Food

The True Cost of Our Coffee Habit

A photograph of the author, Jason Woods.

By Jason Woods

January 27, 2020

A close-up of green coffee cherries on the branch with one red cherry, and a hand picking the red cherry.
Leticia Diaz inspects coffee plants in Lagunas Community, Honduras.

Chances are good that an uncomfortable truth is lurking in your cup of coffee. Regardless of how much you paid for it, very little of that money is making it back to the farmers who grew it. And they're living in poverty as a result. The first step to changing an exploitative system is understanding, so we made this quick guide to help us all understand what's happening and how we can start to do right by our coffee farmers. 

Infographic of the coffee production cycle and statistics about coffee prices.
Click to download

 

Coffee Addicts

  • 50+% of U.S. adults drink coffee every day
  • 3 cups: amount the average coffee drinker consumes daily
  • 26 pounds: amount of coffee the average Finnish person consumes per year

From Bean to Cup

  1. Farmers harvest raw, unroasted beans called cherries.
  2. Middlemen or cooperatives buy the cherries and sell them to processors.
  3. The beans are dried in the sun or fermented, then milled and sorted.
  4. Traders buy the beans and sell them to importers in other countries, who then sell them to roasters.
  5. Roasters turn green coffee into the familiar brown beans.
  6. Roasted coffee is packaged and labeled. 
  7. Coffee shops, if they don't roast themselves, buy the roasted coffee and sell it to you.

Coffee Farmers Pay the Price

  • Small-scale coffee farmers operate at an average of 46–59% loss
  • Farmers earn less than 1% of the sale of a cup of coffee at a coffee shop
  • Coffee prices have fallen by 2/3 since the 1980s
  • Since late 2018, the average commodity price for coffee is less than $1.00 per pound
  • Roasters and coffeeshops should pay at least $3.00 per pound for their coffee to ensure farmers maintain a decent standard of living.*

What You Can Do

  • Ask your barista or contact your favorite company to find out how much the people who grow their coffee beans get paid.
  • Go to TransparentTradeCoffee.org for a list of specialty roasters who voluntarily disclose prices.
  • If your preferred brand or shop isn't paying fairly, tell them so and consider shopping elsewhere.
  • Be aware that while certification programs often raise the bar in terms of social and environmental standards, that doesn't means that farmers earn enough.
  • Talk about unfair coffee prices with friends and family.
  • Share news about the coffee economy on social media and tag major coffee conglomerates when you do.

 

*Number varies based on geography, family circumstances and other factors