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What’s in your cup? A guide to buying ethical coffee

February 27, 2021By Eva Ramirez

As the Western world’s appetite for coffee swells, so do the humanitarian and environmental issues within the trade. How can the caffeine-loving consumer ensure their money is going to those working honestly to right the wrongs within the industry?

Eva Ramirez speaks to London Grade Coffee and shares what to look out for when purchasing coffee to ensure you’re buying an ethical product.

Exploitation within the coffee industry is nothing new considering its colonialist roots and a global expansion which was bolstered by the slave trade. However, these colonial structures are still present in the industry today. Issues such as unfair wages and poor, hazardous working conditions are rife. On a daily basis, coffee growers work for long hours handling highly toxic chemicals, pesticides and heavy machinery for very little reward. 

Much like fast fashion, the problems are environmental too, as farms are forced to satiate the growing appetite for caffeine across the world. Deforestation in lieu of the expansion of coffee farms which is detrimental to the local environment, wildlife and climate change on a wider scale is commonplace. Native trees in forests such as the Amazon are cleared to make way for coffee plantations where the agricultural methods used harm the planet further.

Yet while coffee consumption increases on a global scale, the price of it has dropped due to several factors. A huge surplus of coffee beans, political instability in coffee producing nations such as Brazil and market fluctuations which affect exchange rates have all played a role in the decline. The plummet in prices means coffee farmers, particularly small-scale growers, face increasing pressure as the cost of production surpasses the profit that their harvests yield. 

“Coffee is the second largest traded commodity after oil and there is variation of supply” says Alice Owen-Lloyd of London Grade Coffee, a retail and wholesale supplier that is organic, sustainably grown and ethically sourced. 

Unfortunately the coffee industry is overwhelmingly dominated by multinational corporations whose MO is to supply a high volume of cheap, generic products into mainstream supermarkets. Specialty coffee roasters like London Grade Coffee, who are involved in the entire cycle of coffee production from harvest to roasting, only account for a minute percentage of the industry. 

One of London Grade Coffee’s top priorities is to source their beans ethically “in order to deracinate coffee farming’s oppressive roots”. This means a direct relationship with their growers. “We deal with our estate directly and pay the price they need to keep producing exceptional coffee beans. It is important that we do not deal through an importer, by dealing directly with the estate they get paid the price they deserve. They trust us and we trust them.” 

There have been some considerable, positive changes spurred by the specialty coffee industry, Alice says. “The emergence of compostable pods is perhaps the most significant. However there is definitely now more of an emphasis upon paying the producer a fair price and acknowledging their role. We’ve also seen big improvements with regards to packaging – less single use plastic. Recycled and recyclable materials are much more readily available and affordable too.”

When it comes to labels and certificates, Alice advises against getting hung up on the buzzwords and instead looking at the actual facts, asking questions such as “where has your coffee come from? Have the farmers been paid a fair price? Has the planet and its biodiversity been taken into consideration?” 

Much like navigating the world of natural wine, understanding the true meaning behind ethically-sourced coffee can be overwhelming. Here’s a quick explanation of the most common labels and terms:

Rainforest Alliance Certified

 Environmentally sustainable coffee grown with biodiversity conservation as a priority. There’s a strong focus on reducing deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s socially ethical or guarantees a minimum price to suppliers.


As with other organic products, this means the coffee is grown in a way that promotes agricultural methods that work in harmony with the earth and reduce the use of synthetic chemicals. This supports biodiversity, builds soil health and is also beneficial for the farmers and producers of the beans as they are around less chemicals. While this is all undeniably positive, the cost to gain an organic certification can price out small-scale farmers unless they are part of a cooperative.


This certification works directly with farmers to guarantee them a minimum price for their coffee and promotes direct trade and community development. Unfortunately land ownership is a requirement for participation in the Fairtrade cooperatives, so many farmers who don’t own their own land are unable to profit from the higher prices that come with selling Fairtrade coffee.

Direct Trade

This is when a roaster buys coffee directly from a producer, indicating an honest relationship between both parties whereby quality, pricing and other terms are agreed upon and mutually beneficial. As there is no clear-cut definition, uncertainty surrounds the direct trade model and many question whether it truly tackles institutional poverty and inequality.

Single Origin

This simply means that all of the beans in the packet have come from one estate, grown by the same people.

Shade Grown

Shade trees are planted near the coffee plants to protect them from rain and sun, help maintain healthy soil and attract local birds which serve as pest control.

Specialty Coffee like London Grade Coffee is about the quality of the beans and the conditions under which it is produced and distributed. It is more expensive than buying Lavazza coffee for example because of the quality of the bean – it is the highest quality possible. The importer hasn’t then mixed it with an inferior bean. “Specialty coffee tackles the issues the coffee industry presents: it has been ethically sourced and in theory the farmers are paid the price they need to keep on producing very high quality coffee. Speciality coffee commits to making coffee better for everyone in the value chain.” 

“When buying your coffee it is important to buy from a company who is devoted to selling high quality coffee, rather than selling commodity coffee” Alice continues. “You want to look for a company who knows their supplier, who has a relationship with the growers. This is important as unethical farming is very prevalent in the coffee industry, and more often than not the farmers do not get paid a fair price for their beans. It is also important to buy organic coffee, as this means the farmers haven’t used pesticides and chemicals which are harmful to the environment.” 

So, how can you make sure the way you make your coffee at home is as sustainable as possible?
“The key is to use non- bleached filters, and to avoid Nespresso pods at all costs” says Alice. “While we can’t deny the ease and simplicity of a pod machine, we also cannot continue to deny their highly damaging impact on the planet. Every year up to 52 billion capsules end up in landfills or in oceans. It is also important to not waste the coffee grounds after it has been brewed.”

6 million tonnes of used coffee grounds are sent to landfill every year, but there are multiple ways to recycle and reuse them. Here are a few:
  1. Use them as fertiliser or compost. 
  2. Combine the grounds with baking soda for a natural cleaning solution which is great for scouring pots. 
  3. Mix them with honey or coconut oil for an exfoliating scrub that you can use on your body and lips. 
  4. Coffee grounds contain nitrogen and can help neutralise odours, so keep a small bowl or container in the fridge for a week or so to dissipate unwanted smells. 
  5. Many insects are repelled by the smell of coffee, so sprinkle them in your garden or keep a bowl or two next to your outdoor seating areas to keep bugs away.