What We've Been Led to Believe About Coffee and Climate Change
Ten companies account for 35% of coffee volume, and they could be doing more to slow down the devastating effects of climate change.
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Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world, so the idea that we might not have coffee in the next 10, 20, or 30 years is a big deal.
Every so often, a popular media outlet will publish a piece about how climate change is threatening coffee. It’s already been extensively reported that rising temperatures and unpredictable seasons have hindered the coffee-growing industry, and will wreak greater havoc in future. But climate change isn’t just affecting coffee as a crop—it’s also threatening the culture and economy we’ve built around coffee.
Millions of people depend on coffee for their livelihoods, from the farmers who grow and pick it to the baristas who serve it. Coffee shops have long been meeting places for people of all demographics and spaces for collective action, “third places” beyond the home or workplace where people can gather. If coffee no longer exists, the rest of these structures topple, too.
But articles about coffee and climate change rarely get that far. In fact, most are pretty reductive, focusing mainly on the consumers who will have to cope when they no longer have caffeine juice in their mugs every morning.
I’m morbidly tickled by some of the headlines news outlets have used for these stories. Here’s a quick sampling:
From CNN.com: “Climate change is coming for our coffee.”
From Time.com “Climate Change Is Threatening Your Morning Cup of Coffee” (this is the google search title — when you click the article, the headline is “Your Morning Cup of Coffee Is in Danger. Can the Industry Adapt in Time?”)
From LX.com, an NBC news affiliate: “Climate Change May Be Putting Your Daily Coffee Fix at Risk.”
From The Conversation: “Coffee may become more scarce and expensive thanks to climate change.”
From Fast Company: “Climate change will make coffee more expensive.”
In focusing on our individual relationships to coffee, these articles overlook the entire system built around them. I’m not surprised—this is part of a long tradition of individualizing responses to climate change in order to divert attention away from the large corporations who are actually culpable for where we are today.
I was inspired to write this article after I learned that British Petroleum (BP), with one move, permanently shifted the global conversation about climate change.
In 2004, BP released the “carbon footprint calculator,” a tool that invited users to go online and measure how their daily choices affected the planet. In what proved to be an astoundingly effective PR move, BP—one of the biggest oil companies in the world, and which spilled 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010—was able to dramatically change how we think about tackling climate change.
Ultimately, the carbon footprint calculator—and the rhetoric it has led to—makes individuals believe that climate change is their problem to solve. That’s not to say that knowing the effect of your lifestyle choices doesn’t matter—but as this article by Mark Kaufman describes, “It’s evident that BP didn’t expect to slash its carbon footprint. But the company certainly wanted the public — who commuted to work in gas-powered cars and stored their groceries in refrigerators largely powered by coal and gas generated electricity — to attempt, futilely, to significantly shrink their carbon footprint.”
Personal, individual acts of climate responsibility will not slow down climate change in the way we need them to. The article above mentions how, during the pandemic—when many folks were staying home, not flying, or driving cars—carbon emissions only went down by 8%. Yes, that’s a sizable amount—but it shows that individuals’ carbon emissions don’t even touch what corporations and businesses emit.
Ultimately, as Kaufman writes, you have to engage in the world in a way that emits carbon, no matter the footprint-lowering practices you implement. And that’s especially true in the United States. A study by MIT determined that an unhoused person in the U.S. still emits 8.5 tons of carbon every year, even though the biggest personal contributors to rising carbon emissions are things like housing and transportation. Furthermore, this number is double the world average, at 4 tons per person per year, demonstrating that the U.S. in particular makes it deceptively hard to be “eco-friendly” when entire economies are set up to consume non-renewable sources of energy.
What BP achieved with its PR campaign is effectively a large-scale form of cognitive dissonance: We know that climate change is threatening our lives and our planet, but instead of targeting the largest polluters, we’ve been led to believe that we’re personally responsible.
Eventually, we might even grasp onto this shift as a way to gain feelings of control over an insurmountable problem. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “Personal virtue is an eternally seductive goal in progressive movements, and the climate movement is no exception,” an attitude that BP has capitalized on. “The very short counterargument is that individual acts of thrift and abstinence won’t get us the huge distance we need to go in this decade.”
Here’s how this relates to coffee:
It’s easy to forget that coffee, like all industries, is controlled primarily by a handful of large corporations. In its 2020 edition, The Coffee Barometer, a biennial report about corporate coffee businesses and sustainability, points out that the top 10 roasters globally (by volume) “are responsible for roasting 35% of the world’s coffee, which generated an estimated US$55 billion in total revenue in 2019.”
Many of these coffee companies (which include the likes of Nestlé, Starbucks, and JDE/Peet’s) engage in some form of “sustainable practices.” I’d argue that coffee, more than most industries, engages with the “ethics” of consumption and markets itself as “better” than other alternatives. You’ve seen these tactics before if you’ve visited a coffee roaster’s website: X coffee from Y farm is better than, let’s say, grocery store coffee, because the roaster paid a higher wage, or is in direct communication with the growers, or has a longstanding relationship with the farmer. When it comes to coffee, we’re pretty familiar with a “better for you/the environment” discussion.
The problem, it seems, is that many of these “sustainability initiatives” are unregulated, opaque, and not enough to make meaningful change. From The Coffee Barometer:
…Companies’ sustainability policies are still isolated strategies, mainly highlighting issues they may feel compelled to work on in the form of CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] projects. While some individual companies are no doubt doing better than others and should be acknowledged for their efforts, the overall sustainability reports outshine each other in formulating vague policies and their absence of any serious attempt to share results of meeting specific policy targets is striking.
The Coffee Barometer also notes a dip in voluntary sustainability standards, or VSS for short (things like certifications, which I have a lot of feelings about, and which are mostly optional) in favor of internally crafted sustainability initiatives:
Some companies are even sidestepping the established VSS for their complete portfolio and promote self-regulated company codes of conduct instead. The question arises as to whether these company codes are a strategy to take back control - because of limited results of VSS - or an attempt to lower the cost of sustainable coffee by removing third party auditing.
In other words, there’s no requirement for these companies to adopt any sort of sustainability policy, but companies are still sidestepping any sort of measurable accountability in favor of their own internally crafted initiatives, which cannot be assessed by a third party. Many of these companies use some sort of “sustainability” language on their websites, but the Coffee Barometer notes that without clarity or actionable consequences, we can’t expect much in terms of real impact.
And yet, we are inundated with the language of personal responsibility in coffee all the time. Remember that terrible time in 2018, when we all debated straws and decided to ignore the pleas of disabled activists (Alice Wong, whose article I just linked to, was a guest on the show during this time)? Almost all of the initiatives on Starbucks’ sustainability page target in-store consumption, like more plant-based options and reducing single-use packaging.
Let’s be clear: These initiatives are still important, but they don’t even touch upon the millions of pounds of coffee the company sources. Starbucks does list “Investing in regenerative agriculture, reforestation, forest conservation and water replenishment in our supply chain,” as one of its goals, but it uses an internal sustainability metric called Coffee and Farmer Equity [C.A.F.E.] Practices to hold itself accountable. (I’d love to hear from someone who knows more about this initiative.)
Sustainability isn’t just an environmental concern, but encompasses labor practices as well. When we view sustainability through this lens, the idea of corporate delegation—and dereliction—of responsibility really comes into focus. We already know that Starbucks is actively fighting its sweeping union movement—to the point that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has sued the company for retaliatory actions against pro-union workers. Just this week, Intelligentsia’s five Chicago-based locations, plus its roasting facility workers, have filed a letter of intent to unionize. The company, which is owned by JDE/Peet’s, has not indicated that it plans to recognize the union.
In the end, The Coffee Barometer lays it out simply: “Although our knowledge is often incomplete, there is a solid foundation to address the most urgent issues and to try and test promising options against a range of scenarios.”
And it puts pressure on large companies to take action: “It requires companies to recognize their shared responsibility – especially in financial terms – and addresses the root causes of all challenges with substantial levels of investment in collaborative initiatives […] Companies will need to intensify their voluntary efforts and prepare for new government policies aiming to level the playing field – particularly in Europe – and proof that their supply chains are free from any human rights violations, as well as deforestation.”
We may not have coffee in the next few decades, or coffee may look and taste different than it does now. And while we can take responsibility for our individual actions, we have to look beyond those, too, and recognize how corporations actively make us feel like we must shoulder this burden alone.
I hope you feel lighter and freer after reading this. But I also hope you don’t fall down the nihilism hole, which we’ve already discussed is a bad place to find yourself in. And finally, I hope this article helps you ask questions of large companies, and understand how corporations will warp the climate change narrative to deflect any modicum of responsibility.
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