Beyond Fairtrade: The Next Step in Sustainable Coffee

In recent years, a new wave of high-end, speciality coffee shops has been breaking over the streets of Edinburgh and Scotland. These coffee shops are more than just a place to caffeinate yourself with mass-produced blends. They cater for the increasing number of customers willing to pay a premium price for responsibly-sourced, small producer and above all highly delicious coffees, using a range of extraction methods to get the best from sustainable coffee beans. 


Alex Owen-Hill

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Forget Irn-Bru, coffee could be Scotland’s favourite caffeinated drink. A recent study found that coffee is two times stronger in Glasgow than it is in Italy or Spain. Each year, Europe consumes an estimated 2.64 million tonnes of coffee. That’s over seven times the weight of the Forth Road Bridge. The environmental cost of coffee production is correspondingly huge. As with sustainable food movement, environmentally-conscious consumers have become increasingly interested in sustainably sourced coffee.

Cosmopolita Scotland went in search of this trend in speciality cafés to find out how some Scottish businesses are becoming champions for exceptional, sustainable coffee.

A Distinct Flavour of Coffee

Nestled between the Festival Theatre and the Edinburgh Law School, on the small South College St, sits Brew Lab. Through its glass front wall you can see assorted wooden tables, benches and various student-types chatting or staring into computer screens. In short, it looks like a café. However, unlike Black Medicine across the road or the nearby Café Nero, it is not just another one of Edinburgh’s many coffee shops. Brew Lab is one of the town’s recent wave of speciality coffee shops, the newest addition being the Filament Coffee branch on Clerk Street which opened this May.

Behind the bar, this week’s coffees are written in chalk on slate squares, laid out like the periodic table. Instead of the word “Menu” it reads “Methodology”. This is a place for truly geeky coffee.

coffee syphon photo

Preparation is done using one of three methods: the more familiar espresso-based coffees (e.g. cappuccino, latte), a more subtly flavoured “pour over filter” or their Sunday special Syphon, which looks more like an Addams family chemistry experiment than a coffee maker.

The coffee itself is chosen to best match the brewing method. For espresso, they use a specially selected blend. For filter coffee, there is a choice of two, single origin coffees which are different each week.

The enthusiastic barista, Ewan Osprey-Allen, who ranked second for Scotland in last years UK Barista Championship, informs me that this week the filter coffees are from farms in Costa Rica and Columbia. The Costa Rican, he says, has hints of caramel, the Columbian tastes fruity.

“Our approach to coffee is very specialised.” says Dave Law, Brew Lab’s co-founder. “We approapour over coffee photoch it in the same way as you would with wine, giving tasting notes to customers. So, you might be tasting blackcurrant or dark chocolate. It’s something to enjoy the flavour of, rather than just a drink that’s made to caffeinate you.”

I choose a Costa Rican filter coffee, deciding that caramel notes sound good. It arrives in a black, metal jug alongside a pristine white cup. The poured coffee is a clear, subtle brown. At the first sip, the flavour seems weak. However, like a delicate Chinese tea, the aroma and taste become stronger as they fill my senses. By the third sip, a distinct flavour of caramel emerges.

“Filter coffee is our premium thing.” says Dave. “We brew them by hand, to order. They’re meant to be drunk black and are a really good way of tasting the nuances you get in different coffees in an unadulterated way. You get lots of very unique flavours from it.”

Photo by Sander van der Wel and Michael Stern

A Step On from Fairtrade


coffee bw photoshop canon photo“Single origin, or single estate, coffees are from one farm.” says Dave. “More often than not they’re also a single variety that’s been only processed in one way. A blend will have lots of different varieties, processing methods and many different origins. It’ll be a lot more muted in terms of flavour. With single origin you get really distinct clarity of flavour.”

“The origin of the coffee is incredibly important to us.” he says. “We just wouldn’t consider a coffee if we didn’t know where it came from.”

A focus on directly traded, single origin coffees and speciality blends is one of the main distinctions between speciality coffee shops and more traditional cafés. The move towards direct trade with producers is the latest paradigm shift in the long story of coffee regulation which stretches back the last 50 years.

In 1989 there was a huge change in the global coffee market. The International Coffee Agreements, which had been signed in 1962 by most coffee producing and consuming countries, was abandoned when they descended into squabbling over quotas. Until then, the agreements had set a fairly level playing field (1) for coffee prices by setting target market prices and quotas for producing countries. Since 1989, the market switched to a “buyer-driven” supply chain, causing a higher percentage of the total cost of the coffee to remain in consumer countries. Producers went from earning 20% of the total cost of the coffee to only 13%.

international photoSince the end of the International Coffee Agreements, many different standards have been introduced to try and introduce more fairness and sustainability into the coffee supply chain. Many of these are voluntary production standards, which look at the environmental and social conditions and aim to pay a fair price for the beans. The four biggest voluntary standards are: Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, Organic, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified. The 4C Code of Conduct provides a baseline standard for all of these, while Starbucks and Nespresso have their own private sustainability standards.

Each voluntary standard system is different, looking at a combination of the various environmental, economic and social impacts of coffee production. Some standards are more stringent than others. As a result of this, it is complicated for consumers to understand just how sustainable their coffee is, even if they are certified by one or more of these schemes. Some issues surrounding the standards are not easy to learn, like that Fairtrade is only open to cooperatives and can, in some ways, exacerbate inequality. This makes buying sustainable coffee all the more confusing for consumers.

agreement monochrome photoDirect trade does not rely on external standards to decide if a coffee is produced sustainably. Instead, this decision is placed directly in the hands of speciality roasters and coffee importers, who buy the green (unroasted) beans directly from producers. To ensure that coffees are produced fairly, roasters obtain as much information as possible about the producers, often developing personal relationships with the coffee growers themselves. This information is passed on to coffee shops and drinkers, allowing them to know exactly where their coffee came from and under what conditions it was grown.

Like many speciality coffee shops, Brew Lab buys its beans from speciality roasters and importers.

“We get the majority of our espresso coffee from Has Bean.” says Dave. “They’re a very big speciality coffee roaster in Stafford, in the north of England. For the filter coffee we have roasters from all around Europe, including London, Berlin and Stockholm.

“Has Bean in particular has really strong relationships with farmers that they’ve built up over years. Steve, the owner, goes out to all the farms in South and Central America. He knows the farmers really well and can ensure that he gets the top quality beans and pays the higher tier price for them. For smaller speciality coffees we’ll often work with an importer who will go out and work closely with the farmers to buy the best beans.

“It’s kind of a step on from Fairtrade. It’s direct trade. We put our trust in the roasters to ensure that they’re buying fairly and paying the right price for coffee.”

Roasters: A Vital Link Between Farm and Cup

farm cup cherries photo

Roasters are a key link in the coffee supply chain. Either buying direct from the producers, or through speciality coffee merchants, they ensure that the best beans make it into your cup. Speciality roasters, like Glen Lyon in Perthshire, strive to source beans which are as environmentally sustainable as possible.

“All our coffee is shade grown.” says Glen Lyon’s co-founder Jamie Grant. “Coffee needs a mixture of direct sunshine and shade to produce the best fruit, which we call cherries because that’s what they look like. Lower grade commodity coffee is often cash crop, so an area of land is just cleared and then the coffee bushes thrown in. Shade grown is kind of a standard for speciality coffee. It improves the quality and flavour of the beans but also has great environmental impacts. By ensuring that there’s a second canopy of trees above the coffee, it provides a habitat for insects and birds. In some cases they literally plant under existing wild forest, but more often they plant trees when making a new plantation.”

Jamie and his wife Fiona opened Glen Lyon roastery four years ago. They sell roasted coffee direct to customers, as well as to cafés, such as Area C, Coletti’s and Madelines in Edinburgh. Their passion for coffee began when they worked as journalists in Bolivia, writing about the issues behind the coffee industry. Now, years later, Bolivia is one of their favoured countries for sourcing beans.

“One nice thing about Bolivia is they had revolution and land reform in 1952.” he says. “This means that a lot of the bigger estates were broken up into smaller parcels of land. Most of the lots are only two or three acres and are owned by the farmers themselves. It’s nice because we can source direct from single farmers. It’s all very traceable. I’m hoping to go out there next year, to look around the farms, speak to the owners, see the conditions and assess how fairly the coffee’s being produced.”

Direct trade allows roasters and importers to ensure that they are buying the coffee at a fair price. Voluntary standards, such as Fairtrade, set a minimum price to ensure that producers can live from their earnings. However, since 2007 the high market price in general has meant that Fairtrade growers have rarely earned more for their coffee than other growers, despite the added costs associated with the scheme.

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“We work through speciality coffee merchants called Mercanta.” says Jamie. “They typically pay the producers between 10 and 20% above a Fairtrade price. So our coffee is very much ethically sourced. It’s not Fairtrade Accredited and there are good reasons for that. The main one is that the farmers are already getting a very good price, so there’s no incentive for them to sign up for the Fairtrade scheme. Another is that there are some administrative and setups costs for Fairtrade which can be restrictively high, especially for small farmers.”

Despite the issues, Fairtrade and other standards do work to ensure that coffee is produced sustainably and provide added social benefits to farmers even if the economic advantage is less certain. They are most applicable to mass produced coffee, where developing close relationships with each farmer is not as feasible.

“Fairtrade is a fantastic scheme.” says Jamie. “It’s very relevant for lower grade commodity coffee but not for the kind of speciality coffee that we’re producing. You get what you pay for in terms of quality and speciality beans absolutely taste better than mass produced coffee. Each one has very unique flavour notes to it and they’re all different. Even two coffees from the same farm at slightly different altitudes can taste different.”

Environmentally Beneficial Beans

With the rising prevalence of Organic food in the UK, it’s not unusual to hear the argument that environmentally friendly produce tastes better. It seems that, for coffee, the best flavours come when the plants are grown in their natural environment. That means shade-grown coffee which is grown at a high altitude.

[cml_media_alt id='3396']4297093939_02fa6811ef_Coffee-crops[/cml_media_alt]“Altitude is very important.” says Jamie. “High-grown coffee is typically grown between 1600 and 2000 metres above sea level. The theory is that, a bit like champagne grapes, the harder the plant has to work to produce the fruit, the better its flavour and quality. However, at this altitude there’s the added benefit that there is less of an issue with insects, and therefore pesticides. We source certified Organic coffee, but generally all high-grown coffee has a lower chemical load.

“It also depends how it’s harvested. All speciality coffee is hand-picked because coffee plants don’t come in to harvest all in one moment. It takes three weeks for beans to ripen at different stages. You have to go back to a single plant three times. Lower grade coffees are harvested mechanically by stripping the leaves. Obviously that means lower labour cost, but you’re getting a mixed bag (2) in terms of quality.”

However, ensuring that coffee is good for the natural environment is only one third of the whole picture. Promoting sustainable economic and social environments is also required to develop a fairer coffee industry.

“Fundamentally, coffee is an unfair industry in terms of the profit margins the farmers are getting compared to those of the cafés and roasters.” says Jamie. “It’s very hard to know how to turn that around on the large scale. We’re obviously a very small roastery, but we try as best we can to source ethically and trace our coffee back to the producers. When I can, I try to get out and visit the farms to see first hand what the conditions are like and make judgements based on that.”

One way that the coffee industry can promote improve social environments is through sustainability-minded cooperatives. Recently, speciality coffee in Rwanda has helped some communities to move forward from the brutal conflict which lasted most of the 20th century. Often, these cooperatives employ workers from different tribes, promoting social inclusion between the previously warring Tutsis and Hutus.

hutu tutsi photo“Right now, Rwanda’s producing some exceptional high-grown coffees.” says Jamie. “We work with one or two cooperatives there, through Mercanta. One of them received some US Aid funding, which has completely changed their business. Before, the cooperatives were just selling to middle-men to process the beans elsewhere. Now, they have been able to put in washing stations so that they can produce some lovely washed coffee which they can export direct. It’s improved their income by over 10% in the last decade.

“Another Rwandan cooperative has just managed to pull enough money together to buy a cow for each member. This is great for diversification because, as well providing milk, it also provides another potential form of income so that they’re not overly dependent on the coffee harvest.”

Like the sustainable food movement, sustainable coffee is a seasonal product. Unlike the food movement, this does not mean sourcing locally grown coffee which, let’s face it, would be impossible to grow in Scotland’s cold climate (though who knows what effects climate change might have?).

“We supply coffees based on the seasons of the producing country, which we follow throughout the year.” says Jamie. “Right now the Central Americans are coming in, so we’ve got lots of really lovely Guatamalan and Costa Rican coffee on the way. People sometimes struggle with that. They try a really lovely rounded coffee and want to try it again. We have to tell them: “I’m afraid you’ve got to wait another 9 months before the next season rolls round again.””

The Next Stage in Sustainable Cafés

It’s clear that buying sustainably sourced coffee is a key factor in developing a sustainable coffee industry. However, it is far from being the only factor. While it’s important to ensure that social, natural and economic environments in the producing country are sustainable, it is equally important consider these same factors here at home.

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On 22nd of May this year, at the Caffe Culture Show in London, the Sustainable Restaurant Association introduced a brand new programme for independent cafés. This holistic approach builds on their existing rating for restaurants, considered by some to be “The Michelin Star of Sustainability.”

“We’re really the only membership organisation that conducts a holistic rating like this.” says Tom Tanner of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. “You can already go into a café and order a nice cup of triple certified coffee, but you wouldn’t necessarily know what else was going on behind the scenes. We break sustainability down into three main pillars: sourcing, environment and society. So, we look at things like: how the food is sourced, whether the staff are treated properly, policies on energy, waste and water. A whole range of factors.”

The Café Programme was introduced following demand from independent café owners interested in their existing sustainability programmes. Starting only five years ago with 30 members, the Sustainable Restaurant Association is now working with 4,500 sites across the UK within the hospitality industry, ranging from chip-shops to Michelin starred restaurants. This has much to do with an increasing demand for sustainability from consumers.

coffee beans photo“I think people’s expectations now are wider than just asking if the coffee is Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, direct trade or ethically sourced.” says Tom. “They want to know if the sandwich or cake they’re ordering to go with that coffee is also sustainable. They notice if the cup isn’t recyclable.

“Obviously we place a greater emphasis on the coffee and beverages that are being sourced by cafés than we would for, say, a restaurant. We will also look quite closely at the milk, which is used a lot in cafés. Other things we’ll focus on are disposables and healthy eating options.”

Coffee accreditations, such as Fairtrade, provide the Sustainable Restaurant Association with a short-cut to proving the sustainability of a coffee. For direct trade coffees, like those used by Brew Lab and Glen Lyon, they will delve deeper into the direct trade relationships.

La Pita coffee plantation: Matagalpa, Nicaragua by nagillum

“We will talk to the café’s suppliers to see exactly how the direct trade is working.” says Tom. “We will ask the buyers whether they monitor the environmental measures at the farm, such as if they spray the crops or have methods for soil conservation. We also ask about the land rights of the farm and other social factors such as ensuring that there is no child labour and that workers are given a minimum wage. We look into whether they establish long term business relationships and also the purchasing price.”

A rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association shows customers that a café is sustainable in 14 key areas. An overall rating of one, two or three stars is awarded. For café owners, membership of the Association also provides them with a detailed action plan on how they can improve their sustainability rating in the coming years.

“If a café is awarded three stars, customers can be rest assured (3) that that it is attending well to all of the key areas.” says Tom. “It could be that they’re slightly better at one area than another, but across the board they are operating sustainably.”

compost by tvolBoth Jamie Grant of Glen Lyon and Dave Law of Brew Lab recognise the importance of operating sustainably in a holistic way. They are both working to make their businesses as environmentally friendly as possible.

“The waste side we produce is minimal.” says Jamie. “Any beans we do have to throw away are composted. Also, when you roast the bean you get a by-product called chaff. We give a lot of that to people with chickens because they like laying eggs in it.”

“We are working towards zero waste.” says Dave. “We compost a lot of our waste and use compostable packaging made of vegetable starch. We also recycle a lot, so we produce very, very little land fill. All of our coffee equipment is from manufacturers that are very conscious about energy saving. They’re designed to have the least footprint as possible.”

The Importance of Flavour

Photo by PDPicsAlthough the sustainability of a coffee is highly important, what matters most is that the coffee tastes great. In the hands of passionate people, speciality coffees are almost a different drink when compared to the average coffees. Their superior quality and flavour, coming in part from natural growing conditions, is the reason that coffee lovers come back to them again and again.

“Customers do ask questions about the processing method of the coffee, asking why it tastes the way it does.” says Dave Law. “But, people are definitely more interested in the flavours of the coffee than in the producers themselves. We’re looking for the most delicious coffees, rather than the ones which have the nicest story. All our coffees have good stories. We look for coffees that stand out and taste great. I think people are willing to spend more because it’s a better, higher quality coffee.”

Photos by jfantenb, tmarsee530, cliff1066bestiaryAidan Jones, Lima Pixbjornmeansbeartvolmckaysavagenagillumwaferboard Michael Stern, Sander van der Welsillygwailo

Use of English for Spanish Speakers

(1) Fairly level playing field.

  • Definition: a situation in which everyone has a fair and equal chance of succeeding.
  • Example: “Until then, the agreements had set a fairly level playing field for coffee prices by setting target market prices and quotas for producing countries. S”. (“Haste entonces, los acuerdos habían dispuesto de un marco para la igualdad de condiciones en los precios del café, fijando objetivos de precios de mercado y cotas para los países productores “).
  • Translation: igualdad de condiciones.

(2) Mixed bag.

  • Definition: a diverse assortment of things.
  • Example: “Obviously that means lower labour cost, but you’re getting a mixed bag in terms of quality.””. (“Obviamente eso implica menos coste de mano de obra, pero obtienes un batiburillo en términos de calidad“).
  • Translation: un poco de todo (buena y mala calidad), un batiburillo.

(3) Rest assured.

  • Definition: feel confident about the impact on oneself by someone else’s action.
  • Example: ““If a café is awarded three stars, customers can be rest assured (3) that that it is attending well to all of the key areas.”. (“Si un café es galardonado con tres estrellas, los clientes se pueden quedar tranquilos que ha cumplido muy bien con todos los criterios más importantes.“). “Rest assured your case will be judged fairly” (“Quédese tranquilo su caso será juzgado de forma justa.”)
  • Translation: asegurarse, quedarse totalmente tranquilo.


Photo by DigitalAlanCC

Photo by DigitalAlanCC


Autor: Alex Owen-Hill

Alex is an Edinburgh freelance writer and blogger. As an ex-robotics researcher he's passionate about science and fascinating research in any field. He's also a dedicated food geek, filmmaker and occasional jazz musician. You can find him at or on Twitter at @AlexOwenHill.

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