Coffee consumption reaches historic high, raises ethical concerns

Bon Appétit offers the Westminster community a variety of fair trade and organic coffees and teas. With millennials drinking 44 percent of all coffee consumed around the world, according to a recent study by Bloomberg, some are concerned about increasing ethical violations. Photo by McCall Mash.

Bon Appétit offers the Westminster community a variety of fair trade and organic coffees and teas. With millennials drinking 44 percent of all coffee consumed around the world, according to a recent study by Bloomberg, some are concerned about increasing ethical violations. Photo by McCall Mash.

As coffee consumption has reached historic heights, thanks to millennials, concerns over ethical consumption and production of the beverage have risen as well.

Millennials, who are commonly considered individuals between the ages of 19 to 34, drink 44 percent of all coffee consumed globally. American millennials lead the way with coffee consumption, according to a Bloomberg study. 

The study found millennials started drinking coffee at younger ages than their parents and grandparents, with the average millennial consuming his or her first drink at around age 14.  

Anna Roberts, a sophomore environmental chemistry major, is one of the 44 percent of millennials who drink coffee. However, she said she doesn’t drink coffee every morning and only enjoys a cup when she’s in the mood.

“I usually go for things that have espresso in it because I really like that,” Roberts said. “I’m not the [biggest] coffee drinker but I enjoy it a lot. I like it in things and that’s what’s great about it—you can drink it whenever you want, depending on how much caffeine is in it.”

Gary Marquardt, a history professor who also teaches a May Term class about coffee, said he was surprised by the data about millennials but said it also makes sense.  

"I could understand it," he said. "The ways in which coffee is produced and at the speeds it can be made, [it] seems to fit the lifestyle [of millennials]—of sort of the speed of life, if you will." 


Marquardt said the Keurig coffee maker, the rise of Starbucks and the foodie movement have all contributed to the start of the “third wave” of coffee consumption: Americans developing a strong coffee culture when they didn't have one before. 

"I think there are a lot more small businesses getting involved with coffee and trying to figure out different ways in which to make coffee," Marquardt said. "So that also, I think, taps into some of the interests millennials might have [in coffee]. So I think there's not only the speed of it, but I think there's a growth rate in ways you can make coffee or make a living off of coffee. I think that does speak a lot more to millennials as opposed to somebody from the baby boomer era." 

With the third wave of coffee, Marquardt said consumers should ask ethical questions surrounding coffee's production, both historical and present, including human rights concerns and environmental issues. 

"It really boils down to, ‘Should we be consuming as much coffee as we are based on where we are in the world and how that links back to colonial-inspired trade patterns?’" Marquardt said. 

Coffee's history: myths, colonialism and the development of coffee cultures


Coffee is widely thought to originate from Ethiopia, said Marquardt, but its exact discovery boils down to myth. 

"There is a myth about Kaldi, who is a goat herder" Marquardt said. "[He] calls for his goats and they don't come. And so he goes looking for them and he finds them basically overcaffeinated on coffee from eating the coffee beans in the mountainside—somewhere where he hasn't noticed a plant before, so he tastes [the beans] and he realizes this caffeine, you know, makes you feel magnificent." 

Coffee didn't start as a beverage. Instead, Ethiopian farmers rolled the beans and other natural ingredients into energy bars, which Marquardt said might be similar to a Clif Bar. 

Marquardt said coffee came to Yemen from Ethiopia through the slave trade sometime during the 15th to 16th century and eventually made its way to Turkey and into Europe. 

Since the globalization of coffee, many countries have developed distinct cultures around it. 

"Probably the deepest cultural connection that any one country has to coffee is still Ethiopia," Marquardt said. "Turkey [also] has its own coffee culture—Turkish coffee, which is famous or infamous, just depending on whether you like it or not." 

However, not every country has had the opportunity to develop a cultural connection to coffee, according to Marquardt. He said Guatemala, which tends to have many Americans’ favorite coffee, only recently developed a distinct coffee culture.


"There are places like Guatemala, who 200 years ago didn't really have a coffee culture and now all of the sudden Guatemalan coffee has become the coffee of choice for many Americans because it is good," Marquardt said. "You can't necessarily find a good cup of coffee in Guatemala, or in Brazil or in Costa Rica because it's all being shipped up here. So what does that say about globalization and exploitation of the global south?" 

Environmental concerns around coffee production

With record-high consumption comes an increased need for farmers and land to produce coffee, Marquardt said. 

The expanding market wears on the land and uses vast amounts of water to grow, wash and ferment the beans, said Marquardt, which creates serious environmental concerns and creates a cycle that contributes to climate change by dehydrating the land.  

As the demand for coffee increases, Brazil, the world's leading coffee producer, is crippled by a drought and its supplies are dwindling, according to the Bloomberg study. 

Brent Olson, an associate professor of environmental studies, said coffee has implications not only for water use and drought but, like any other large scale monocrop, also harms wildlife, other vegetation and soil.

“Coffee production is like any other crop,” Olsen said. “It can be done in relatively sustainable ways and socially sustainable ways, and it can be done as a disaster.”

Coffee production and human rights


With the globalization of coffee has also come human rights violations and exploitation with production in the global south, according to Marquardt. 

Coffee growers, especially in South America, are often paid less than it costs to produce coffee, which Marquardt said leaves them living hand-to-mouth. 

"[The consumer has] to be concerned with the farmer’s livelihood," Marquardt said. 

Marquardt said human rights and the environment aren't distinguishable ethical concerns, which goes back to water. 

Coffee requires extreme amounts of water to grow, and farmers pour their resources into the crops, said Marquardt, which depletes access to fresh water for basic things like drinking and bathing. 

"You can't necessarily separate climate from the ethical ideas related to coffee," he said. “The consumer really does have to think about where they're getting their coffee, which can be prone to encouraging climate change and sapping water out of the local economy for things like basic drinking and washing." 

Olson also said that social and environmental issues must be addressed in order to create sustainable production.

“With coffee as a product and as a commodity in particular, you have pretty significant social issues linked with production and environmental issues,” Olson said. “Those don’t go away. You can’t just… It doesn’t make sense to do it environmentally sustainably and leave out [the] social sustainability side of it.”

What you can do

For Americans who “need to drink coffee on a daily basis,” Marquardt said there are things they can do to promote ethical coffee production. 

First, he said, Americans should buy certified fair trade or direct trade coffee. 

Marquardt said the two are similar but offer the farmers different things. Fair trade is a cooperative, which requires the coffee buyers to sign a contract guaranteeing farmers a livable wage to become certified and allows the farmers to collectively sell their crops. In direct trade, the middleman is removed. Coffee roasters directly visit the farm, try the coffee and cut a contract with the farmer if they like it. 

Aside from fair trade and direct trade, Olson said consumers should also buy Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee, which promotes methods to safeguard the climate. 

“The higher-end coffees, the coffees that people really want to buy, tend to grow best in those facilities that do it in ways that are more completely linked to existing ecosystems,” Olson said. “That’s where you get the shade-grown coffee.”

The second thing both Marquardt and Olson said they suggest is buying coffee from countries that already have a strong and sustainable coffee culture. 

"Buy it from a country that's already growing it for their own consumption," Marquardt said. "Ethiopia is a great country because they basically consume half their crop over the year and sell the other half. Basically it's exported, so coffee is going nowhere in a place like Ethiopia." 

Marquardt said he recognizes this doesn't always suit the typical American’s acquired tastes, but he and Olson urged people to research where their coffee comes from and choose a sustainable model. 

Roberts, the junior environmental chemistry major and occasional coffee drinker, said she avoids a daily cup because of the ethical issues in coffee production and said she is very aware of what coffee she buys when she does drink coffee.

“If I do [drink coffee], I make sure what I’m buying—where I’m getting my coffee from—is sustainably sourced [and fairtrade]” she said.

At Westminster, Bon Appétit also does a few things to make the college's coffee consumption more ethical, according to Corby Mitchell, the manager of Griff's Roost Coffee Shop. 

"[The coffee] is fairtrade and organic, as are the teas," Mitchell said. "That's also Bon Appetit's policy company wide." 

Mitchell said Griff's Roost also has a program that turns used coffee grounds into compost and said he urges students and faculty to bring their old grounds in to be collected. 

In the end, Olson said he urges everyone to enjoy that cup of coffee.

“This sounds incredibly trite, but enjoy [your coffee],” Olson said. “It doesn’t change the world. It doesn’t make social justice happen. But I think actually sitting down for a second, if you’re going to have coffee be a major part of your life—take some time to have that be a part of your day.”