Coffee Saints & Coffee Sinners

Exploring the Socially-Conscious Coffee Shop vs the K-Cup

For many – myself included – coffee plays an almost absurdly large role in daily life. It is not only a habit, but also a comfort, a social activity, and a remedy for long arduous days. The more you frequent large coffee chains, like Starbucks and Costa, the more apparent it becomes that a huge part of their marketing revolves around a sense of responsibility, socially and environmentally. These multinationals need you to know that they are doing good in the world – and that by supporting them, you are too.
At the same time, brewing coffee at home is less and less focused on sustainability and economy. Since the rise of the K-Cup, single pod brewers have become ubiquitous across many brands and have remained immensely popular due to their convenience, all other considerations aside.

So while positive values are increasingly sold alongside that daily dose of caffeine, ignorance regarding the real global impacts of our coffee consumption persists. Why is there such a disconnect between our desire to do good as consumers and our stubborn apathy at home?

Consuming Values: Multinational Coffee Shops and their Morals

In the world of coffee, are the global chains the unexpected heroes?

Waiting in line at the nearest coffee shop, you are often surrounded by reminders that by choosing this brand, you are supporting positive change in the world.

You may find your attention drifting to the posters on the wall of Starbucks which warn you to “Beware of a cheaper cup of coffee. It comes with a price” (a reference to their 100% use of Fairtrade certified coffee). Your Pret a Manger latte might be served in a cup which declares that “Rainforests are Cool”, while your napkin tells you that it’s made from “100% recycled stock” and then makes jokes about Pret’s fastidious environmental department. And once you’ve finished paying in Costa, you are encouraged to donate your spare change to the Costa Foundation – a group which works to bring education to coffee growing communities around the world.

Rather than exploring whether or not these companies actually do what they say they do – anymore than other nonprofits or corporate foundations – I think it’s worth noting that they tell us they do good. This is how they want to be viewed; it’s an important part of the brand. Why?

If you ask Starbucks, they will tell you that, “As a company that relies on agricultural products, we have long been aware that the planet is our most important business partner.”

It’s important to think about coffee as agriculture, because the coffee industry has hugely destructive potential. Coffee is one of the most important trade commodities in the world, worth over $100 billion dollars in the global economy. It is the second most heavily traded commodity in the world, after petroleum, and in over 50 countries right now, around 25 million men and women are working to produce coffee.

Because coffee is grown in developing countries for the most part, it should come as no surprise that exploitation of workers is abundant. Because of the exploitation of workers for the sake of our low prices, fair-trade is a huge focus for coffee distributors and a major component in consumer choice.

As well as having social implications, there are also the environment impacts. Like all monocultures, growing coffee on such a large scale leads to deforestation, harms biodiversity, results in water pollution, and in huge amounts of waste.


So growing and selling coffee are areas where “doing it right” makes a huge difference, and the fact that companies increasingly lead with this speaks to our demands as consumers. Perhaps this marketing is a part of our evolving global consciousness about where our agricultural products come from, and reflects a trend in the food industry as a whole. It’s smart advertising for a modern, socially conscious consumer market, and that’s a positive trend overall.

While consumers appear to be increasingly preoccupied with making the morally informed choice when they go out for coffee, that somehow isn’t translating to home brewing. With the introduction, and widespread use of, single-pod coffee makers, there is this large disconnect between our good intentions when it suits us, and our apathy when it does not.

Waste in the Age of Convenience and the K-Cup

Keurig single-brew coffee pods were invented in the early 1990s and intended for office use, but they’ve become so popular in recent years (suddenly more than doubling in sales in 2010) that now almost one in three Americans use pod-based coffee machines at home. Keurig was purchased by Green Mountain (now known as Keurig Green Mountain) and accounts for the majority of their $4.7 billion revenue.

The vast amount of waste produced by this single brew system has been noted time and again, and has made the K-cup a source of contention. The pods are not recyclable nor biodegradable, so every single plastic pod ends up in a landfill. Last year, over 9 billion K-Cups were sold.

The company states that for people willing to take the time to disassemble, the K-Cup can be broken down into metal, plastic and foil and those parts recycled. Not only is that incredibly difficult, but the plastic itself is #7 which is rarely collected for recycling, and there is a minuscule chance that people buying coffee machines for their emphasis on convenience would spent time taking apart the small pods day after day and hunting down appropriate recycling facilities.

While Keurig Green Mountain has declared over and over again that they are working to make their product more easily recyclable, Sylvan, who invented the K-cup, claims that “those things will never be recyclable…the plastic is specialized plastic made of four different layers.” He never anticipated their use outside of offices and has spoken out saying “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it.” Sylvan doesn’t even own one of these machines. He has also recently launched a solar panel company, in part to make up for the environmental degradation attributed to the K-Cup.

Statistically, the number of K-Cups sold in 2014 were enough to circle the globe 12 times if placed end to end. And that number is rising. Keurig is partnering with Coca-Cola and plans on adding cold options to their machines.

The Keurig machines have inspired other coffee makers companies to come out with pod-style machines (some of which do use biodegradable pods), and their sales are increasing rapidly while traditional styles lag far behind.

What’s Good About the K-Cup?

So, besides the beloved convenience of the K-Cup, there are actually a few environmental benefits to using single-pod brewers like this.

Pod machines use less electricity than brewing a whole pot and leaving it to warm. Over-brewing and then disposing of leftover coffee isn’t a problem with the Keurig model. Coffee is also extracted from grounds in a more efficient manner in Keurig machines, and because growing coffee wastes so much water, wasting grounds means wasting water.

Keurig vows to make their product recyclable by 2020, and regardless, waste does not begin and end with the K cup – we’re an incredibly wasteful society, and that includes the many coffee cups we get at chains which are thrown away, even when they are recyclable. What is worrisome in my mind, is that this is something we’re becoming newly dependent upon – this isn’t an old bad habit, it’s a new one we’re quickly getting used to. It is a trend that’s going in the wrong direction.

Saints and Sinners?

So maybe in the world of coffee, the saints and the sinners aren’t so clear-cut.

Maybe coffee is just really difficult to produce and sell in a fully ethical manner. Maybe it should give us hope that these issues of concern are being talked about, and that there must be consumer demand for a clear conscience if it’s become such a strong marketing strategy. And maybe it should give us pause that our values don’t expand much beyond our love for convenience.

What is abundantly clear is that coffee is not something we’re going to be willing to give up anytime soon, so it’s up to us to keep finding new ways to do it better.

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