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Coffee

Finding an ethical and environmental coffee brand. Ranking the ethics of 45 brands of ground coffee, coffee beans and instant coffee.

We also look at coffee and climate change, coffee packaging, ethical claims like 'grown by women', shine a spotlight on the ethics of Orang Utan and give our recommended buys.

About 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying coffee:

  • Fairly traded certifications: 125 million farmers around the world depend on coffee for an income. Buying Fairtrade or directly traded coffee helps to ensure that these growers receive a fair wage.

  • Is it shade-grown or bird-friendly? Most coffee is sun-grown which may provide higher yields, but is connected to deforestation, soil erosion and reduced biodiversity.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying coffee:

  • Is it in a pod? Coffee pods use unnecessary resources and produce waste (unless biodegradable). See the Coffee Machines guide for more on pods.

  • Is it grown using pesticides? For agricultural workers and the communities surrounding farms, the health impacts of extensive agrochemical use are numerous, not to mention the environmental issues. Opt for organic coffee.

     

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Between 65-80% of the world’s coffee consumption takes place at home.

In the UK, instant coffee remains the most popular for home drinking in terms of sales, but coffee pods and ground coffee are gaining popularity. The rise in the latter is said to be driven by younger generations, who are increasingly interested in higher-quality coffees like ‘single origin’ and ‘speciality’ coffees.

Some believe that a change in the industry is brewing, as the provenance and production processes behind a cup of coffee are becoming more valued. In fact, in 2020, sustainability concerns were the most important consumer trend affecting the British coffee sector.

Supermarket own brands and ethical coffee

We have not included supermarket own-brand coffee on the table because we did a separate guide to supermarkets two magazines ago (EC 194).

Supermarkets account for 19% of the instant coffee market, which is dominated by Nescafé (with 50%), and Douwe Egbert brands (Kenco, Douwe Egberts, L’Or) with 27%.

However, supermarket own brands account for nearly half of the ground coffee market by volume, whilst individually, Taylors and Lavazza lead with 21% and 18% followed by Cafédirect with 5%.

In our recent guide to supermarkets Co-op and Waitrose were our two recommended supermarkets:

  • Co-op (Ethiscore 4) – all own brand coffee is Fairtrade.
  • Waitrose (Ethiscore 4.5) – all own brand coffee is Fairtrade.

Who sells what?

Since our last guide to coffee in 2018, several brands have begun offering coffee pods compatible with popular coffee machines, whilst others now offer organic coffee across more of their range.

Some high street coffee shops now sell their branded coffee in supermarkets, including Pret a Manger, which announced a partnership in 2020 with Waitrose and Amazon to sell its branded coffee.

Brand Instant Ground Whole beans Coffee pods Coffee bags
Bird & Wild  Yes Yes Yes    
Cafédirect Yes Yes Yes    
Caffe Nero   Yes Yes Yes  
Cafeology Yes Yes Yes    
Cafe Rebelde   Yes Yes    
Carte Noir Yes Yes      
Clipper Yes Yes      
Costa Yes Yes Yes Yes
Douwe Egberts Yes        
Equal Exchange   Yes    
Grumpy Mule   Yes Yes    
Illy Yes Yes Yes  
Kenco Yes     Yes  
Lavazza Yes Yes Yes Yes  
L’Or Yes Yes   Yes  
Lyons         Yes
Nescafé Yes     Yes  
Nespresso         Yes
Orang Utan   Yes Yes   Yes
Pret a Manger   Yes Yes    
Revolver   Yes Yes Yes Yes
Source Climate
Change
  Yes Yes Yes  
Starbucks   Yes Yes Yes  
Suma   Yes Yes    
Tassimo       Yes  
Taylors of
Harrogate
  Yes Yes   Yes
Traidcraft Yes Yes Yes    
Twinings   Yes      
Union Hand
Roasters
  Yes Yes    
Whittard   Yes Yes   Yes

The unethical history of coffee production continues today

The Fairtrade Foundation surveyed the British public (February 2022) and found that “1 in 10 (16%) respondents believe damaging trade practices are a thing of the past.” As the other 90% would presumably agree, this is far from the truth.

Whilst coffee is native to tropical Africa, today Brazil is the world’s largest coffee-producing country – a status that historically relied on black and indigenous slave labour. However, labour abuses persist today. In 2019, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation uncovered extensive modern slave labour throughout Brazil’s billion-dollar coffee industry, some of which was found in the supply chains of Nespresso and Starbucks. Another investigation found child labour in the coffee supply chains of these same multinationals.

Coffee, like other commodity crops, gained popularity in the Global North through colonialism. Plantations were established by European colonial powers in the late 1700s in the Caribbean, Asia, and the Americas.

Today, smallholders, not estates, produce most of the world’s coffee. However, in many places the legacies of colonialism affect the ability for smallholder farmers to trade their crop fairly. According to Chris Ouloch from Fairtrade Africa, “After colonialism ended and coffee-growing land was returned to native producers, many of them were only left with small parcels of land.” Today this means they often have to sell through established multinationals and find it difficult to scale up on their own.

Who makes the profit in the coffee industry?

Around 80% of the world’s coffee comes from smallholder farms, almost all in the Global South.

The majority of the profits made in the coffee supply chain, meanwhile, are accumulated in the consuming country – where the coffee is roasted, sold and consumed.

Coffee producers mostly export green coffee which has low market value and thus farmers get a fraction of the amount earned in profit by big multinational coffee roasters.

The profits earned by Starbucks and Jacob Douwe Egberts were £21 billion and £5 billion respectively in 2022, for example.

But what is the true cost of their market power? Coffee is renowned for being a ‘boom and bust’ commodity as production varies depending on weather conditions, disease and other factors. This makes the coffee market inherently unstable with often fluctuating prices, the burden of which is often placed on the farmers.

Cartoon in five blocks showing coffee supply chain from being picked, bagged, transported, sold and packaging thrown away
Based on the following paper: Marinello, S., Balugani, E., & Gamberini, R. (2021). Coffee capsule impacts and recovery techniques: A literature review. Packaging Technology and Science, 34(11-12), 665-682.

Does ethical coffee cost more?

We reviewed the prices of our Best Buys and recognise that coffees at the top of the score table tend to be the priciest. These prices more accurately reflect the true cost and value of making a more ethical coffee.

However, we also recognise that a 200g bag of Bird & Wild coffee for £6, for example, is not accessible to everyone. Still a Best Buy, but perhaps more affordable, is Cafédirect’s Machu Picchu organic and Fairtrade ground coffee which can be found for around £3.75 in most supermarkets. For instant coffee, a 100g jar of Cafédirect is around £3.75 in supermarkets.

What is ethical coffee?

The coffee industry is awash with ethical claims and certification schemes – some of which are shared with the tea industry and in separate feature article (to follow). These include fair trade, organic and direct trade and some coffee-specific ones: shade-grown or bird-friendly.

Some companies have their own certification schemes, like Starbucks. The multinational ended its Fairtrade Foundation UK partnership in February 2022, meaning that coffee purchased at its shops across the country will no longer be Fairtrade assured. Instead, it continues its own C.A.F.E. verification scheme, launched in 2004.

Spilling the beans on ‘locally roasted’ ethical claims

The term ‘locally roasted’ is often marketed and perceived in a positive light.

On the one hand, it ensures that the coffee you buy has supported local – often smaller – businesses.

However, a common issue in the coffee industry is that the price paid to producers is a fraction of that earned when it is sold as a roasted product to consumers. Therefore, when labels like ‘locally roasted’ are used, this rarely benefits the producer.

It is commonly argued that due to factors concerning product freshness, quality and logistics, coffee sold in ground or whole bean form needs to be roasted closer to the point of sale which largely happens in the Global North.

However, this is not necessarily true and there are several benefits to roasting coffee beans in their country of origin. One is that it makes them lighter to transport which means less fuel is burnt to transport the same amount of coffee. Another is that coffee roasting in the country of origin can help lift coffee prices and create more value at origin. As green coffee prices are at a 15-year low, this could help generate vital income for coffee producers.

If you buy 'locally roasted' coffee, make sure that the coffee has been sourced ethically and carries some certifications of how it was grown.

white cup lying on its side with coffee beans spilling out on table

Fair trade coffee and co-operatives

The UK is the leading market for Fairtrade-certified coffee, which aims to address the issues of market volatility and secure worker’s rights.

In order to address the human rights issues in coffee production, organising labour through alternative worker structures can help. Cooperatives can facilitate access to the means of production or supplies for their members unique to their geographic and socioeconomic needs. This includes fertilisers, credit, and information and technology.

In Brazil, the country which produces the most coffee, cooperatives have been shown to be an effective way for farmers to organise. For Andreia Foresti, member of Brazilian Minasul coffee cooperative, the cooperative can “put cooperative members’ products and services on the market at more advantageous terms than we could achieve by ourselves”. The cooperative’s success depends on the success of each producer member. However, the ability for farmer cooperatives to bargain against retailers and large companies further downstream is still weak.

Shade-grown coffee vs sun-grown coffee

Widely thought to have originated in Kaffa, Ethiopia, coffee bushes were historically an understory plant. They require shade from trees to protect the bushes’ leaves from browning in the sun.

Since the 1970s, though, selective breeding has led to the widespread production of ‘sun-grown’ coffee. This shift might have maximised production in the short term, and helped to deliver cheaper coffee, but has come at great social and ecological cost.

The gradual domination of coffee monoculture plantations has contributed to deforestation, soil erosion, water overconsumption, biodiversity loss and meagre workers’ rights and pay.

In contrast, shade-grown coffee producers demonstrate how the conventional way of growing coffee needs to, and can, change. Growing coffee using agroforestry, a traditional practice involving coffee growing amongst trees can help sequester soil carbon, reduce soil erosion, and provide habitat.

Purchasing ‘bird friendly’ and ‘shade-grown’ coffee, like Bird & Wild and Cafeology, is a way to support these ecological practices and limit the impact of coffee cultivation on the climate.

Drawing showing how shade grown coffee grows under trees
© Smithson Migratory Bird Center. Shade-grown coffee and its ecological benefits for bird diversity

Is coffee ‘Grown by women’ better ethically?

In the coffee agricultural labour force worldwide, it is estimated that between 20% and 30% of coffee farms are managed by women, and up to 70% of labour in coffee production is provided by women. Despite this, it is not as common for women working in coffee production to be members of co-operatives, to own the land that they farm, or to receive training.

In Guatemala, the Red de Mujeres (network of women) responded to this issue in the coffee industry by self-organising an association which brought women producers together to find international buyers and organise training in organic farming.

At the buyers end, Equal Exchange, a company rated in this guide, developed a ‘Grown by Women’ range in response to issues brought to its attention by some coffee cooperatives it worked with. The coffee in this range is sourced directly from the women members of the cooperatives which they claim is fully traceable. This also addresses the reality that in many places it is largely men who receive payment for green coffee beans.

From a marketing perspective, Kimberly Easson, founder of The Partnership for Gender Equity, states that “when you buy something labelled as “women’s coffee”, you need to examine the flow of money and how the co-operative is structured” to understand the power relations within the business. Coffee traders like Girls that Grind in Bristol exclusively sells coffee produced by women, but remains cautious of exploiting imagery around women’s ‘empowerment’. They argue that using producers’ names and stories on packaging ultimately helps sell the company’s products which means companies must take extra care to avoid this becoming an exploitative relationship.

Can I recycle coffee packaging?

Coffee capsules are discussed in our coffee machine guide, whilst instant coffee widely comes in recyclable glass jars.

However, the packaging in which whole bean and ground coffee are sold in shops have layers of problems. The non-porous laminated structure of a typical coffee pack extends the shelf life of coffee but is composed of two or more different materials, foil and plastic, making it hard to separate and process for recycling. Terracycle recycle these type of coffee bags but not your local authority.

To address this, many companies have started to offer coffee in packaging with reduced plastic content by making the outer layer from tree bark or wood pulp. However, since the inner layer is usually still made from plastic to protect the beans, recycling is still difficult, and so we are not listing them here as a better option.

Bird & Wild and Equal Exchange sell coffee in LDPE (PE4) plastic which is recycled by many UK local authorities along with bread bags, though still not all. 

If you want to ditch the plastic entirely, many specialist and zero-waste stores sell loose coffee beans. This option is most useful to those who have the means to grind the beans at home.

Image: coffee beans

Coffee production and the climate crisis

Climate breakdown is affecting coffee production, whilst coffee production itself is contributing to climate change largely through deforestation. It was therefore disappointing that not many companies scored well in this area.

Starbucks was one company that scored a best rating for its Carbon Management and Reporting – which was an improvement from the last guide – as it had more rigorous future carbon emission reduction targets in line with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Only two other companies scored best in this category: Traidcraft and Illy.

Agricultural production is one of the most significant areas of ecological impact for most coffee companies, but only a few are committed to procuring coffee that is shade-grown. These included Bird & Wild, Cafe Libertad, Cafeology and Union Hand Roasted. These companies also received a middle rating in this category.

Climate change and the bean belt

According to the Fairtrade Foundation, in 2022 “over 60% of the British public are unaware of the threats that climate change poses to UK supplies of coffee”.

The reality is that as much as 88% of the suitable land for coffee growing in Latin America alone could be lost due to the climate crisis by 2050.

There are 124 species of coffee in the world, but just two of them dominate 99% of global coffee consumption; Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is grown in mountainous regions and accounts for over 60% of the world's coffee production. However, it is not very resilient to climatic change, and elevated temperatures combined with low or erratic rainfall make it vulnerable to crop failure as climate breakdown intensifies. It is expected that large swathes of coffee-growing land will become unsuitable for cultivation over coming years, particularly for Arabica. The effects of this are largely shouldered by the farmers producing it.

Recognising the threats to its profits by climate change, Starbucks implemented a 10-year, $500 million investment fund which includes adaptation training for farmers. Meanwhile, growing coffee in a lab has been posed as one solution to the vulnerability of coffee cultivation, whilst scientists at Kew Gardens are developing ways to work with farmers to commercially cultivate threatened wild coffee species which are naturally resistant to climatic changes.

Table with small clear glass with espresso coffee in, with open book behind and coffee beans on table

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Highlights from ethical ratings of coffee brands

An absence of good environmental policies

Whether it’s instant, ground or whole, the coffee you buy will have had to go through a long journey to get from the farm where the coffee was cultivated to the shelf where it will be bought and then prepared at home. Unfortunately, approaches to manage the environmental impacts of the coffee supply chain are generally still poor and haven't changed much since the last coffee guide in 2018.

Companies which received the best rating for Environmental Reporting were Bird & Wild, Cafe Libertad, Cafeology, Revolver, and Source Climate Change, with all five small companies seen as offering environmental alternatives to the mainstream coffee market.

Some companies only sold certified organic coffee: Bird & Wild, Equal Exchange, Source Climate Change, and Suma. These companies received product sustainability marks for this.

For failing to adequately discuss environmental impacts or to have future quantified targets, the following companies scored worst in this category: Equal Exchange, Grumpy Mule, Cafédirect, Orang Utan, Lyons, Whittard, Illy, Carte Noir, Costa, Cafe Nero, Lavazza, Suma, Taylors of Harrogate, Traidcraft, and Twinings.

Nescafé, Nespresso, Illy, Carte Noir and Lavazza all sold coffee machines and were marked down for lack of policies on common pollution and toxics issues in electronics supply chains. Additionally, Whittard, Orang Utan, and Lyons lost marks as their parent companies owned subsidiaries which sold electronics without these policies too.

Workers' Rights

Around 125 million farmers around the world depend on coffee for an income.

Meagre pay for coffee farm workers, alongside incidents of child labour as recent as 2021 in the coffee supply chains of Starbucks and Nestlé (Nespresso and Nescafé), shows that there is much to be desired in the supply chain management processes of coffee companies.

Fortunately, several companies received a best rating for Supply Chain Management. These were Bird & Wild, Cafe Libertad, Source Climate Change, Cafédirect, Revolver, Taylors of Harrogate, CafeologyTraidcraft, and Twinings.

Companies which scored worst included Grumpy Mule, Orang Utan, Lyons, Carte Noir, Lavazza, Whittard, and Starbucks.

Cartoon showing male owner of coffee plantation saying to female worker 'It's our own version of fair trade! We tell you what's fair'.
Cartoon by Andy Vine for ECRA

Company Ethos

The following companies received a positive Company Ethos mark.

Product Sustainability

Companies selling some Fairtrade, UTZ or Rainforest Alliance-certified products were awarded product sustainability marks for their certified products only.

These included: Suma, Taylors of Harrogate, Revolver, Nespresso, Grumpy Mule, Caffe Nero, Costa, L’Or, Cafeology, Clipper, and Twinings.

Electronics and conflict minerals

Several of the coffee companies examined in this guide also sold coffee machines, or their UHC (ultimate holding company) owned subsidiaries selling electronics. Therefore, these were rated on their conflict minerals policies.

Companies which lost marks for a lack of policies were Carte Noir, Lavazza, Orang Utan, Lyons, Whittard, Starbucks, Nestlé, Douwe Egberts, Kenco, Tassimo and Illy.

Company behind the brand

Orang Utan Coffee is a company owned by  the large coffee corporation UCC Holdings, the company that invented the first canned coffee.

The brand works with coffee farming communities to protect orangutans and their rainforest. It claims “For every kilo of green bean coffee purchased, €0.50 goes to coffee farmers and a further €0.50 goes to the Sumatran Orangutan Conversation Programme”.

Despite this, it scored worst across environmental, climate and supply chain categories.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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Full online access to our unique shopping guides, ethical rankings and company profiles. The essential ethical print magazine.