Coffee - ground & beans

Ethical shopping guide to Ground Coffee, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to Ground Coffee, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

Are coffee companies still failing coffee farmers? What are coffee pods and why are they tapping into another destructive disposable market?


The report includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 41 brands of ground coffee and coffee beans
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • Have fairtrade products finally pushed into the mainstream?
  • Coffee pods, a new disposable market
  • Company profiles


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Score Ratings

Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


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Best Buys

as of November/December 2015


As our ratings are constantly updated, it is possible that company ratings on the scorecard may have changed since this report was written.


Best Buys are Equal Exchange, Café Rebelde and Suma who only make organic and Fairtrade certified coffee. 


These are followed by the Fairtrade and organic varieties from Revolver, Cafédirect, Cafeology, Suma, Traidcraft (decaf ground) and Union Hand Roasted.


Find out more about our best buy label.

to buy

image: Revolver


image: coffee


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Coffee a Fairer Trade?



Many coffee companies are now talking about fairer trade, though much remains to be done

When we reported on coffee 10 years ago, none of the biggest companies had any Fairtrade brands. Things haven’t changed much in that respect, but most are now trying to attach some kind of sustainability story to at least some of their products.

Starbucks does sell some fair trade beans, and Taylors of Harrogate some fair trade and organic ground coffee. Lavazza has a ‘Tierra’ range which is Rainforest Alliance certified and Douwe Egberts says about 25% of the coffee it buys is certified by Utz (see our Tea Industry report for more information on these standards). Other companies have their own form of direct trade, such as Union Hand Roasted (see Letters EC155). Illy too has not bought green coffee from international commodity markets since the end of the 1980s, but has gone directly to source.

Some of the fair trade brands on our table have been going since before the Fairtrade label began in 1994, and many of their coffees are organic too. Fairtrade and organic certifications fit well together says Cafédirect, as many fair trade producers are smallholders who are already concerned about maintaining the natural fertility of their land. Double-certified brands now dominate our Best Buy advice. Coffees from 100% Fairtrade companies Cafédirect, Clipper, Equal Exchange and Traidcraft; worker’s co-operatives Suma and Essential; well-known Fairtrade brand Percol; and, more recently, Grumpy Mule are all widely available from wholefood shops, with some brands also carried by Oxfam shops, and supermarkets.


Discover how Essential Trading Co-op started selling Cafe Rebelde



Fair Trade Coffee



  • Many of the 25 million smallholders who grow 80% of the world’s coffee fail to make a reliable living from it, say the Fairtrade Foundation.
  • In 15 of the last 25 years, the global price of arabica coffee has often fallen well below that guaranteed by the Fairtrade Minimum Price.


In our Coffee Shops report, we compared different certification standards and touched on problems around low wages on smaller Fairtrade farms. Direct trade and value-added models can only be judged on a case-by-case basis, but we have given Solino and Traidcraft a positive sustainability mark for their practice of locating higher value stages of processing in countries in the Global South, in a sector in which the usual practice is to export raw materials to rich countries for processing. Union Hand Roasted explained that while they roast to order in London, they have sponsored members of producer co-operatives in Rwanda and Colombia to roast and pack coffee for domestic consumption.


Read about the Solino Coffee Story


Coffee for the Forests


Bird friendly coffee logo‘Bird Friendly coffee’ is another development. Certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in the US, the label guarantees that the coffee is organic and shade-grown, providing a refuge for birds and other wildlife. According to Cafeology, most coffee available in the UK today is sun-grown and may have a range of chemical inputs applied. They say 2.5 million acres of forest has been cleared in Central America alone in the last 20 years to grow coffee. Cafeology has one Bird Friendly coffee, available from many garden centres, which carries both the Fairtrade and RSPB logo (which has its own brand of Bird Friendly coffee too).



Also new on the scene is Source Climate Change Coffee, which describes itself as a ‘conservation-led coffee company which is founded to protect the world’s forests’. Founder Cristina Talens was inspired to start the company while she was working conducting social audits of suppliers and growers in the Amazon rainforest. Now the company is raising awareness on social media about the COP21 climate change talks in Paris in December 2015.





Invasion of the Coffee Pods



With rising temperatures and mass migrations in the news, it is comforting to know that human ingenuity has now brought us sixty nine types of coffee machine which use disposable single serving ‘pods’. Although the first Nespresso machine appeared in 1989, sales of coffee pods have boomed in the last few years – doubling in Europe since 2010 to £3.3 billion.


image of coffee pods in shopping guide to ground coffeeAs you might expect, this is not a trend that has been warmly welcomed at Ethical Consumer. Each pod or capsule is made of either plastic or aluminium or both. After use it drops out of sight into a container which – despite the protestations of manufacturers about ‘recyclability’ – are emptied into the bin and sent to landfill in the vast majority of cases. This creates a problem for future generations and also wastes the grounds themselves which are a valuable source of organic matter. More than half a million people have now watched ‘Kill the K Cup’ – a spoof Canadian disaster movie – where used coffee pods terrorise the planet.

What About Fair Trade?


With these new easy-to-use systems dominated by the major coffee multinationals, a Rainforest Alliance certified Kenco pod was, for a while, the nearest thing to an ethical choice in this new disposable market. However a legal ruling in 2014 forced Nespresso to open up its machines to other coffee providers. This has brought with it a much wider range of pod choices including:


  • Cafédirect (an EC Best Buy) now produces a range of Fairtrade pods for Nespresso machines
  • have a range of single origin Fairtrade and Organic Nespresso machine compatible coffee pods
  • Starbucks pods for their own machine types are also Fairtrade certified

In addition, supermarket own brands are also moving into this space.

But while there may be better ethical coffee choices for pod users now, there is still the issue of single-use disposable pods filling up the biosphere.


Re-usable Pods to the Rescue

Just when you were about to despair of human ingenuity, it comes up with a choice of re-fillable pod cups for Nespresso and Senseo machines. These use either snap-on tops or disposable stick-on lids. These are all made by smaller companies with ethiscores of around 12, and the main ones we could find were:

  • Coffeeduck refillable capsules for Nespresso or pads for Senseo
  • Sealpod/BigSis stainless steel refillable pods for Nespresso machines
  • Ecopad for Senseo

Not only do they solve the problem of mountains of disposable pods, they also allow a much wider range of ethical coffees to be used. They are most easily available online.

Having said that, it’s still difficult to see what was so wrong with instant granules, cafétieres, conventional espresso machines, stove-top percolators and drip filters to name a few. In the words of John Sylvan inventor of the best-selling American Keurig machine “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it. They’re kind of expensive to use ... plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.”


Brands and their Machines

The original idea behind pod systems was that each coffee company would brand a machine that only worked with the company’s own specific pod type, each of which was sold at a premium price. This table shows the main systems currently available in the UK and the main manufacturers of each machine type.


Pod machine table








Company Profiles



A number of companies received marks against them in the Habitats & Resources category due to a lack of appropriate published policies on timber, conflict minerals, or palm oil. Others received marks under Pollution & Toxics and Animal Rights for sale of leather items, or under Genetic Engineering for selling non-organic cotton products or foods which could contain GMO ingredients.

Cartoon about coffee in shopping guide to ground coffee

Red Mountain instant is the one coffee brand made by Typhoo Tea, whose other tea brands include Heath & Heather, London Fruit & Herb, and Ridgeways. In 2005, one of India’s oldest tea producers, Apeejay Tea – with over 50,000 acres of tea estates – acquired Typhoo.

The Apeejay Surrendra Group also runs hotels, eateries, shipping, logistics and insurance services. It lists Typhoo on its website, but Typhoo’s accounts say the company is ultimately owned by Surrendra Holdings Inc., registered in Panama. Panama slipped off our list of top tax havens when we applied a new rationale using the Tax Justice Network’s ‘Financial Secrecy Index’ (FSI) launched in 2011. However, Panama does appear on the FSI. (See our Tea Report)

In May 2015, Douwe Egberts entered into a joint venture with Mondelez International, the spin-off from Kraft Foods, to create Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE) in an attempt to rival coffee giant Nescafé.
Mondelez owns 44% of the new company, with the other 56% owned by Acorn Holdings, an investor group led by JAB Holdings, which also owns Coty, the self-appointed ‘global beauty leader’ featuring in this issue’s Perfume guide. It is this connection that gives the JDE coffee brands, mainly on the instant coffee table, the lowest ranking under Animal Testing and Animal Rights. JDE brands include Douwe Egberts, Kenco and Maxwell House. They are rumoured to be selling off Carte Noire and Café Hag.

Twinings is part of Associated British Foods, which is 55% owned by Wittington Investments Ltd, which is, in turn, 79% owned by the Garfield Weston Foundation. Willard Garfield Weston was a Canadian businessman who created Associated British Foods.

Wittington Investments also owns Fortnum & Mason, while ABF owns Primark, as well as Jordans & Ryvita, Pataks, Sunblest, Kingsmill, and Silver Spoon. Whittard was founded over 100 years ago in London, but more recently was part of Icelandic supermarket group Bauger, until it collapsed after the 2008 financial crisis. Whittard was then taken over by EPE Special Opportunities, an investment fund of EPIC Private Equity (EPE). EPE Special Opportunities is incorporated in the Isle of Man and EPIC has offices in Hong Kong and Guernsey, all of which are considered likely to be used for tax avoidance purposes.

Percol, launched in the late 1980s by an ex-advertising executive, was bought by the Swedish Lofberg family in 2013. Percol claims to hold the title of the first single-origin Fairtrade coffee, while the Lofberg Group claims to be one of the world’s largest importers of organic and Fairtrade labelled coffee. Percol’s first customer was Sainsbury’s, and it now supplies all the major supermarkets.

Clipper was established in 1984 by a couple in Dorset who became involved in the early stages of development of the Fairtrade Foundation. In 2012 Clipper was bought by Dutch company Wessanen which also owns well-known health food brands Kallo and Whole Earth.




See our ethical shopping guide to coffee shops





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