From Shops and Roasters to Consumers, Sustainability in Coffee Is Complicated

Traceability and transparency are key at Bellwether Coffee.
Traceability and transparency are key at Bellwether Coffee. Bellwether Coffee
Walk down the coffee aisle of any grocery store and you'll find a myriad of roasts and flavor profiles, colorful artwork and an endless sea of brand choices. Looking closer, many bags are stamped with labels or certifications attempting to portray the company as an eco-friendly ally. With so many choices and so many different sustainability labels, it can be hard to decipher which companies are truly following an ethical and sustainable business model.

Speaking with Grayson Caldwell, Bellwether Coffee's head of sustainability and impact, it seems transparency in sourcing and reliable data may be the key to a guilt-free cup of coffee. "We initially emulated the industry’s best standards to guide our sourcing, but we knew we wanted to do more to ensure that farmers were truly paid a fair price,” she says. "This pushed us to create a new pricing methodology rooted in farmers’ livelihood needs rather than the fluctuations of the coffee commodity market."

At the beginning of what's known as the third wave of coffee — a coffee marketing movement that emphasized high-quality beans — there was a focus on traceability. Consumers were really focused on where beans came from. Now, Caldwell notes, "traceability and transparency have to be linked. Just knowing where your coffee is from isn't enough."

With the worldwide coffee industry being valued at $102 billion, Fair Trade organizations pushed to bring more of the profit into the pockets of farmers growing the coffee. However, some of these Fair Trade organizations lacked transparency, and coffee roasters around the globe are pushing to have direct connections to individual farmers or coffee-growing estates. "There is this preconceived notion that businesses chasing sustainable practices tends to result in less profit, but that isn't the case if you build your business model correctly," Caldwell explains. "Paying farmers a living income-based price can potentially increase the cost of coffee, but there are other opportunities to cut costs and still ensure that more profit reaches the farmers."

Regarding the environmental impact of its business, Bellwether has a fleet of electric roasting machines, which drastically reduces the carbon footprint of the roasting process. A number of coffee shops around Denver utilize this roasting system, including Cosecha del Sur, Cafe Byblos, Cake Crumbs Bakery and Cafe, Sojourners Coffee & Tea and Wagon Coffee Roasters. Most roasting machines run on propane or natural gas. With so many links in the coffee supply chain — predominantly industrialized agricultural practices and single-use waste — many coffee shops and roasters have an enormous carbon footprint.
click to enlarge Bellwether has a fleet of electric roasting machines. - BELLWETHER COFFEE
Bellwether has a fleet of electric roasting machines.
Bellwether Coffee
Some companies, like Denver's Blue Sparrow Coffee, are working to address sustainability from a number of angles, literally collecting trash to understand its waste for a new annual sustainability report and implementing a single-use cup initiative.

"It seems like the pandemic brought us a few steps back in terms of environmentally friendly methods," Caldwell notes. "Prior to the pandemic, a number of companies popped up looking to implement reusable metal or glass containers to replace coffee cups that get tossed after consumption. Then the pandemic brought out single-use materials once again. I'm optimistic that the waste-free pursuit will gain traction now that we are all looking ahead after the pandemic."

Vessel is a company with locations in Boulder as well as Berkeley, California. A number of coffee shops allow customers to order drinks in a stainless-steel Vessel mug, which can be returned on the next visit. Like a library book, you check out a mug for free and only pay if you lose it. With coffee companies like Starbucks using four billion disposable cups a year, this reusable-mug program is a surefire way to lessen coffee's impact on the environment.

Creamer choices, too, have an impact on sustainability. "Dairy creamer results in three times as much carbon when compared to plant alternatives," Caldwell explains. "If you want an even smaller carbon footprint, just drink your coffee black!"

According to the University of California, Davis, livestock account for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gases, and raising a dairy cow requires an immense amount of water. For many, coffee is a daily ritual that has roots all around the globe. What the Fair Trade industry has shown is that farmers haven't always been given a fair share of the profits made in the coffee market.

Conscious Coffees, a Boulder roaster, was recognized by the certified B Corporation community as one of the Best for the World in the community category in 2021. Craig Lamberty, its owner, also mentioned the need for consumers to chase transparency when checking the ethical practices behind a bag of coffee.

Most large coffee corporations source beans from huge importing businesses that link their prices to the coffee commodity prices. Those prices fluctuate regularly and without notice. Occasionally a farmer will work very hard to grow the highest-quality beans only to be offered an abysmal price based on a lull in the coffee market.

To combat this, Lamberty explains, "We source our coffee from Cooperative Coffees, which makes long-term livable wage contracts with coffee farmers. This ensures that farmers won't be at the mercy of the commodity market when they go to cash in on their hard-earned work. We make this information as transparent as possible for a reason."

When it comes to reducing coffee's impact on the world, action is required from roasters, coffee shops and consumers. "Working in sustainable coffee is like quicksand," Caldwell admits. "Once you tackle one problem, a few more problems make an appearance. Regardless, I'm optimistic about the future of coffee."
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dustin Bailey grew up in the mountains of Colorado and began cooking in kitchens at a young age. He improved his culinary skills in a variety of food genres and then shifted his focus towards sustainable farming practices. As a farming apprentice, he was able to get the full farm-to-table experience. Now he shares his perspective through food writing and photography.
Contact: Dustin Bailey