Ethical Coffee.jpg
Ethical Coffee.jpg

What is ethical coffee?

Reading time: 5 min
by Yves Käser
When mentioning the coffee trade, the words ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ are thrown around fairly regularly. But what do these words mean, and why are they so important?

In this article, Selecta looks at ethical and sustainable coffee, why it’s important, what to consider when picking an ethical coffee brand and how we promote ethics and sustainability within the industry.

Ethical Coffee

Before discussing why ethical coffee is necessary, it’s important to discuss what the term ethical means. Concerning the coffee industry, ethics governs the treatment of workers within the coffee supply chain – including working conditions and payment, starting with the farm workers and right through to the roasting stage.

Ethics in the coffee industry is important because it creates transparency with the customer, letting them know that those who worked hard to put that cup of coffee on the table are well-paid and well-treated.

It also helps to hold those that don’t promote ethical standards accountable – as eco-conscious customers are more likely to buy coffee which they know is ethically sourced, as opposed to coffee that isn’t.

For example, imagine there was a decaf coffee brand called ‘De-caffee’. By being transparent with customers about how they source their coffee, who they source it from and giving examples of how those workers have been fairly paid and treated, it generates a degree of brand trust with customers. This not only leads to an increase in sales but also an increase in pay for all workers. It’s a win-win situation.

What Is Sustainable Coffee?

Sustainable coffee is grown in a way that conserves nature, protects the environment and provides better lives for those who grow the coffee. And sustainability doesn’t just stop at production, but transport, logistics and packaging, too.

Did you know that 25% of customers say they base their coffee purchases on the grounds of sustainability?

Like ethical practices, sustainability is also important for maintaining transparency and traceability with a customer. When a business is sustainable, not only is it better for the planet, but it improves the consumer-business relationship by reflecting the eco-conscious values of the buyer in the business’ practices and products.

While there is some overlap between the two, the main difference between ethics and sustainability in the coffee trade is that sustainability has more of an environmental focus, while ethics concerns itself more with the safety and well-being of the workers that produce the coffee.

For example, in our imaginary business ‘De-caffee’, sustainability initiatives may focus more on the actual production and transport of the coffee right down to the packaging, and how it harms the environment. However, ethics would cover the working conditions of its farmers and roasters, focusing efforts on making sure everyone is paid equally.

Here at Selecta, we take ethical standards and sustainability seriously. Our sustainable supply chain sees us develop long-term relationships with farmers and suppliers – with all our partners also complying with the principles of the Selecta Supplier Code of Conduct by 2025.

Sustainable Coffee Initiatives – Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and More

There are several industry initiatives aimed at facilitating ethical and sustainable practices within the coffee industry, from growers to roasters and even retail workers…

  • Fair Trade: Fairtrade is a certification that sets ethical and sustainable standards for products carrying its label. These standards include the fair and equal pay and treatment of workers, and the safety of labour and factory staff. Fair trade also ensures that companies sourcing from small farming villages invest in the economic growth of the local area.
    Fair Trade is important because it represents an exclusive, ethical brand that leads to increased sales – but to earn the brand badge, businesses are forced to abide by certain ethical and sustainable standards.
  • Rainforest Alliance: The Rainforest Alliance is a global non-profit organisation that seeks to work with businesses (including those in the coffee industry) to form responsible, ethical and environmentally friendly business practices.
    The rainforest alliance is important because efforts need to be taken to improve the way we conduct ourselves in the face of a looming climate crisis, and businesses represent the first step in promoting that top-down environmental consciousness.
  • Selecta Coffee Fund: The Selecta Coffee Fund is an initiative created by the global Selecta brand that seeks to facilitate high product quality and improved standards of living and pay for workers, as well as environmental sustainability to help reduce the coffee industry’s environmental impact.
    Through the fund, Selecta hopes to play its part in improving the circumstances of our planet and those who live and work on it.

Sustainable Coffee Beans

Sustainable coffee beans are those produced with environmental impact, ethics and kindness in mind. Most sustainable coffee beans are produced with less water and enrich farming land through the spreading of organic materials like composted coffee pulp as fertilisers.

Those looking to prioritise environmental impact often take a few extra steps in the farming process to ensure true sustainability in coffee bean production. These include:

  • Using Renewables: One best practice for sustainable coffee farming includes the use of renewable energies like solar panels and wind turbines to generate surplus power and cut down on pollution. Any excess power can even be used to raise the living standards of farm workers.
  • Sustainable Heating: To reduce the environmental impact of cutting local trees to heat coffee beans, some sustainable solutions include reusing coffee husks and re-planting all trees cut down.
  • Proper Medical Care: Another aspect of ethical coffee bean farming includes providing proper and effective medical care for workers. Workers need to feel safe while at work, and safe workers are happy workers. Happy and healthy workers are sustainable workers.

Selecta’s Pelican Rouge range of coffees goes further for planet and taste – using fully sustainable Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade and/or Organic-certified coffee beans.

The packaging and transport of our Pelican Rouge range are also sustainable and we have been committed to ethical farming practices for over 160 years.

Find out more about the sustainable credentials of our Pelican Rouge coffee on our dedicated page.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q: What Does It Mean to Have Ethical Coffee?

A: If coffee is ethical, it means that it is produced with the fair payment and treatment of workers at the forefront of its business practices while reducing the environmental impact of producing the beans as much as possible.


Q: How Do I Know If My Coffee Is Ethical?

A: The best way to tell if a brand of coffee is ethical, is by first establishing whether it’s Fair Trade-certified, then digging deeper into the company’s history. If the farmers are paid just as well as the roasters and retailers, then it’s a sign that this coffee is likely ethical. The working conditions of the farm and its relationship with the brand also reveal information about the ethical nature of the coffee.


Q: What Is the Most Ethical Coffee to Buy?

A: The most ethical coffee products are those certified with a Fair Trade label. Fair Trade is a certification awarded to companies for their ethical business practices in paying workers fairly for their labour and making sure they’re able to operate under good working conditions, as well as promoting environmental sustainability.


Q: Why Buy Ethical Coffee?

A: Ethical coffee provides supply chain traceability and transparency. Not only does a buyer know exactly where their coffee comes from and what products are involved, but they’re also aware of the ethical treatment of the workers so that they can feel safe in the knowledge that the people who make this coffee possible weren’t mistreated and the coffee was produced and transported in the most environmentally friendly manner possible.


See our latest thoughts on all things sustainability, food technology, and more in our Selecta Stories.