How-To: Run A More Sustainable Coffee Shop

#sustainability is trending, but it’s clear that it’s more than just a trend: it’s become more crucial than ever before that coffee shop owners make critical decisions regarding their environmental footprint, both for the success of their businesses and the future of our planet.

Read on for ideas on how to implement sustainable practices in your cafe, and for a firsthand account of running a sustainably-focused cafe, check out our Q&A with Ryan Castelaz of Milwaukee’s discourse.

Organic Coffee

If your cafe roasts its own coffee, purchasing certified organic green coffee is an effective and easily marketable choice to make. If your cafe doesn’t roast its own coffee, consider supporting a local roasting company with a focus on organic coffees. Bonus: by using locally-roasted coffee in your cafe, you’re reducing carbon emissions!

Minimize Food Waste

By tracking the amount of food you throw away, you should be able to adjust your ordering totals and/or baking output to ensure that you’re wasting as little food as possible. Of course, not every day will be the same and no matter how hard you plan, there’s bound to be waste. Consider stocking pastries with longer shelf lives and/or selling leftovers at half price in order to reduce waste and retain profits. Alternatively, you could look into donating leftovers to local food banks.


Reduce waste by looking into composting services near you (try entering “composting services near me” into your search engine). If you’re unable to locate any suitable services, consider building your own composting operation, assuming you have the outdoor space to do so. Check into whether your community has compost-specific regulations before starting this kind of project. Alternatively, you could offer your compost to your neighbors or local community garden. You’ll be surprised by how much of the waste your cafe produces can be composted: coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, newspaper, fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells and more.

Eco-Friendly To-Go Packaging

Unfortunately, it’s likely that your cafe will produce waste that isn’t compostable. Stay away from plastic bags and other non-biodegradable plastic and paper products. Ask your paper goods supplier about biodegradable and/or compostable options for to-go cups, lids, boxes, and silverware. Be sure to check with your compost service about their capacity to accept compostable products - you may be surprised to find that they don’t accept these products, however even when disposed of in the trash, you can rest easier knowing that they’ll biodegrade naturally.

Sustainable Stir Station

Your cafe’s stir station may be producing more waste than you realize. Simple ways to reduce waste in this area of your cafe include using glass shakers for sugar and stainless steel shakers for powdered condiments like cinnamon and cocoa powder. Also consider getting rid of wooden stir sticks and offering customers washable spoons to stir their coffees with instead.

Ditch The To-Go Cups

You probably already sell reusable thermoses, mugs and other glassware in your cafe, and maybe even offer a discount to customers who bring in their own cups. Kudos to you! If you’re wondering how you can take this sustainability effort to the next level, consider eliminating to-go cups entirely. At Omaha, NE’s Amateur Coffee, they offer $1 reusable glass jars in lieu of environmentally harmful paper and plastic takeaway cups. For a list of additional cafes with reusable glass jar programs, check out this inspiring post from Bar Nine.

Partner With Local, Organic Farmers And Suppliers

Whenever possible, source your cafe’s food locally. By utilizing local ingredients at your cafe, you’ll reduce carbon emissions, support your local economy and foster connections with like-minded small business owners. Plus, your customers will appreciate the freshness of ingredients and feel more connected to their purchases. According to Ryan Castelaz of discourse, “Engaging with your local community of producers is both empowering and inspiring, and supporting sustainable local agriculture is one of the best and simplest ways to operate a more sustainable business.”

Develop Seasonally-Driven Menus

If you’ve made the switch to partner with local and organic farmers and suppliers, your selection of ingredients to develop menu items from will likely be dictated in large part by what’s in season. Don’t panic! “Giving yourself boundaries for creation (i.e. using only local and seasonal ingredients) creates a unique set of problems which calls for a unique set of solutions, inspiring drinks that never would have existed if not created from a place of limitation,” Castelaz points out. “Customers love supporting local, and seasonal menus ensure you stay relevant, greatly increasing your chances of fostering long standing customer engagement and repeat visits.”

Engage Your Customers

Let your customers know that sustainability is important to you and it will become important to them. Encourage regulars to use their own reusable cups and straws and reward them by offering discounts.Talk with them about your efforts and incorporate sustainability messaging into your brand via social media. At discourse, Castelaz has noticed that “customers love to hear the stories of how we reduce and reutilize our spent ingredients, and several have even adopted the strategies in their own homes.”

Do What You Can

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the things you haven’t been doing - and all the things you could be doing - to reduce your cafe’s environmental impact, take a moment to breathe. Sure, there’s a lot of work to be done, but there’s no use beating yourself up over initiatives you didn’t know you could’ve been taking. You might feel like you have to implement all of these changes at once, but the fact is that you won’t be able to make them all overnight. Take one step at a time and remember: every step is a step in the right direction.

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