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Coffee: Exploitation and injustice in your morning cup

Few of us can get through the day without a cup of coffee, but the social impact of coffee production cannot be ignored. Climate change is threatening the livelihood of the small farmers that produce our coffee beans and the social injustices occurring on certain coffee plantations involve exploitative practices. It may be time to give some thought to where you’re getting your coffee from.

How climate impacts coffee

Coffee needs a warm climate, rich soil, and little interference from pests or diseases for optimal growth. Almost all coffee is grown along a narrow tropical region that spans from Central America to sub-Saharan Africa to Asia. It is a sensitive crop, where too much rain causes mould and issues with harvesting, while too little bears substandard fruit.

Rising temperatures and erratic weather patterns are pushing farmers further up mountain slopes, driving deforestation. In addition to this, some pests are warming to the warmer climate and while warming temperatures are causing coffee growing areas to shrink, the demand for coffee shows no sign of declining. An average of 2.25 billion cups of coffee is consumed per day.

Small farmers. Big problems.

The coffee market is inherently unstable with wide price fluctuations. This comes as a result of varied coffee production owing to factors, such as weather and pests (Fair Trade, 2021). With climate change further impacting these conditions, small farmers are finding it difficult to survive, where 80% of our coffee is produced by 25 million small holders (with 125 million people relying on coffee for their livelihoods).

One farm in Colombia has managed to survive by offering tours to visitors and selling directly to the public. But solutions are not that simple. Farmers cannot afford new land to plant new bushes, which take five years to grow. They also cannot afford to invest in irrigation (Hoffman, 2019).

Modern day slavery and child labour

On larger plantations many workers are effectively enslaved through debt peonage. Labourers work for little to no pay, are exposed to deadly pesticides, live in unsanitary conditions and have little access to health and safety initiatives as well as education (Coverco, 2003). Struggling to survive, families pull their children from school to work on the plantations, which is perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Children as young as six work up to 10 hours a day and are exposed to health risks, such as over exposure to the sun and poisoning from contact with agrochemicals (Melville, 2020). Although there are regulations against child labour, authorities are reluctant to enforce them given the economic climate.

Making matters worse, the plantation workers become further indebted as their only access to essential goods is by way of an estate shop owned by landowners. These shop prices are inflated and workers end up having little to show for their long hours of labour (Coverco, 2003).

Animal exploitation

A more recent concern is the practice of feeding coffee beans to animals, and then selling the excreted beans. These beans fetch high prices, as consumers insist the digestive process of the animal adds a superior flavour. Kopi Luwak is a bean fed to Asian palm civets. (Nelson, 2018), where a cup of this coffee can cost up to $80 USD (Bale, 2016).

This is bad news for civets that are caged in conditions that fail to meet very basic animal welfare requirements in order to produce this luxury item.

In Thailand, a similar process takes place, where beans are fed to elephants. A cup of Black Ivory Coffee will set you back $50 USD, although part of the proceeds fund the sanctuary where the elephants are kept. However this definitely signals an unsettling trend in animal exploitation.

What’s being done about the social impact of coffee production?

Researchers are recommending shaded plantations as a solution to increasing temperatures and pests as well as preventing further deforestation. Governments are investing in research into making plants that are more resilient to changing temperatures and increased pests.

In response to the child and labour exploitaition, certification schemes, such as the Fairtrade Organisation also helps bring farmers higher prices for coffee that does not make use of exploitative practices and encourages trading practices that empower smallholder farmers (Nguyen, 2020).

In the meantime, the global population continues to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere driving climate change (Worland, 2018), which is a great deal to think about when you take your next sip.

THRIVE is committed to helping people and businesses build a more sustainable future. Join THRIVE now to take action against climate change and build a more sustainable future for us all.


The Climate Reality Project, 2020. In a beanshell: How coffee is the story of climate injustice. Available at:

Schiffman, R. 2019. As climate changes, Colombia’s small coffee farmers pay the price. Available at:

Ellis, S. 2020. The global coffee crisis is coming. Available at:

Scott, M. 2015. Climate and coffee. Available at:

Worldand, J. 2021. Your morning cup of coffee is in danger. Can the industry adapt in time? Available at:

Kerrihargest, 2019. Dying for a cup of coffee…the social injustice of coffee production Available at:

Hoffman, C.M., Shapiro, E. 2019. How climate change is killing coffee. Available at:

USA Today, 2012. Coffee from an elephant’s gut fills a $50 Cup. Available at:

Nguyen, A. 2020. Bitter origins: Labour exploitation in coffee production. Available at:

Doward, J. 2020. Children as young as eight picked coffee beans on farms supplying Starbucks. Available at:

Melville, J. 2020. From bean to brew: The hidden cost of coffee slavery. Available at:

FairTrade, 2021. Farmers and workers. Available at:

Bale, R. 2016. The disturbing secret behind the world’s most expensive coffee. Available at:


  • Natasha Marais

    Natasha is committed to understanding and mainstreaming nature-based solutions to the world's unsustainability problems. She joined THRIVE because she believes that it's not too late to make a difference.