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Editorial: Shame on the Coffee Industry’s Earth Day PR

coffee cup

Stock photo

The coffee industry, an inherently environmental-resource-intensive entity, has tamped down its publicly stated enthusiasm for the Earth Day holiday in recent years.

This may be due to some measure of humility as the industry stares down climate challenges facing the global sector — like the loss of suitable land for arabica growth, increasing systemic shocks to coffee production, the loss of both quantity and quality of coffee, and shocks to major producing countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia or Indonesia, just to name a few.

Yet the marketing departments at some coffee companies, particularly in the Global North, seem determined to treat Earth Day much like any other holiday. For them, it is an opportunity to give consumers the warm fuzzies by offering new products, limited-edition items and generally build brand awareness while driving more sales — with little regard to how those actions may be actually affecting the earth.

One well-known coffee company this year offered a bit of shark-jumping sustainability PR, claiming that its millions upon millions new plastic cups somehow represent an advancement in environmental sustainability.

The great indignity this time of year, as press releases go out celebrating corporate achievements in environmental problem solving, is that those announcements do not recognize the coffee industry as a significant part of the problem.

One should not feel comfortable patting one’s self on the back for finding incremental solutions to the very problems that one whole-heartedly perpetuates.

espresso machine

The undeniable reality is that coffee production, cross-continental shipping, packaging production, coffee roasting and coffee shop operations are all extractive and resource-intensive. That’s not to say that those activities are unethical or immoral; but there are costs that must be reckoned with.

Of course, the coffee industry is nothing if not paradoxical. Some of the world’s largest coffee companies have been world leaders in environmental, social and economic sustainability activities — when it’s convenient, of course — thanks in large part to the growth of the specialty coffee movement.

So as this Earth Day season mercifully comes to a close, DCN would like to thank the many coffee companies who are working year-round on environmental sustainability solutions, either in their own domestic operations or through communications with other actors in the supply stream. We doubly salute those that have diverted money from their PR budgets towards actual programs or initiatives that support people and the planet.

If you’d like, tell us about those initiatives here!