"Carbon Neutral" Coffee: Climate Accountability or Marketing Spin?

Do you know the environmental impact of your morning cup of coffee?

Coffee is an agricultural product produced in stages around the world, and every stage of the process emits carbon and other pollutants. At the farm there’s machinery, maybe pesticides, maybe water use and associated waste. There’s transport to a mill and onwards to port.

The shipping is vastly polluting (unless it’s part of the miniscule amount that’s transported by sail)—cargo ships utilize the worst possible fuel, the charmingly named bunker oil, and are notorious for wastewater pollution and oil spills. And that’s not even getting started on air shipping.

The roasting process has its own footprint—most roasters run on gas, and even the electric ones are hooked into grids that, well, we haven’t shut down the coal plants yet. The roasting itself creates pollutants such as particulate matter and various toxic compounds; in some US states roasting facilities need air permits and special emissions controls like afterburners.

Then the coffee has to be packed in something, bags made mostly from plastic, and is then brewed using electricity and water and in many coffee shops poured into another plastic-lined container to be consumed. And don’t forget that almost every link in this chain is connected by road freight. You can reduce some of these emissions, but you’ll never reduce it to zero.

All this to say, coffee has a carbon footprint. One study in 2013 estimated that footprint at 4.98 kg of CO2e per kilogram of coffee across the entire supply chain, while another resulted in a number closer to 15 kg CO2e (although life-cycle analyses aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be). Sustainably-grown coffee will obviously have a smaller footprint—well-run coffee farms can even act as carbon sinks—but you’ll never be able to buy a bag of coffee produced with zero emissions.

What if I told you that you could just pay to offset all of this damage? That’s the promise of carbon neutral-certified coffee companies: any unavoidable emissions are offset by planting trees or similar, and you can enjoy your morning cup with a clean conscience.

Of course, it’s not that simple. So are these certifications anything more than customer-confusing marketing strategies?

A Bare Minimum

There are dozens of carbon neutral certifications out there, all claiming to provide the most reliable and ethical verification of a company’s negligible carbon footprint. To gain the label, most of these certifications require some reduction in emissions, with the balance made up using carbon offsets.

Climate Neutral is one such organization, certifying brands such as REI, Allbirds, and Klean Kanteen. Coffee companies certified by Climate Neutral include Tandem Coffee, Summit Coffee Roasting Co., and Blossom Coffee Roasters, all of which have “committed to reduction targets and specific action plans” to reduce their emissions while also “investing outside of [their] value chain in high quality, verified projects that meet the Climate Neutral Standard.”

While the companies lay out their plans to reduce their emissions, including moving to recyclable packaging and adding insulation to roasteries, there is a limit beyond which it is hard—nay impossible—to reduce. That’s where the carbon offsets come in. Blossom has spent $1,670 on offsets, according to Climate Neutral’s website, while Summit spent $5,640 and Tandem $18,315. These offsets include projects that build wind power or capture methane from landfill to power local homes.

“I think that the most meaningful actions we can take involve reducing emissions in the first place,” Joshua Clark of Blossom tells me. “I'm also skeptical about offsetting, but we see this more as a bare minimum for businesses rather than a perfect solution.”

I have some sympathy for this viewpoint. Nobody gets into coffee to greenwash, and I’m convinced that the majority of small roasters are going about things as responsibly as possible. Once you spend a little time in the coffee world you realize just how unsustainable it is, both socially and environmentally. Transparency reports are a growing trend—Blossom, for example, publishes payment data for all their coffees—and these moves should be welcomed. The more consumers learn about the prices paid for green coffee, for example, the better they will understand the problems this industry faces.

The real problem is the reliance on offsets, and then using the certification to market a company as carbon neutral (or, worse, “carbon negative”) and confusing customers in the process. That’s when we start to creep towards coffeewashing.

Deceptive Practices

In March 2023, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) published a report calling for “an outright ban” of all carbon-neutral claims in the food sector, describing use of such labels as “deceptive practices”. BEUC, an umbrella group for 46 European consumer organizations, claimed that carbon-neutral labels do nothing more than mislead customers and that the science underpinning their claims are inaccurate.

“Carbon neutral claims are greenwashing, pure and simple,” BEUC Director General Monique Goyens said in a press release. “It’s a smoke screen giving the impression companies are taking serious immediate action on their climate impact.”

The main issue revolves around offsets, carbon credits that a company buys to fund a project like tree planting or building renewables that, it’s thought, will then do enough good to counteract the emissions said company produces. Our company uses coffee bags made from plastic, so we’ll fund a mangrove plantation somewhere and, eventually, the carbon those trees absorb will make up for all the emissions caused in the manufacture and use of the bag.

Except, of course, it doesn’t work like that. Plastic is made from oil, and while the emissions from its creation could theoretically be absorbed by a mangrove tree, when disposed of the bag will wither in a landfill (or the ocean) for thousands of years, leaching chemicals and slowly degrading into microplastics. Recycling could save it from that fate, although it too generates emissions and anyway recycling plastic is nigh-on impossible—especially for the soft malleable plastic most coffee bags are made from. (It’s worth noting that Climate Neutral doesn’t consider “End-of-life treatment of sold products” as part of its calculations.)

Greenpeace has called carbon offsets “a scam” and Friends of the Earth labeled them “a dangerous distraction”. In January a Guardian investigation revealed that 90% of offsets from Verra, the world’s largest certifier, “are largely worthless and could make global heating worse.” The investigation found that, among other things, only a handful of Verra’s rainforest projects showed evidence of deforestation reductions.

The Harm Is Done

“My take on offsets, even supposedly good ones, is that from a climate perspective they are worse than doing nothing,” says Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester. “The timeframe for cutting CO2…is now so tight that there is no emissions space for companies to use offsetting as a means of further locking in hi-carbon activities, technologies, norms and practices, even under the heroic assumption that offsetting actually works.”

Taking tree-planting as an example (it’s very popular with coffee companies), Professor Anderson points out that we need both trees and extreme emissions reductions. There is also no guarantee that any planted trees will survive long enough to absorb the carbon that was sold in their name. The list of failed reforestation projects is long and tragic: many forests planted expressly for use as carbon offset credits have burned down as wildfires raged through California, Oregon, and Washington in recent years.

Professor Anderson’s recommendation is for companies to own their emissions, because “those impacted have to.” A company “should make no attempt to assuage whatever guilt or responsibility it may feel—the harm is done—just be honest, up front and direct about the emissions.”

Separately, the company should then “consider doing some good, either through its own time/actions or funding others,” Professor Anderson says. “This doesn't relate to the emissions, and doesn't need to be about climate change. I would suggest for those in fortunate financial positions, the actions/funding should hurt, sufficiently so to make the company really question the original action that brought about its emissions.”

Environmental Indulgences?

The BEUC report points out that labels such as “carbon neutral” can be confusing even to environmentally-minded shoppers. “There are significant informational asymmetries between companies using ‘carbon neutral’ claims and consumers who are exposed to them,” the report reads “Even consumers who are more conscious of the climate crisis and the impact of their consumption choices are unlikely to understand the complex environmental performance data underpinning carbon neutrality claims.”

A survey conducted by German consumer group yzbv found that although 69% of consumers personally felt that they understood the ‘climate neutral’ claim, “only 8% of consumers objectively understood that the claim did not mean ‘no greenhouse gas emissions’ had been created.”

And that, for me, is where the carbon neutral label fails. Most coffee drinkers will see two bags of coffee, one labeled “carbon neutral” and the other not, and they’ll assume the labeled one has a lower impact. They’d be within their rights to assume it has zero impact. And it might have a lower impact! But it might not—that company may just have paid for offsets that may or may not do anything.

As a customer deciding between two bags of coffee, you shouldn’t have to have an in-depth knowledge of carbon markets and the pitfalls of carbon offsets to decide which aligns with your ethics.

At best, carbon offsets are supporting well-intentioned restoration and mitigation efforts that otherwise might not happen. At worst they are environmental indulgences, purchased to placate customers and neutralize any political will to make real changes to the industry. And because  carbon neutral coffee certifications will always rely on offsets, at their core they must be considered marketing.

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