Your Daily Cup Of Coffee Is An Eco Minefield, Here’s What To Do About It

4 Mins Read

Most of us might start our day with a fresh cup of coffee. The bad news for us coffee lovers is that the popular drink is pretty problematic when it comes to its social, ethical and environmental impact. Below we talk through the four biggest problems that plague the humble coffee bean, and how you can still enjoy your morning caffeine boost guilt-free.

Problem 1: Environmental Destruction

The explosive growth of the coffee industry over the years has meant that more and more coffee has to be grown and produced at a faster pace than ever before. Traditionally grown under the shade of rainforest trees, many farmers have changed their agricultural practices to increase and speed up their yields. Now, most coffee beans in plantations are sun-grown and uses a host of agrochemicals including pesticides, fertilisers and fungicides – all of which contributes to contaminating topsoil, waterways and land and marine life. The new practise also requires more land, which has meant that our rainforests – the earth’s powerful carbon absorption tool, havens of biodiversity and the natural habitat of many rare and important species – is destroyed in the process. 

Problem 2: Modern Slavery & Exploitation

Slavery is alive and well and a reality for many global industries from fishing but you may be surprised to learn it’s also a part of your daily cup of joe. The coffee industry, while generating colossal commercial benefits to businesses and enjoyment consumers, has come at the expense of small coffee farmers. Around 25 million small coffee growers produce 73% of the world’s coffee, and they are under exploitation. Typically, independent small farmers can produce one pound of coffee with around US$2, but privately owned large plantations will use cheap labour to cut costs and maximise profit. And these beans go to many coffee brands we spot on supermarket shelves – a 2016 report revealed giant corporations like Nestlé sourced coffee beans from plantations where there was evidence of debt bondage, child labour, wage theft and dangerous working environments. 

What’s more? Despite a proliferation in Fairtrade and other ethical coffee accreditation in recent years, these certifications do not always translate into a responsible cup of coffee. According to research conducted by London university SOAS, the Fairtrade Foundation is unable to ensure that every worker gets paid a reasonable living wage, particularly in Ethiopia and Uganda. 

Problem 3: Carbon Emissions

Coffee can only be grown at elevated locations in warm climates, meaning that much of the  coffee in the world has to be shipped or flown an awfully long distance. Large freighters used to ship coffee beans across oceans are a far cry from being sustainable – they run on fossil fuels, consuming more than 16 tonnes each day at sea and generating a sludge of run-off waste that pours directly into our oceans. In addition to the emissions produced by transportation, opting for a dairy milk latte also comes with a hefty footprint. Dairy milk is accountable for around 80% of the carbon impact in a typical latte – conventional dairy farming depletes land nutrients, uses up vast water and fertiliser and produces greenhouse gases. According to GRAIN, the top 10 dairy corporations in the world are responsible for 231 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Problem 4: Excessive Packaging

According to a market research analysis in 2017, the global coffee packaging market – which includes anything from plastic and paper pouches, foil-lined bags, plastic and metal containers and pods – is expected to see immense growth year on year. While Europe has traditionally to dominated demand for the global coffee packaging industry, numbers are on the rise because the Asia Pacific market is projected to expand rapidly, led by India and China. Much of this packaging is not recycled, or made from recyclable materials, let alone biodegradable or compostable options. Hong Kong is already in the midst of a waste crisis – from our overflowing landfills to microplastic pollution in our seas, and our takeway coffee addiction makes it all the worse.

So What Can You Do?

Combat the carbon footprint associated with transported unethically-sourced coffee beans by:

  • Offsetting your carbon using sites like to fund tree-planting projects or switching to Ecosia as your main search engine.
  • Buying your beans from local zero-waste bulk food stores, to avoid the packaging associated with conventional coffee products.
  • Making sure your coffee is responsibly sourced is another aspect – and we have one option based right here in Hong Kong. Founded in 2018, startup Impact Berry provides ethical coffee for consumers by using beans grown in their natural shade ecosystem by independent farmers, and also funds community educational projects and urban farming initiatives through collaborations with NGOs.
  • Asking for plant-based milk when ordering a latte at your local coffee shop.

Lead image courtesy of Pexels.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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