Sustainable Development Goals: Should coffee roasters prioritise them?

Gregg Romano
November 25, 2021
un sustainable development goals

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly laid out a blueprint to shape the world’s approach to growth and sustainable development until 2030.

Known as Agenda 2030, it includes 17 interlinked “sustainable development goals” intended to tackle everything from poverty to gender inequality. Its central idea is to bring “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”.

According to the agenda, achieving the goals by 2030 relies on participation from all UN member states. However, this also extends to businesses and – to an extent – individuals within those states.

For coffee roasters, incorporating the UN Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) is important not only for the planet, but also for retaining the long-term loyalty of customers. This was highlighted in a recent study by Deloitte, which found that a third of consumers have stopped buying from a brand as a result of ethical or sustainability-related concerns.

But what exactly are the UN’s SDGs? And how can coffee roasters use them in their day-to-day? To find out more, I spoke with the founder of Gosling Coffee, Bonnie van Poortvliet.

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coffee cherries
Those who work in coffee have a responsibility to minimise their impact on the planet

Why should coffee roasters prioritise the UN’s SDGs?

Coffee provides a livelihood to millions of people around the world, from smallholder farmers to café owners.

However, like any global industry, it is far from perfect. At every stage are a number of deep-rooted issues, ranging from unequal pay to the constant implications of climate change.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020 only exacerbated these problems further. It affected not only demand, but also the functioning of key export infrastructure, such as warehouses and ports.

And while almost half of all new coffee product launches in 2020 had an ethical or environmental claim, few have had the evidence to back them up. This has led to accusations of “greenwashing”, where brands make a disingenuous commitment to a cause in order to attract consumers.

Bonnie runs Gosling Coffee, a profit-for-purpose roastery based in Amsterdam. Having started out as a barista and trainer, she founded the roastery with a clear mission: to provide coffee farmers with a living income and a perspective for current and future generations.

She tells me it was when she started travelling to origin to buy green coffee that she realised the true scale of the challenges facing coffee producers.

“I realised that as an industry, we really need to start collaborating and to make a real difference for farmers.”

“I started to ask them questions like, ‘How much do you get for this coffee? What do you earn?’, which was sometimes shocking and uncomfortable because they asked me the same questions,” she explains.

“I realised that as an industry, we really need to start collaborating and to make a real difference for farmers – and to properly reward them for their work.”

Bonnie identified the UN’s SGDs as a good framework around which she could build her business while making a real difference to the livelihood of coffee farmers.

For example, Gosling Coffee pays a premium for all the coffees they buy, helping to finance land acquisitions and infrastructure. This plays into the eighth SDG: Decent Work & Economic Growth.

Meanwhile, their aim to shorten the supply chain and reduce the number of intermediaries who take a cut of the coffee’s price plays into the tenth SDG: Reduce Inequalities.

“You can’t ignore the SDGs,” Bonnie says. “It just requires being transparent in what you do. On our website, you can basically click on any coffee and see a full price breakdown, including our own profit.”

micro plastics in the ocean
Conserving the planet’s oceans for future generations is just one of the SDGs

Which of the SDGs should coffee roasters focus on?

In an ideal world, each coffee roaster would work towards achieving all 17 of the SDGs. However, too many goals ultimately become a wish list. There is also a risk that businesses will spread themselves too thin to have any real impact.

But how do you choose which ones to focus on?

Bonnie says coffee roasters should “take some time to dig into the meaning of these development goals”, and concentrate on the ones they can achieve.

With that in mind, here are some of the most relevant goals for coffee businesses:

Goal number 14: Life below water

“Life below water” is an important SDG that involves conserving the oceans, seas and marine resources.

Its objective is to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution”.

One way for roasters to follow this goal is to switch from plastic coffee packaging to a more sustainable alternative. Although some plastic packaging can be recycled, the majority ends up going either to landfill sites or the ocean. Here, it breaks down into micro plastics, where it can enter the food system via marine life.

By opting for an eco-friendly option, such as kraft paper or rice paper coffee bags, roasters can contribute to a circular economy without polluting the planet’s oceans. These materials are some of the easiest in the world to recycle, while they will also decompose into non-toxic substances within 90 days in a commercial facility.

Packaging is also one of the most visible parts of a business, often acting as the first point of contact for consumers. This means that, by switching to compostable coffee bags, roasters can openly communicate their commitment to sustainability.

Goal number 12: Responsible consumption and production

The twelfth SDG is to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”.

Each year we produce an estimated 381 million tonnes of plastic waste, which includes plastic coffee packaging. Of this total, it’s believed that as little as 9% is recycled, the rest either going to landfill sites or our oceans.

In addition to switching to sustainable packaging alternatives, for this goal it’s also important to consider other areas of your business, such as how you manage waste. Roasting coffee creates a number of byproducts, including smoke and chaff, which can have a negative environmental impact if they’re not properly managed.

Instead, look for ways of either reducing the impact of byproducts or repurposing them, such as using chaff as a fertiliser or biofuel. Bellwether’s electric-powered coffee roasters are also a good option, producing up to 90% less carbon per cycle than a traditional roaster.

chica bean coffee
Gender inequality is a significant problem currently facing the coffee sector

Goal number 5: Gender equality

Women make up a staggering 70% of labour in coffee production, according to a report by the ICO. But only around 20-30% of coffee farms are female-operated.

The report goes on to state that “women have systematically lower access to resources, such as land, credit and information, than men”.

By purchasing coffee from women-led operations, roasters can help promote empowerment for women and improve gender equality.

Girls Who Grind Coffee is a UK roaster that has put furthering this goal at the heart of their business. They buy exclusively from female-only coffee farms, while funding initiatives to educate and train women at origin. Their work provides a platform for female producers and ensures they get the recognition they deserve.

Goal number 8: Decent work and economic growth

The aim of the eighth SDG is to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all”.

This is one of the goals on which Gosling Coffee has placed significant focus. By working directly with the farmers and paying fair prices, they’ve seen real, visible improvements over the last few years.

As well as providing greater prosperity to farmers, Bonnie says it offers them resources to experiment with different growing and processing techniques. This, in turn, can lead to higher incomes.

“When you pay a truly fair price to farmers,” she explains, “they can experiment with creating interesting flavour notes, such as vanilla. They can also try out different agricultural methods that will increase output or improve the quality of their yield.”

recyclable coffee bags
Sustainable coffee packaging can help roasters adhere to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

The UN SDGs offer a framework for businesses to grow sustainably and responsibly without taking away from future generations. Not only can they help the planet in the long term, they can also help businesses showcase a commitment to reducing their environmental impact.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable packaging options that contribute to several of the SDGs. Our recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable bags can be customised with low-VOC water-based inks. Furthermore, our additional features, such as degassing valves and resealable zippers, are fully recyclable.

For information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact our team.

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