Sustainability: A Coffee Drinker’s Guide to Drinking Responsibly

By Carol Sohn / July 17, 2019


The Best Interest 

You may have already once asked a barista, “What’s the best coffee?” or perhaps even a more refined “What’s the best brewing method?” And perhaps you’ve already been met with the most common answer, “It depends.”

Take the best brewing method for example. The term “best” is very broad. So it’s important to clarify what outcome the person is looking for. Are they looking for a full-bodied cup? Coffee with clarity and less acidity? Or is it just the fastest way to get a cup of Joe? Take Amy, for example, who would be perfectly happy with a Keurig: she would find it awfully draining to watch a pourover drain for three-and-a-half minutes. She still gets a cup, which is nice, sure!-- but it didn’t address her need for quick coffee. Now she has a beautiful coffee in hand but is dealing with other problems like being late to work.

It’s a similar application when it comes to sustainability in the coffee industry. “Is that coffee sustainable?” This recent buzzword “sustainability” is like the word “best.” It’s a big word, it’s broad, and we can collectively agree that we want it. But we’re also not sure what it means, therefore the answer also depends. And if sustainability is not considered with thoughtfulness, we could be dealing with other problems beyond being late to work.

Today in the coffee sector, we admit that we are still figuring out sustainability. We who serve coffee to you, also drink coffee with you. We’re all consumers, so let’s take the pressure off. There are many ways of navigating sustainability, and sustainability is our responsibility.

Like Amy, what is it that we want? It’s easy to forget that there are many more folks that have a hand in our cup of coffee. The supply chain includes coffee growers, coffee processors, exporters, importers, roasters, baristas, the consumers, and all of our families and governments in between. Finally there is the aftermath of the coffee product itself. Are the cups sitting in landfills? Are the grounds being composted? When it comes to coffee sustainability, it’s a little more complicated than simply asking, “what is the best way to enjoy coffee?”; steaming milk badly is one thing-- to disregard someone’s livelihood is another. The stakes are a lot different. Our goal with sustainability is to maintain healthy balances in our ever-growing human aspirations while honoring the current and future resources of other communities and our ecosystem. Rather, it should promote the well-being of all things and people.

Coffee supply chain diagram published by The Sustainability Consortium™

Coffee supply chain diagram published by The Sustainability Consortium™

Small Steps Towards Sustainability

Sustainability is a social, environmental, and economic issue. Here are small ways we coffee drinkers can help do our part with them.

Economic: Who We as consumers Give Our Dollar To 

We all possess purchasing power. While we cannot control where or how companies source their coffee, we choose to give our business to them.

The most obvious distinction between specialty coffee shops and other drive-thru coffee shops is probably the price point. There's usually a good reason for it; however, specialty does not always equal sustainability. A “specialty” coffee roastery can look fancy but have sourcing practices no better than your average, national chain.  Meanwhile, an unassuming mom-and-pop shop can have a sustainable coffee program. Here's what to look for:

Fair Trade Certified stamp

Fair Trade Certified stamp

Adopt coffee shops that are transparent about their sourcing.  Sourcing is a huge component of sustainability. This information can often be found on company websites. Some companies release annual reports on their sourcing that highlight their farms, pay, and carbon footprint. And if sourcing information isn’t provided online, you can simply ask the staff or “green bean buyer”. If the coffee shop roasts their own beans, ask how they source their beans. If the coffee shop uses coffee beans that they purchase from a supplier, look up the company they’re using.

Penstock’s direct-trade

Penstock’s direct-trade

It’s a positive indication when you hear the terms fair-trade and direct-trade. They’re similar in purpose but different in practice. They too, have become buzzwords and are not always used accurately.

Simply put, however, fair-trade is a system formed by an organization called Fairtrade International, which enacts policies to promote equality between small and giant coffee farmers while stabilizing prices in the coffee market. It has a for-profit, limited company that carries out the certification for Fairtrade International.

Unlike a program, the best way to think of direct-trade is as a philosophy as much as it is a practice. It believes that roasters should buy directly from the farmers. This eliminates the middle-men. The benefit is that roasters can raise the standard for the quality of crop they’re willing to buy, and as farmers deliver it, farmers can also raise the price of what they’re to be paid. There is a direct, in the truest sense of the word, dialogue over price. This means coffee quality rises (great for us consumers), farmers get paid more, and everybody is happier. However, there is no official certification or “stamp” for this. Some coffee shops represent their direct-trade practice in their own ways, like Penstock’s “Responsibly Sourced — Handled with Care” logo.

While neither systems are perfect, for our purposes, both fair-trade and direct-trade are better than mystery trade.


Start making it a habit to carry a coffee tumbler like the KeepCup and a reusable straw. Most coffee shops offer discounts for bringing your own cup (and even for bringing your own container when purchasing their beans). If you forget to dump the leftovers of your previous brew, you’ll be surprised to learn that most shops are happy to give it a quick rinse before serving you up again. It’s a common occurrence and is also a great opportunity to tell the barista to keep the change! 

Reusable straws come in both silicone and steel designs for hot and cold drinks respectively. There are even retractable ones like FinalStraw that are housed in a keychain chase. This is a simple way to preserve the earth, animals, and your pearly whites.

When it comes to your personal brewing routine, consider which elements can be made green. Replace single-use Keurig pods with reusable pods that can be filled with freshly ground beans from a great local roastery. Metal filters can be used in place of paper filters for drip machines and pourovers. Having a food scale and weighing out water and beans beforehand not only tightens the precision in your brewing game but also eliminates waste.

Keep a low-profile countertop compost bin for coffee grounds. Transfer them to the soil for herbs on the kitchen window sill or garden. Plants love this fertilizer and pests hate them. A quick Google search for a local ‘garden or farm near me’ could lead to a place where coffee ground donations can be fully appreciated.

Social: The Purpose in Our Practice

Social responsibility is a weight that is only as heavy and as rewarding as we each choose to pick up. When it comes to coffee, small ways to be socially sustainable is to share your knowledge, like an article on coffee sustainability. You can choose to introduce friends and family to coffee shops that stand behind sustainability.

Corporate offices and churches are consumers of coffee that typically maintain a budget for employee refreshments. Sometimes all it takes is the initiative to propose changing the coffee supplier at an organization. This could also be an opportunity for organizations to improve their alignment with their mission of being socially responsible too. 

As consumers, we ought to invite feelings of discomfort and let it compel us to do our due diligence. Discussing our findings and brainstorming solutions promotes justice and prosperity for all.


Takeaway: A Responsible Drinker’s Mindset

Remember when the harmful production of denim was exposed? Remember when the world recognized that Shamu was actually sad and we stopped clapping for her? From these awakenings, there have been waves of change to make a process more sustainable or in abolishing a practice altogether. It is crucial to recognize that it didn’t always require each of us making radical strides. It took each of us making small, mindful steps, like reading a clothing tag or not purchasing an admission to Sea World. And thus, on a global scale, radical differences were made. There are many ways to be sustainable. For Amy, she can consider something as simple as purchasing a reusable Keurig pod and purchasing a better bean. Then there are other ways to be sustainable, like investigating the true needs of a coffee-producing community. What sustainability looks like in practice will constantly evolve, but we can achieve it in motion by daily owning our part with care.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Penstock Coffee Company’s.

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