A roaster’s guide to ethically sourced coffee

Aidan Gant
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January 28, 2022
ethically sourced coffee


Two of the largest coffee-consuming markets – Europe and North America – have historically relied on imports from producing countries to cater to domestic demand.

Typically, these are low and middle income countries that are not always equipped to provide adequate welfare to their entire populations.

Furthermore, the effects of climate change are already showing signs of having a disproportionate effect on these regions – and it’s clear that they won’t be able to combat them alone.

As demand grows for ethically produced, procured, and transported coffee, roasters and café owners are increasingly turning to ethical sourcing to stay competitive.

But what exactly is ethical sourcing? And how important is it to the future of coffee? To find out more, I spoke with the founder of Balance Coffee, James Bellis.

How is “ethically sourced coffee” defined?

At present, there is no single definition for ethically sourced coffee. Nor is there any one reliable certification for it.

Consequently, this is one of the main challenges faced by ethically-conscious consumers, as well as coffee businesses that want to improve industry standards.

“Ethical sourcing means providing complete transparency and traceability,” James says . “This should be throughout the supply chain, from coffee farm to consumer.”

This transparency would make businesses more accountable for maintaining standards from a human rights perspective and an environmental standpoint.

The idea of accountability lies at the heart of the issue of ethical sourcing. Across a multi-layered value chain, it can be difficult for consumers to know that the entire process has followed a certain set of standards.

Some believe ethical sourcing should put the responsibility on one business.

Theoretically, this would be the party closest to the consumer. This party would be accountable for the social and/or environmental performance at other stages of the value chain.

Various certifications are currently available, such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, that would suggest a level of ethical scrutiny. However, they are not necessarily a guarantee of ethical practice.

“These certifications follow out-dated principles,” James says. “Although there are some levels of traceability, they act as middle men and, therefore, are often taking an unnecessary slice of the pie.”

He adds that this may be better passed on to coffee farmers directly or via reputable green importers.

How important are ethical practices in the coffee industry?

Arguably, the continued existence of the coffee industry depends upon its adoption of more sustainable practices.

If global temperatures continue to rise, it’s estimated that coffee will lose up to 50% of land available for its cultivation by 2050.

Therefore, the necessity to act with environmental sustainability at the forefront of decision making within the coffee industry is clear.

For James, ethical practice in the industry is vital. “Both climate change and some of the major challenges at origin mean it has to become more of a priority.”

He believes businesses should move toward ethical and sustainable practices. “Otherwise, we’re in serious trouble.”

In his decade of experience, James has noted a shift in consumer expectations with regard to ethics and sustainability.

“This trend in customer requirements may be influenced by the commitment to education from some of the UK’s best coffee roasters.”

Additional factors to consider for ethically sourced coffee

One way coffee roasters can ethically source their own green product is through direct trade. 

This describes a situation where the roaster buys green coffee directly from a producer or a producer’s co-operative.

Dealing directly with the supply origin provides an opportunity to work with a producer. This helps to ensure the best arrangement for everyone involved in the crop, and for the climate.

This is particularly true when the certifications available are not always a satisfactory ethical guarantee for roasters.

However, the difficulty with direct trade lies in the fact that there is no set definition of its parameters, and no certification.

Businesses can make almost any claims with little expectation of having to substantiate them in any meaningful way.

James says the introduction of Direct Trade certification makes more sense. 

“There are still a lot of grey areas within the specialty coffee sector when it comes to sourcing and the sourcing and marketing of coffee,” he admits. “So this would help provide clarity for all involved.”

Ultimately, making the industry a more ethical space is an obligation shared by all roasters and café owners.

Ethically sourced coffee is one vital aspect of the change needed within the industry as a whole, and one where the specialty sector is leading the way.

Further improvements can be made by examining other areas of the businesses’ ethical footprints.

Paying staff a living wage is an important consideration. This includes roastery staff, as well as the skilled baristas that allowed third-wave coffee shops to flourish.

Another consideration would be an inspection of the environmental impact of coffee businesses.

There are a number of options for substantially improving the environmental performance of your operation. For example, you could change energy suppliers, or even bank accounts, to companies that choose to put sustainability first.

You may also choose to switch to a more efficient electric roaster, or offer a cycle to work scheme for your employees.

However, one of the easiest changes to make right away would be to switch to compostable or recyclable packaging, such as sustainable coffee bags.

Not only could these help extend the shelf life of coffee, it will undoubtedly put your business one step ahead of the competition.

MTPak Coffee offers a complete range of sustainable coffee bags, including recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable packaging options made from eco-friendly kraft or rice paper.

For more information on our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team today.

A roaster’s guide to ethically sourced coffee

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