know.

  4. Is it bad that I didn’t vote, because none of the categories really describes me? I’m trying to shirk responsibility here, just not sure where on the scale I fall. Consider the following: in 2006, I gave up coffee because I was told the caffeine content was triggering my migraines. After recovering from the nasty withdrawal, I turned to tea (even black tea is caffeine-poor compared to coffee, especially if you end the steeping process after three minutes) and haven’t really looked back. I only drink one or two cups of coffee per week. Not always Rainforest Alliance/fair trade/organic/shade grown, but as often as possible (Intermediate). Followers of my blog know I boycott Tim Hortons already. I own two travel mugs, one for coffee, one for tea (Beginner). I guess the bigger question is, how green is my consumption of tea, since I consume far more of it than coffee!

    • Sounds like you are on your way to ultimate, given that you don’t drink coffee much at all! Whoot Whoot!

      I am not sure about tea… other than by growing your own mint plant and drying the leaves – that would be the ultimate! I got some local mint tea a while back, and it is fantastic with a bit of honey and a zip of lemon. Not much caffeine though. 😦

  5. Pingback: What is Fair Trade Coffee? | Natural Living | A Much Better Way

  6. Pingback: My Love Affair with Alex « Agrigirl's Blog

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