We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

‘Are carbon emissions an inevitable part of my caffeine addiction?’

carbon emissions

Our Agony Uncle responds to a reader question about coffee emissions.

Q: I feel conflicted – I try and buy local wherever I can, and there’s an independent coffee roastery just down the road from me that certainly does make a delicious flat white. But I also try and buy Fairtrade, which this isn’t – plus it’s not like they are growing the beans themselves here in the north of England. What should I do? Do I just have to accept that carbon emissions from shipping are an inevitable part of my caffeine addiction?

Concerned of Cumbria

I’m going to start a support group for people like me: ‘Hi, my name is Agony Uncle – and I’m a coffee philistine.’

I have to be honest: it all tastes the same. Flat whites, piccolos, americanos, cappuccinos… it’s just coffee. ‘Oh, that’s horrible, the beans have been burnt,’ my friend will say. Really? It just tastes like coffee to me. ‘You use an AeroPress? I can’t live without my V60,’ someone else chimes in. How interesting, I say, fantasizing about giving them some freeze-dried instant and seeing if they even notice.

Still, I’m not here to caffeine-shame, so let’s get on with the business at hand. I daresay that the straightforward answer to your question is yes. Under present conditions, carbon emissions will be an inevitable part of your addiction to a drink that is grown on the other side of the planet. But clearly, our ethical inquiry doesn’t end there.

It’s easy to make fun of people who care too much about consumerism, as if they think they’re slowly building a better world with every wave of their contactless card. But I think most people, especially most New Internationalist readers, understand that what we choose to buy does have some significance, even if it’s not the be-all and end-all. Since the advent of the modern world, it has sometimes been through acts of consumption – from plantation sugar to South African oranges that we’ve recognized our ethical and political obligations to others, spurring us into real movements.

I think you should start by asking your local coffee shop about the provenance of their beans and whether they have considered using Fairtrade alternatives. They may have good reasons as to why they buy the coffee they do; or they may have never thought about this stuff. Researchers at UCL found that ‘changing how coffee is grown, transported and consumed’ – if farmers use less fertilizer and manage resources more efficiently, opt for ships rather than planes for export – ‘can slash the crop’s carbon emissions by up to 77 per cent’. In other words, there are dirty and cleaner types of coffee – and if we’re the kind to consume a lot of this stuff, we probably really should be pressing ourselves and others to take the least bad option.

Thinking about your dilemma, I noticed that debates around Fairtrade seem to have faded away in recent years. Global justice advocates have passionately argued about the official certification for decades – one key moment in losing faith was when Nestlé was allowed to use it on its KitKats in 2010. Since then, the organization has been challenged, as corporations left the third-party scheme to set up their own, in-house accreditations of fairness.

Fairtrade may not be perfect, but corporate self-policing sounds much worse. Does anybody care? Perhaps there is just too much consumer fatigue. Life is expensive, even in the rich world. We feel despondent, less willing to believe that things can get better. That’s why we still need people like you – people who can wake up and smell the coffee.

SEND YOUR DILEMMAS TO [email protected]

Subscribe   Ethical Shop