Behind the Ratings: Coffee

As some of you may have noticed, GoodGuide now rates coffee. According to the International Coffee Organization’s December statistics, each American goes through 9 pounds of coffee per year. That translates to over 400 cups of joe every year. Factor in coffee consumption around the world (the average Finn polished off 26 pounds of coffee in 2009) and you can see the makings of a very lucrative trade.

Despite how much truth there is to the statement “coffee makes the world go round,” most of us pay very little attention to where our coffee comes from and how it gets to us. GoodGuide is here to help shed light on this commodity we’ve spent too long taking for granted.

As alluded to above, the real value in GoodGuide’s coffee ratings is that they bring to light the primary concerns within the industry that haven’t gotten much of a spotlight. Coffee’s appearances in the news are more likely to be about caffeine. In contrast, our research (and therefore ratings design) shows that what’s most important are the environmental and social impacts of the industry.

The coffees rated on GoodGuide (with the exception of bottled coffees) are rated on environmental and social attributes; there is no health score. Environmental scores are derived from product level attributes (25%) and company level attributes (75%). Social scores are also derived from both product and company level attributes, but with equal weight on each level. Here are additional details on the product-level attributes we considered:

1. Certifications (environment). Contributing to the product-level environment score, certifications are the only existing way for consumers to comprehensively assess coffee industry practices related to irrigation, waste management, biodiversity, and other ecological impacts. Using a first-of-its-kind evaluation process, GoodGuide compared six certifications (Bird Friendly, C.A.F.E., Fair Trade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ) to determine how to apply certification scores. The certification assessment incorporated variables like the percentage of beans required for approval, program structure, and scoring methodology. This attribute has the greatest impact on the product-level component of the environment score.

2. Product type. Brewing a cup of coffee requires energy. Two actions that contribute to this energy use is heating water and extracting flavor from coffee beans. After evaluating scientific literature that compares three different coffee types (instant, machine insert, whole beans/ground coffee), we were able to score products based on their relative energy impact. Instant coffee and machine inserts, which use food processing equipment to maximize flavor extraction and allow drinkers to heat only the amount of water that’s needed, are preferred environmentally over beans or ground coffee (which is often partially wasted after being brewed – think about your office coffee pot!).

3. Product packaging. The final attribute contributing to the product-level environment score is packaging. Based on our review of the science we ranked packaging types from most to least preferable in the following order: brick pack, laminate bag, paper bag, steel can, composite flex in cardboard (single-serve instant coffee), plastic canister, glass jar, machine capsule.

4. Certifications (social). Moving on to the social component of the score, we used certifications to score product-level social impact. The four certifications included in our evaluation were Fair Trade, UTZ, C.A.F.E., and Rainforest Alliance. Using a similar strategy to the one used for environmental certifications, we evaluated each certification for its rigor on working conditions & benefits, labor & human rights, community engagement, and opportunity & diversity.

As mentioned earlier, the attributes above are used to calculate product-level environmental and social scores. To learn more about how we build company ratings, please see our overall ratings page. For the official 411 on how we rate coffee, please visit the coffee methodology page.

Now that you understand the ratings a little better, check out which coffee products come out on top.

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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2 Responses to Behind the Ratings: Coffee

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Behind the Ratings: Coffee | GoodGuide Blog --

  2. Marcy says:

    What about the energy used for the “food processing equipment to maximize flavor extraction and allow drinkers to heat only the amount of water that’s needed” — it’s not just the end-user’s energy use that matters.

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