How sustainable is your daily caffeine fix? Read about what makes coffee more sustainable and how to buy coffee that’s better for the planet.

Sustainable purchasing – buying coffee

Around 75% of Aussies drink at least one cup of coffee a day, which means we go through 2.2 million 60kg bags of coffee a year – that’s 132 million kilograms of coffee! By looking more carefully at which coffee we buy (and how we use it), our combined efforts will have a real impact.

Before you buy, consider how you make and consume coffee

Your preferred coffee-making method and frequency inevitably affect the sort of coffee you buy, as well as the environmental impact.

What’s your style? Do you go for a quick fix – boiling water for instant coffee or popping a capsule into a pod machine? Maybe you prefer a more leisurely method, like brewing ground coffee in a filter jug, cafetière or plunger? Or do you insist on the full café experience, with a barista-level coffee machine?

Coffee cup with instant coffee, spoon and coffee beans

Sustainability of different coffee-making methods

Each method of making coffee has environmental pros and cons. Judging which method is the most sustainable requires a proper lifecycle assessment, which most of us don’t have time to do!

A thorough lifecycle analysis of a coffee brand would start with how the coffee is grown, looking at its impact on ecosystems, water, energy, workers and communities. You would then analyse the impacts of coffee processing, packaging, transport, and marketing. Finally, the lifecycle analysis would consider YOU, the consumer – buying the product, transporting it, using it (energy/water to make the drink) and ‘end of life’ (waste produced, disposal/recycling of packaging, coffee grounds, etc).

Such an analysis is not straightforward. For example, instant coffee generally uses more energy to process and transport than coffee pod capsules. However, pods have a higher carbon footprint due to their extra packaging (relative to the amount of coffee inside).

Used plastic and metal coffee capsules

On average, a quarter of the total environmental damage of coffee made using capsule pods is down to the capsule material and packaging. Heavy plastic and individually packed capsules have more negative impact. Aluminium capsules are better, but only when recycled (see source).

A research study concluded that instant coffee is more environmentally friendly than pods if you boil the optimum amount of water (especially if the coffee comes from a factory powered by waste coffee grounds). Similarly, filter or plunger systems are more eco-efficient if you make the right amount of coffee and use the waste coffee grounds as compost in your garden.

As you can see, calculating the sustainability of different coffee-making methods can’t be done with a simple equation. So, it’s best to choose a method that suits your lifestyle and tastes first, then make your coffee choice as sustainable as possible.

pouring water from electric jug into coffee cup

For a quick caffeine fix, instant coffee granules are generally more environmentally friendly than capsules, but only if you don’t overfill the kettle (see source).

Choosing which coffee to buy

No matter which method you use to make a cup of coffee, it’s the coffee itself that matters most. Coffee is grown in diverse regions around the world and how it is cultivated has a massive impact on local ecosystems and communities.

Environmental damage like deforestation and the use of pesticides and machinery can contribute as much as 70% (or as little as 1%) of the negative impact of a cup of coffee. Research into the eco-balance of coffee capsules states “the environmental damage caused during the growth of the coffee crop is the largest single factor affecting the eco-balance”. The study found that the choice of coffee inside a capsule has much more of an environmental impact than the capsule system, machine or method of preparation.

“The most important choice when it comes to sustainable coffee is the actual coffee and its cultivation.” (SBS Food)

Here are ten things to think about when choosing your coffee…

1. Certifications

Look for the logo of a recognised certification like Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, or Australian Certified Organic. These certifications ensure that the coffee is produced in an environmentally friendly and socially responsible manner. Note: many smaller producers may not have the resources to go through a formal certification process, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sustainable. Read what they say about sustainability on their website or ask the coffee roaster or supplier.

Australian Certified Organic - ACO logo
Rainforest Alliance

2. Origin

Pay attention to where the coffee is grown. If you can, buy coffee beans that are grown and processed locally or in the same country. These typically have a lower carbon footprint due to reduced transportation (read about Australian-grown coffee).

3. Growing conditions

Shade-grown vs. sun-grown – shade-grown coffee is grown under a canopy of trees, which helps preserve biodiversity and provides habitat for birds and other wildlife. Sun-grown coffee, on the other hand, supports fewer native species, stores less carbon, experiences higher levels of erosion, leaches more nutrients, and requires more resources such as water and fertilisers (read more here).

Coffee beans in hands - harvesting shade grown coffee

4. Sustainable farming practices

Try to support coffee producers who use sustainable farming practices such as water management and soil conservation to minimise their environmental impact (read more here).

5. Ethical labour practices

Look for coffee brands that prioritise fair wages and working conditions for coffee farmers and workers throughout the supply chain. Some coffee-producing countries have poorer human rights records (read more here). Again, Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certifications are good guides to a brand’s ethical practices, as is their website or sustainability report.


Map showing places where coffee is produced with forced labour

Countries where coffee is reportedly produced with forced or child labour (see source)

6. Packaging

Opt for coffee brands that use eco-friendly packaging materials such as compostable, recyclable or reusable packaging. If it’s recyclable or compostable, recycle or compost it! As well as the actual container, consider what sort of packaging is used for delivery to your door if you buy it online.

7. Carbon footprint

See if you can discover the carbon footprint of different companies or products. Research the carbon emissions of their coffee production process, from farming, processing, transportation, and packaging to usage and disposal. Look for companies that prioritise carbon-positive, carbon-neutral or carbon-reducing practices (they may describe these on their website or in sustainability reports).

8. Transparency

This could be the most important step when finding the right coffee. A lack of transparency is the clearest sign that a brand is NOT sustainable. Is the brand being honest? Are they greenwashing (making misleading claims)? Look for hard facts backed by evidence. What they don’t say can be as revealing as what they do!

9. Supporting small-scale farmers

Look for coffee brands that support smaller farmers and cooperatives, as they often face greater challenges in the coffee industry and benefit more directly from your support.

10. Quality and taste

Finally, don’t forget about the quality of the coffee itself! Buying sustainable coffee does not mean you have to sacrifice taste. Even if you buy the most sustainable coffee beans, granules or pods, you’ll waste money and coffee if you don’t like the taste. So, it won’t be as sustainable after all! (See this review of best-tasting coffee pods).


Buying takeaway coffee at cafe

What about buying takeaway coffee?

When buying coffee at a café, you can’t control the choice of coffee beans, but you can ask the café owner about the sustainability of the coffee they buy (see the 10 points above).

You can also do other things to reduce environmental impact, such as avoiding single-use coffee cups. Bring your own reusable cup (‘keep cup’) or go to cafés that have paper cup recycling systems. If you manage a business or workplace, you can introduce such recycling schemes at work.

Australians use over 1.8 billion single-use cups annually, and it’s estimated that 90% of hot beverage cups end up in landfill.

Encouragingly, a 2024 YouGov survey showed that 61% of Australians support banning disposable coffee cups. However, each state has different plans for phasing out single-use plastics, with WA and SA phasing them out in 2024 while other states are not yet considering it. So it’s up to us all to take action through our behaviour and buying choices.

Simply Cups recycling scheme

Simply Cups runs a system for recycling paper cups at cafes, workplaces, schools and other locations.

In summary

The total environmental impact of your cup of coffee depends on:

  • where and how the coffee crop is grown (agriculture methods can have the highest environmental and social impact)
  • how the coffee is processed (energy, natural resources, water, waste, carbon footprint, labour conditions)
  • what the coffee container is made of, and how much packaging there is
  • how it is transported, displayed, promoted and sold
  • which method you use to make your cup of coffee (energy, water, materials)
  • what you do afterwards (such as recycling containers or composting waste coffee).

So, to make the most sustainable coffee purchase decisions, do some basic research. Find out where the coffee comes from and how it’s produced. Consider how you’ll make and consume it, and what happens afterwards.

Ultimately, as Empa researcher Roland Hischier said, “A well-informed choice of coffee is the best option for the environment.”

Enjoy your coffee!

Article researched by Synne Kvaale, co-written and edited by Carolyn King

More info for coffee lovers

Coffee cup and coffee beans