Sustainable Coffee Shops: 8 High-Impact Strategies To Lower Your Carbon Footprint

The coffee industry has long been a target for environmentally-minded critics, and it’s no surprise why. Single-use plastics are commonplace, food waste is abundant, and deforestation at origin hurts us all.

Research shows that customers, however, are eager to play their part in encouraging sustainable coffee shop practices. One 2018 study found that 60% of customers now look for indicators of sustainability when they purchase food products, and that 4 in 10 customers are willing to pay 50% more for products that are sustainably sourced and created.

Making your coffee shop more sustainable benefits your customers, the planet, and your bottom line, so we put together a list of 8 practical steps you can take to reduce your shop’s carbon footprint.

Read on to discover…

  • How to reduce, reuse, and recycle disposables effectively
  • Actionable ways to reduce food, milk, and coffee waste
  • Tips for using sustainable action steps as ethical marketing

Let’s get creative and do right by our planet.

1. Find Partners That Prioritize Environmental Health

Our world runs on a web of commercial relationships that feed each other. Every partnership and supplier relationship sends a signal that you support what that partner is doing. Unfortunately, not all partners are as environmentally-minded as they ought to be.

Prioritizing like-minded suppliers and partners is an important step in cleansing your shop from products and business practices that don’t align with your values.

We suggest starting with the obvious: your coffee supplier. Look for indicators that your importer and roasting partner support the development of environmentally conscious farming practices. This support can be manifested in many ways.

  • Certification Assistance — Your coffee supplier is an advocate and helping hand for farmers and cooperatives who want to dive into the hard work of earning a sustainability-focused certification, like Bird Friendly Alliance or Fair Trade.
  • Farmer-Level Development Support — Coffee farmers are often aware of improvements they can make to their agricultural practices to better protect their land and resources. Some coffee buyers offer financial support to partner farms so they can enact those changes, like reclaiming forest land or conserving water.
  • Long-Term Partnerships — Importers that work with producers across years help create a level of financial security that encourages farms and cooperatives to make sustainability-minded improvements.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your roasting and importing partners about what they’re doing to make a positive impact at origin (see an example from Finca Churupampa in Peru).

It doesn’t stop at coffee, however. Every product or ingredient that comes in and out of your coffee shop deserves a good review from time to time. Are those partners pursuing Earth-friendly practices?

  • Ingredients for food products
  • Consumer packaged goods
  • Kitchen supplies
  • Cleaning supplier
  • Single-use items

Creating an ecosystem of business relationships that encourage sustainability is a way you can make an impact both in and beyond your store.

Also Read: Sustainable Coffee Sourcing with the Bellwether Marketplace

2. Offer a Discount to Customers Who Bring Reusable Cups

Giving customers who bring their own to-go drinkware a discount is common practice (outside of the pandemic era). Customers understand the trade-off—you save on the cup cost, they save on their coffee—and it’s a simple way to gently nudge your customers to make more environmentally conscious choices.

When we asked around some coffee shops in the United States, we found the most common discounts were $0.20 or $0.25 off every time a customer brings their reusable cup. Some coffee shop owners warned against using a percentage off model, as the discount on more expensive drinks—like milk-heavy lattes—hits harder.

There are a few ways you can take this idea further.

  • Sell Reusables — The most obvious is to carry reusable to-go mugs as a retail product, and use the ongoing discount as a value-add. A $25 travel mug with your logo on it, in the eyes of the customer, breaks even after 100 visits (which might enhance their loyalty to your shop). For your business, it’s outsourced mobile advertising. 
  • Borrow A Cup — Starbucks is piloting a new Borrow A Cup program in Seattle that turns a single-use cup into a thirty-use cup. Customers deposit $1 for the cup, then get that $1 back in Starbucks credit when they return it. The cups are then cleaned and sanitized, of course.
  • The Nuclear Option — Feeling bold? Simply nix single-use, to-go cups altogether like Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters in Dallas, Texas. Customers who want their drinks to-go are gently educated on the company’s commitment to zero waste and are invited to purchase either a glass mason jar or an OCCR thermos.

No matter how you structure your discount or offer, make sure to communicate to customers what it means for your business and the environment. People love being invited to participate in things that help us all.

Also Read: The Complete Guide to Setting Up Your Coffee Ecommerce Store

3. Put Your Ingredient Containers Back to Good Use

Minimizing disposable cups is a great way to get started, but trading out single-use for reusable doesn’t have to stop there.

Our friends at Northern Lattes in San Antonio worked out a deal with their milk supplier to have milk delivered in reusable buckets. 

If you sell bulk coffee—cold brew, nitro, premade lattes—your local health department might allow you to sell it in sanitized milk jugs or soda bottles (make sure to ask).

If you offer delivery, you can collect previous glassware for reuse. Chyrus’s nitro coffee subscription offers customers $1 off if they place their previous delivery’s glass growler on the porch when the next delivery arrives. The driver drops off the fresh coffee and takes the old jug back to the shop to be sanitized. Similarly, Yellow House Coffee sells a 4-pack of cold brew in sanitized soda bottles and offers $1 off when customers bring the empty bottles back.

4. Roast Coffee In-House, But Nix The Emissions

The coffee industry has a massive carbon footprint, and roasting makes up a whopping 15% of it. Traditional commercial roasters run on natural gas, which is unfortunately not as “green” as we had hoped as an industry. Not to mention, cities around the world are starting to enact natural gas bans to reduce environmental burden.

Thankfully, there’s an alternative to emissions-heavy roasters that can reduce the carbon footprint of each roasting cycle by 90%: the Bellwether Roaster.

Switching from an older-style roaster to a Bellwether, after one year, is equal to:

  • Keeping a car off the road for 60,779 miles
  • Sequestering carbon with 32 acres of forest
  • Turning off electricity for 4.1 homes

We created a Sustainability Calculator to show how much carbon you save according to (1) where you live and (2) how much coffee you go through in a week.

Also Read: Why Coffee Shops Should Start Roasting Coffee In-House

two women having coffee

5. Transition to Energy-Efficient Lighting and Gear

It may not be sexy, but opting for energy-efficient equipment is an easy way to “set it and forget it” when it comes to environmental savings.

  • Toilets — Removing toilets from the 90s or earlier and replacing them with modern, high-efficiency toilets can reduce your shop’s flush-water usage anywhere from 20% to 60% (and save $100 or more annually on water costs).
  • LED Lighting — LEDs aren’t just a little more efficient than traditional fluorescent or incandescent bulbs—they’re loads more efficient. We know those edison bulbs look snazzy in the cafe setting, but switching to LEDs for most lighting cuts energy usage by ~80% and reduces physical bulb waste.
  • Energy Star Appliances — Energy Star is a government-operated certification with a large focus on commercial kitchen appliances and equipment. Not only does certified equipment cut energy usage by 10-50%, but you can potentially save thousands on energy bills in the process.

Don’t forget to keep your gear clean to maximize its lifespan and keep minor malfunctions and inefficiencies at bay.

6. Get Creative to Minimize Food, Milk, and Coffee Waste

Restaurants in the United States generate 22 to 33 billion pounds of food waste each year. Most of it goes straight to landfills. Yikes!

It’s all of our responsibility to use our food as efficiently as possible. Thankfully, there are some low-hanging fruit ways for coffee shops to play their part.

  • Save and give away used grounds. Gardeners love using spent coffee grounds to enhance their compost or use as fertilizer. The most common method we’ve seen of bagging up spent grounds is inside empty 5 Lb coffee bags.
  • Take milk waste seriously. Cow milk, according to a 2018 study, has a carbon footprint over 300% larger than non-dairy alternatives. Every ounce of wasted milk is an environmental bummer. We suggest throwing impromptu competitions to see who wastes the most milk from steaming in a shift as a fun way to inspire better habits. You can also require baristas to weigh milk when dosing for milk drinks.
  • Track your food waste. Whether you’ve got a baker’s lineup or a full lunch menu, it’s rare that everything sells. Items spoil, paninis get dropped, and some muffins are too mushy to serve. By having your team record every item that goes into the dump, you can identify which items (and employees) are creating the most food waste, then fix your purchasing or production processes to minimize those waste centers.
  • Cut last-day deals. Bring a best practice over from the restaurant industry and create specials on items that are about to expire. That could be 40% off pastries that won’t be good the next day. If you have a larger menu, it could be a special of the day where you prioritize near-expiration ingredients. Within a couple of hours of closing, you can partner with an app like Food For All to attract last-minute deal seekers.
  • Donate quality food that remains. You can’t control traffic or sales, so even the best planners end up with extra from time to time. Rather than dumping food that’s reached its end in the dump, we suggest partnering with a local organization that can take the reins of distributing the food in a way that’s helpful for the community. Before you make unsolicited donations, call up a few organizations first to make sure they can handle your extra food.

Implement a few of these practices, and your employees will notice they’re taking out far less trash than normal. Win-win!

Also Read: How to Start Selling Wholesale Coffee to Grocery Stores

7. Go Plastic Neutral. Yes, It’s Possible!

Our friends at Amavida Coffee are a model for pushing the boundaries of sustainable coffee shop operations, and in 2020 they pushed a big one: they’re now Certified Plastic Neutral

Amavida worked with rePurpose Global to measure plastic waste from their cafes and roastery, then calculate their carbon footprint. They were able to discover how much plastic they generate after all their reduce, reuse, and recycle initiatives.

Amavida offsets the remaining plastic waste by funding the recovery of the same amount of plastic from the environment. The Plastic Neutral certification ensures that 100% of Amavida’s plastic output is either recycled or recovered.

We applaud Amavida’s initiative. They’re proof that plastic neutrality isn’t a pipe dream for the coffee industry.

8. Create a Culture of Conscious Coffee Among Your Customers

Environmentally-minded adjustments to your operations and menu will be noticed by customers, especially regulars. We suggest using that to your advantage.

Be open and honest about your carbon footprint with customers, and thoughtfully explain why you’re making these changes. 

When you invite mission-aligned customers to join you on this journey—even if it means increasing drink prices slightly—most will happily join you. Any small number of customers you lose will be replaced by new, like-minded customers who are attracted to your boldness.

We suggest getting the word out a handful of ways:

  • Create social media posts explaining specific decisions
  • Write an article outlining your Earth-friendly mission
  • Create sustainability reports to show your progress (like this one)
  • Send updates of your progress to local publications and news outlets for PR

Just like how it’s important to encourage a culture of sustainability among your business partners and suppliers, it’s equally important to nurture that culture among customers as well. 

As long as you’re authentic in your mission and honest about the steps you take, you can leverage these strategies in your marketing effectively without it actually feeling like marketing—it will just feel like a natural extension of your brand and values (as all marketing should feel!). 

Want to see an example of how to turn environmental impact into marketable messages?
👉 See the Bellwether Coffee 2019 Sustainability Report.