Ground coffee & coffee beans

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 41 brands of ground coffee and coffee beans.

We also look at Fairtrade, coffee pod packaging, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Jacobs Douwe Egberts 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.

What to buy

What to look for when buying ground coffee or coffee beans:

  • Is it Fairtrade? Coffee is the second most traded commodity produced by developing countries. Sadly, those growing coffee for large brands are often overworked and underpaid. Buy Fairtrade coffee to ensure that the growers are receiving a fare wage.

  • Is it organic? Synthetic pesticides and herbicides threaten insect populations, contaminate water sources and can have ecosystem-wide knock-on effects. Look for organic certification to avoid ingredients grown with these chemicals, and to support farming methods that are more in tune with nature.

Best Buys

Our Best Buys only make Fairtrade and organic certified coffee:

Recommended buys

These are followed by the Fairtrade and organic varieties from RevolverCafédirectCafeology, SumaTraidcraft (decaf ground) and Union Hand Roasted.

Find out more about our best buy label.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying ground coffee and coffee beans:

  • Is it in plastic pods? Coffee pods produce unnecessary waste and add to the vast amounts of plastic damaging ecosystems around the world.The plastic in our oceans could already circle the planet 400 times, so avoid adding to it by staying well away from plastic coffee pods.

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

Companies to avoid

Most of its coffee is Fairtrade, but we would still recommend avoiding Starbucks' own-brand coffee. Not only does the company receive one of the lowest scores in our table, it has been criticised for its tax avoidance and its treatment of workers in its UK coffee shops.

  • Starbucks

Score table

Updated live from our research database

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

Revolver ground & beans & pods[F,O]

Company Profile: Revolver World Cooperative Coffee
17

Cafe Rebelde Zapatista ground & beans [F,O]

16.5

Source Climate Change ground & beans [O]

Company Profile: Source Sustainable Supply Chains Ltd
16.5

Revolver ground & beans & pods [F]

Company Profile: Revolver World Cooperative Coffee
16

Cafedirect Fairtrade ground, instant & pods [F]

Company Profile: Cafédirect
15

Cafeology Fairtrade Organic coffee beans & ground[F,O]

Company Profile: Cafeology
15

Suma ground & beans [F,O]

Company Profile: Triangle Wholefoods Collective Ltd
15

Union Hand Roasted ground & beans [DT,O]

Company Profile: Union Hand Roasted Coffee
15

Union Hand Roasted ground & beans [DT]

Company Profile: Union Hand Roasted Coffee
14

Percol ground &bean coffee [F]

Company Profile: AB Anders Löfberg
13.5

Percol ground coffee [O]

Company Profile: AB Anders Löfberg
13.5

Cafeology coffee

Company Profile: Cafeology
13

Solino ground & beans [S]

Company Profile: Lenox GmbH
13

Union Hand Roasted ground & beans

Company Profile: Union Hand Roasted Coffee
13

Traidcraft coffee bean & ground & instant [F]

Company Profile: Traidcraft plc
12.5

Clipper Fairtrade Organic instant & ground coffee [F,O]

Company Profile: Kallo Foods Limited
12

Lavazza 'Tierra' capsules [S]

Company Profile: Luigi Lavazza SpA
12

Carte Noir

Company Profile: Luigi Lavazza SpA
11.5

Lavazza ground & beans & capsules

Company Profile: Luigi Lavazza SpA
11.5

Rombouts coffee

Company Profile: Rombouts Coffee Great Britain Ltd
10.5

Taylors of Harrogate ground coffee [F]

Company Profile: Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate Ltd
10.5

Grumpy Mule ground coffee [F,O]

Company Profile: Bewley's Limited
10

Taylors of Harrogate ground & beans [S]

Company Profile: Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate Ltd
10

Illy ground & beans & capsules

Company Profile: Gruppo Illy spa
9.5

Lyons ground coffee bags

Company Profile: UCC Coffee UK Limited
9.5

Grumpy Mule ground coffee [F]

Company Profile: Bewley's Limited
9

Grumpy Mule ground coffee [S]

Company Profile: Bewley's Limited
8.5

Whittard ground & beans

Company Profile: Whittard Trading Ltd
5

Douwe Egberts ground & beans

Company Profile: Jacobs Douwe Egberts
4.5

Twinings ground coffee

Company Profile: R Twining & Co Ltd
2

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

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. Other companies have their own form of direct trade, such as Union Hand Roasted. 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.

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.

Café Rebelde from Chiapas

Café Rebelde supports the Zapatista communities in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Jaspa Beese from Essential Trading Co-operative in Bristol discusses how Café Rebelde came to the UK.

The Zapatistas came to world attention in 1994 with their uprising against hundreds of years of poverty, discrimination and repression of indigenous communities. The uprising coincided with the launch of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Zapatista spokesman Marcos proclaimed a “death certificate” for indigenous farmers.

The Zapatista emphasis on autonomous organisation, rather than seizing power over others, has inspired movements around the world. Twenty years on and they still self-govern their communities across five regions of Chiapas. According to an Al Jazeera article on the 20th anniversary of the uprising, the Zapatistas had a strong influence on the Occupy movement, as well as the Spanish ‘indignados’ and Greece’s ‘Direct Democracy Now!’

How did Essential come to be a distributor of Zapatista coffee?

It started in 1999. Bristol has a sports and social club called the Easton Cowboys, and one of their football teams went to play a tournament in Chiapas. We knew some peace observers working there who suggested it. So we took about 30 people for a three week tour of the autonomous zones.
When we got back we started Kiptik, a voluntary organisation to fundraise for water and other projects in Chiapas. Kiptik had someone in Mexico coordinating the work on the ground who said ‘have you thought of bringing coffee over?’

So we met the Cafe Libertad Kollectiv in Hamburg who were already importing it to Europe. Now we’ve been distributing it for eight or nine years, and for every kilo of Zapatista coffee sold by Essential, we donate €0.45 to Kiptik, which works out about £350 per month

How does this initiative fit with the ethos of your co-operative?

Essential Trading is a workers’ co-op and has a policy to do business with other co-ops. The way the Zapatistas are organised reflects the way we are organised with working groups for different areas which send delegates to meetings of the whole organisation.

What is the situation for the coffee growers in Chiapas?

When we first visited, we were surprised to see that although 40% of the communities had no electricity or clean water, they all had a concrete basketball court. Then we found out that that was where they laid the coffee beans out to dry.

I did do a day picking coffee, one of the hardest days’ work of my life… It’s grown under shade and so you’re crouching down all day, and only picking the ripe berries. They’re carrying 50 kg sacks halfway up a mountain….

Previously they would sell to ‘coyotes’, middlemen who sometimes didn’t pay up, or who gave them a bad deal because they were desperate. Now they get paid 50% upfront by Cafe Libertad, and it’s a price above fair trade.

Unfortunately they are facing a serious problem with ‘coffee rust’. Part of the reason is global warming. Because the coffee is grown organically they can’t treat it with chemicals, and they are now having to move the plants up the mountain. But then it can take 2-3 years for them to fruit properly again.

So now the Zapatista coffee is mixed 50/50 with coffee from the Juan Tama women’s coop in Colombia, to try to stretch out the supply.

So how else do you support the work in Chiapas?

Kiptik does other fundraising too, for example a Day of the Dead (a traditional Mexican celebration) in LUSH shops. We are also about to release the 2016 Kiptik calendar, which will be available from our online retail outlet, Ethically Essential.

Image: Bird-Friendly coffee certification

Coffee for the Forests

‘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.

Image: Coffee pods plastic waste

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.

As 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
     
  • www.cafepod.com 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 Linked Coffee Brand Machine Manufacturers (and ethiscore)
Nespresso, Dolce Gusto Nestlé Delonghi (10.5), Magimix (12), Krups (11)
Senseo Senseo Philips (6)
Tassimo Kenco, Costa, Carte Noire, Jacobs Bosch (5)
Verisimo Starbucks Starbucks (4)
Lavazza Lavazza AEG (6), Lavazza (12)
Illy Illy Illy (10.5)
Rombouts Rombouts Rombouts (10.5)
Image: Cartoon coffee poor pay

Company behind the brand

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.

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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