How much impact does a single cup of coffee have on the world? Not a lot. But the result of drinking one cup a day for one year is 365 cheap plastic cups with plastic lids and plastic draws thrown into the litter, together making a significant contribution to the deterioration of our world. The impending threat of climate change should make us all shake with anxiety for our environment. It is time for change — and what better way to start changing than by understanding the real cost of our coffee?
Photo: NY Times
Why is coffee bad for sustainability?
Americans use half a billion plastic straws every day. We uproot 1.6 million trees each year for our flimsy coffee cups. This plastic waste eventually trickles to our oceans, which is filled with plastic items floating next to our dead fishes. The numbers are horrifying, but our irresponsible consumption patterns continue.
To understand the problem with coffee, we have to understand the giant in the coffee industry: Starbucks Corporation. As the world’s largest coffee company, Starbucks is highly conscious of its environmental image. From their website, they seem to have done some significant work in the realm of sustainability: they started offering discounts for reusable discounts in 1985, and now provide non-dairy alternatives for consumers. In 2020, they even announced their desire to halve carbon emissions, waste output and water impact by 2030.
Sounds good? Definitely — but corporate affairs are often murkier than they seem at first glance. In fact, history suggests that Starbucks is not a particularly environmentally conscious company. Starbucks pledged to launch a recyclable cup by 2015. In many places of the world, these recyclable cups are currently non-existent. 3.85 billion paper cups were produced and distributed by Starbucks in 2017. Most are now laden within our landfills and simmering in our oceanic waters.
Photo: Starbucks Cups
And the problem isn’t purely with Starbucks and their plastic cups. Those of us that make our coffee at home might also be harming the environment. The Guardian found that 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America were cleared for coffee farming. This means that if you make your own coffee, you not only pay for electricity, coffee machines, capsules and non-biodegradable filters — you can’t make sure that your coffee is environmentally friendly because of the entrenched supply chains that prevail and control the industry.
Why are our corporations not taking action on this?
While it’s probably unrealistic if we all decided to give up coffee, something that could be a lot easier to do is to ensure that the coffee companies that we love are acting responsibly. There seems to be some action on that front. Just this year, Starbucks stated that they have “science-based” research methods to detect if they were moving towards their environmental goals. Yet, ensuring that they act is so much harder: their iron grip over the imagination of the general population makes it near impossible to hold them fully accountable to their goals.
We let the big firms get away with inaction because accurate information on the climate crisis is hard to find.
Look at Pret a Manger, a UK-based international franchised sandwich and coffee shop. Like Starbucks, there are reasons to be optimistic about their sustainable behaviours: they installed recycling bins for coffee cups and caps in 2007 and launched reusable cup discounts globally in 2018. Unfortunately, like Starbucks, they have not been transparent on climate action until we demanded it — their first Environmental, Social and Governance Report was only published this year.
Photo: Starbucks Sustainability
Corporations only change their behaviours when we figure out that something is wrong, which encourages them to hide their problems and put up a seemingly innocent facade.
An information asymmetry exists between consumers and conglomerates, allowing them to conceal their wrongdoing behind layers of numbers, statistics and words. Until now.
How do we change this?
The winds of change are blowing for climate action. More than ever, it is your responsibility to pay attention to environmental issues, and by researching, sourcing, and consuming coffee that is ethically and environmentally responsible, it is your actions that will ultimately change the world. So how do you start the arduous task of measuring whether your coffee shop is sustainable? How do you ensure that they are committed to the prevention of climate change, the protection of our earth, and the healing of our marine life?
Where can you get access to this information?
Rebolt is democratizing access to the information that companies have kept secret for too long. If you would like to have this kind of information at hand without having to search it, download Rebolt to get this information. We should be able to make decisions about the companies we support and the companies we should condemn — for, without knowledge, we are powerless against the monoliths that have already engaged in years of environmental destruction — and plan to continue for the years to come.
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