Skip to main content

Young Adults Want ‘Sustainably Sourced’ Coffee, Whatever That Means

Latte art.

Latte art, catering to the enhanced emotional needs of today’s young adult coffee drinker. Aaron Tubbs photo.

S&D Coffee & Tea, the nearly 90-year-old North Carolina-based full-service coffee company that specializes in custom roasting, tea blending and extracts, has been busy trying to figure out what gets the youngsters going these days.

Providing a benefit to the industry at large, the company has released two white papers based on studies it commissioned with the food-focused consumer research firm Datassential to explore consumer trends, habits and perceptions of the young adult population in the 18-34 range, the group frequently referred to, most often by marketers and space-saving headline writers, as millennials.

Both papers — with the titles “Appealing to Young Coffee Drinkers Along Their Maturity Path” and “Millennials: The Language of Coffee & the Role of Sustainability” — are available through the S&D website. The “Language” paper is the most recent, and arguably the more interesting, following an online survey of more than 900 Americans within the millennial range, all of whom qualified as “away from home” coffee drinkers.

In short, the study concludes that millennials are a finicky group of conscientious consumers who have deeper emotional connections to their coffee experiences than their generational predecessors.

“The language Millennials use and the attitudes they have indicate that they are deeply connected to coffee on an emotional level,” S&D wrote in its report. “For them, coffee is not just a drink, it’s an experience, so descriptors that are solely focused on the bean (such as “bold” or “Arabica”) or basic needs (such as “fresh” or “convenient”) only address one component of the picture for them.”

The company summarized a hierarchy of needs, comprising “basic needs” such as cleanliness and convenience, “enhanced needs” such as seasonal offerings and a comfortable atmosphere and “elevated needs,” where true differentiation and customization can occur by retailers appealing to their customers’ sophisticated and emotional needs.

It all sounds simple enough, but the study results begin to tangle when it comes to defining the language cues that appeal to those needs. For example, 45 percent of respondents said they would think more positively of a place that offers coffee that is “sustainably sourced,” 29 percent said they would choose one location over another if the coffee is “sustainably sourced,” and 26 percent said they would “go out of their way” to a location if the coffee was “sustainably sourced.”

Here’s the kicker: 22 percent of respondents said they know exactly what sustainability means and what’s required to qualify coffee as sustainable. So while more than a quarter of 18-34-year-olds would go out of their way to buy sustainable coffee, 78 percent of them don’t really know what it means.

Where others might see in this the absurdity of human behavior in consumerism, S&D writes, “the fact that the use of this term can alter the consumption behavior of a sizable portion of the target population despite a lack of clarity around its meaning really speaks to the strength of its potential.”



Neal Cowan

“…In short, the study concludes that millennials are a finicky group of conscientious consumers, who have deeper emotional connections to their coffee experiences than their generational predecessors….”

Forget about engaging with them on a rational plane. Doing that is passe. Pitching to present-day consumers, you know the finicky and conscientious ones, on some metaphysically “…deeper emotional…” level is where the real money is at.

Thanks for the laugh, ‘Daily Coffee News’. That article contained more implicit laughs in it than can be found anywhere in “The Onion”.

David P.

“So now 2+2= 7?? You kids are clearly going to change the world with your new Maths and theories.” -S&D Coffee and Tea

Dean Cycon

The most offensive part of the report to me was that S&D finds great marketing potential in the confusion around and lack of understanding of whatever the heck “sustainably sourced means. Granted, everybody and their grandmother uses this term or a variant in their meaningless marketing, which certainly adds to the confusion. How about trying truth and authenticity in marketing instead? Nah, I’m so old fashioned…

David P.

I agree. This whole “millennial piggy bank” is such a capital driven discussion.

Its literally identical to the heavy investment thrown into China on a “maybe”. Just like the Chineese market, the youth of the world are not a fully functional and or independent economy.

Instead in turning the millennial market into a more confused, but equaling pretentious environment, they should just be left alone.

This is all being driven by corporate idol hands that have more market voice then market understanding, imo.

Mike Kaufmann

And maybe they can one day figure out how to complete an employment application!


People do not buy what they are buying. They buy what they THINK they are buying.

One of the oldest and most basic truths about marketing. How often do we hear “Buy American” when it comes to cars? But the truth of that industry is that Honda, Mercedes, Mazda, have a higher US content, including design, than many Ford, Chevy and didge products.
Sustainable is another buzzword of indefinite meaning, much like “responsibe” and “eco friendly”. Some of the large family operated farms in Brasil are disdained simply on the basis of their huge size. Yet those families have been growing high quality coffee on that same dirt for five and six generations, and are intent upon increasing quality and volume over the next ten generations. And some startty eyed kids wanna talk about “sustainability”, “responsibly sourced” and “planet frieindly”?

We’ve got some work to do to educate such as these.


I’m no hippy vegan or crazy environmentalist. I am 25 years old, I have been in 3rd world countries. I have been on coffee farms. I have seen poverty. I know that coffee farming is not an easy or financially stable career. I understand that the fair trade system is flawed.

Maybe millennials do get caught up in terminology and marketing. But so does all generations. Really though, even if they don’t understand it or fully comprehend, is not sustainability sourced coffee more honorable rather than non sustainability?

Overall, we’ve been seeing the global effect of greed, abuse of the environment, poor education etc, and we want change. We want to know that the money we spend goes to well deserved workers and to sustainable farming practices, not large greedy corporations with an even larger carbon footprint.

For the average daily consumer, it may seem a daunting, difficult task to trace the supply chain of every good they intend to purchase. It is much easier to build relationship and trust his barista.


a couple of concerns…. one, the definition of “sustainable” is a moving target, and means different things to different people. It has become a “buzzword” that has lost any real connexion with reality. Sustainable? The Certification Professionals have taken this and run with it, creating more pathways to increase their wealth. And often without making any REAL difference. How about a family farm, having operated in the same plots of land for five generations, and fully intending the place to still be producing award winning coffee in ten generations firther on? Yet their definition of “sustainable” is not acceptible to many.

Next, WHY oh why do we so often see “large”, “greedy”, and “corporations” all strung together as a pejorative? Not every corporation is described by the two modifiers. This creates a false stereotype: “all corporations are big, greedy, nasty, unsustainable……” And this is not true. Yes, corporations are intending to generate a profit… else how could they repay their investors, who put their own capital on the line to do something, AND expect an increase for the use of their money. this is not, per se, evil or wrong. Were it not for the capital so made available, we’d likely still be stuck suffering along with the commodity grade mass produced garbage coffee of our grandparents. Or, iike me, not drinking coffee at all. HOW are organisations like high quality importers, warehousemen, truckers, millers, etc, able to begin operations except that someone had cash, and made it available as seed money.

And “carbon foot prints” Give me a break. As if the carbon dioxide mankind’s activities release is destroying the planet? Face it…. CO2 is about point three five percent… not 35%, but 00.35 percent, of our atmosphere. And ALL man’s activities comprise some tenth or less of that. Further, it is the world’s oceans that regulate this gas in the atmosphere, and it is NOT a “greenhouse gas” as it allows energy to go both ways, rather than trapping it here like a sheet of glass would. And one more detail: those who are experimenting with controlled atmosphere growing operations (fully enclosed warehouse settings) are finding that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere in those operations to as much as eight percent (more than double today’s levels) increase yield signficantly, and quality goes up at the same time. This is even more enhanced where temperatures are also elevated significantly above normals in agricultural regions today. SO.. to make plants grow faster and better, an INCREASE in both CO2 and temperature is proving helpful.

So why the phoney war on CO2? Follow the money…. “alternative energy” is HUGE business, VERY profitable (one example of “large greedy corporations” at work, and who have bought the public awareness to twist it to their own ends… by influencing us to support their anti-environment efforts to reduce “greenhouse gas”, mind our “carbon footprint, become “carbon neutral”, and all the rest of that hysterical theorising.

Comments are closed.