Our Coffee Conundrum: The Socio-Environmental Issues of Our Cultural Addiction


Around the world, coffee consumption is becoming a cultural norm. Coffee related stores and products are on the rise and increasing in popularity. Because of this, coffee is the second most commonly traded commodity behind crude oil, and its annual production continues to increase to meet the ever-growing societal demand for this crop. This case study will introduce students to the socio-environmental implications of this ever-increasing cultural addiction. Students will explore the ecological and social details related to coffee agriculture to discover how the unique nature of this crop results in a perfect storm of social and environmental problems. Students will explore the effects of coffee demand from predominantly developed regions on 1) the rainforest ecosystem (e.g. local and global effects) and 2) the farmers and indigenous cultures of predominantly developing regions. Using a systems approach, students will hopefully recognize the truly integrative nature of this problem and begin to critically evaluate various coffee agricultural approaches (e.g. traditional, fair trade, rainforest alliance, cooperatives, etc.) in order to identify any ecological or social shortcomings that may make the system unsustainable. Using their gained expertise on this issue, students are immersed in a role-playing game where they are part of a coffee cooperative and are asked to evaluate letters from several different companies requesting coffee from their cooperative. The student agents will evaluate their coffee inventory and find the coffee varieties that best fits each company’s mission. Students will then reflect on the sustainability of the coffee industry based on their recommendations and the current market trends.  

Dustin Wilgers
Course/Class Size
Environmental Science - general education lower-level undergraduate science class with 36 students