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What is Sustainable Coffee Production?

By Kara Ficke | February 15, 2021

How the Arbor Day Foundation Coffee Program Approaches Sustainability 

Arbor Day® Coffee is sustainably sourced. But what does “sustainably sourced” mean? In the world of coffee, sustainability is a broad term that may refer to zero-waste packaging, organic farming practices, and paying fair-trade prices for green coffee. Today, I want to share how the Arbor Day Foundation’s coffee program approaches sustainability holistically — and what we look for in our relationships with farmers and cooperatives.  

The reality is that coffee production can have a negative environmental impact on water resources, soil health, wildlife, and communities. Choosing to purchase coffee from farmers who care for and preserve the trees on their land is a significant step toward sustainable coffee production. But what other aspects need to be in place to truly achieve sustainability?

The Arbor Day Coffee program looks for producers and cooperative that are actively working on conservation and reforestation efforts in their community and on their farms.  Many of these producers have been certified through programs that monitor these efforts, including USDA Organic, Fair Trade, Bird-Friendly, and Rainforest Alliance. Having some of these certifications is a wonderful indicator of a farm’s commitment to sustainable farming practices. However, not all certifications are affordable or easy to access for smaller-sized coffee farms. 

As part of our verification process, the Arbor Day Coffee program often sends a coffee quality specialist to meet with farmers and cooperatives at origin to tour the farms and talk with producers about the challenges they might be facing as well as the successes they’ve had.  

When this program began, four environmental- and community-focused standards were laid out to guide our relationships with farmers and cooperatives in order to source the most sustainably grown coffees. These standards are still used today: trees, water, quality, and education. 

A Focus on Trees

The coffee farmers we work with must have a tree management plan. This plan outlines how the farmer will conserve their forested areas, maintaining the rain forest tree canopy. It helps to provide sustainable land use goals, enabling producers to plan and maintain trees on their land in a meaningful manner. 

Managing Water Resources

Fresh water can be a scarce resource in many communities. If the waterways are not treated well, health problems can result. Coffee farming can pollute rivers and streams. But by managing wastewater appropriately, producers can help lower carbon emissions and improve water quality. 

Great-Tasting Coffee

Having a quality coffee plan in place helps to improve production and post-harvest processing. These practices help the farmer achieve a higher yield, higher prices upon delivery, reduced product loss, and lower defects all while enhancing the overall flavor of the coffee.  

Active Learning

Farmers and cooperatives that actively participate in educational opportunities improve their farming practices. Building healthy environmental practices within communities and supporting educational opportunities that address the use of trees as a resource for the future are critical.

When you hear the word “sustainability,” keep this in mind: how does the production of this product effect economies, communities, and the natural environment?  Finding a balance can be challenging, but taking a holistic approach is truly at the heart of Arbor Day Coffee. 

Interested in diving even deeper?  Check out the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a guide for measuring sustainability programs. 

We are excited to share our vision to source sustainable shade-grown coffee with you. Learn more at arborday.org/coffee.  

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