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  • Maria Kraker

What is the Cost of a Cup of Coffee?: Exploring Integral Ecology in Costa Rica

I first encountered sustainability ethics during my sophomore year of college through a Conservation Biology course at the University of St. Thomas. Throughout the semester, I discovered the critical importance of biodiversity, the natural interdependence of creatures, and the devastating ecological effects of some modern methods of production and consumption. This secular course convinced me to care for creation through recycling and to support ethical business practices by prudent shopping. However, I wondered whether a business truly could integrate economic interests with ecological and social justice concerns. Does it really matter where I buy my coffee? Hoping to discover a successful yet ethical business model, I enrolled in a graduate theology program at the Saint Paul Seminary and embarked on an investigative adventure – an Integral Ecology course in Costa Rica.

At the beginning of our journey, we encountered a business model that was extremely ecologically sustainable when we visited a local, family-owned sugar business. We arrived at the end of a lengthy process during which the family had grown, harvested, and squeezed sugar canes to produce sugar water. On that Sunday afternoon, the family was gathering with friends, neighbors, and relatives around two boiling basins to participate in the delicate stirring and frequent tasting of the sweet, syrupy substance. Finally, the sugar product was poured into wooden casts that had been glazed with a mucilaginous sap from indigenous trees to prevent the sugar blocks from sticking to the casts. The remnants of the sugar canes would become either food for cattle or fuel for fire. The family seemed more than satisfied with their work. However, the entire endeavor would produce, at most, a few hundred dollars.

From an ecological perspective, this family business is extremely successful. No part of the sugar cane product goes to waste since the sugar is sold locally and the leftover canes are recycled on the small farm. On the other hand, from a capitalistic perspective, the business is a failure. In comparison to the many hours required to grow, harvest, and produce a few dozen blocks of sugar, the profit margin is extremely minute. Moreover, the family certainly needs a complementary income to sustain themselves. What is the value of continuing this sugar business if there is little monetary profit?

Perhaps a business can contribute something more valuable than money. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis discusses the “principle of the common good,” which is “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” No one denies that human persons need food and clothing to survive, yet human flourishing requires more than the fulfillment of bodily needs. To realize the common good, societal interests must extend beyond material concerns to include transcendental values of love, respect, and peace. As “the basic cell of society,” the family is the fundamental place where one encounters relationships. By cultivating relationships of charity, honor, and responsibility within the family, a society establishes the foundation of the common good.

When one considers these transcendental values, the small sugar business retains value through its ability to create community. We observed a young child delighting spectators through his contagious playfulness. An elderly gentleman spearheaded the sugar-making operation through his guiding expertise. The simplicity of the operation allowed each person to participate, thereby giving everyone a sense of belonging. In addition, a lack of emphasis on efficiency permitted a leisurely pace of work that allowed everyone to savor the process, as well as the product. Personal encounters flourished in this work environment. The operation remains an asset to the broader community because it fosters peaceful relationships within the family, although the model needs refinement to become an economically sustainable business.

Several days later, we witnessed an extremely competitive business model in the Hacienda Alsacia Starbucks coffee farm. We were impressed by hundreds of coffee bushes thickly lining the slopes of surrounding mountains. As a worldwide, multibillion-dollar corporation, Starbucks generates enormous monetary profit through its efficiency and organization. Like many Costa Rican coffee farms, Hacienda Alsacia provides jobs for Nicaraguan migrant workers who emigrate annually to Costa Rica for six months to pick coffee berries. In this way, the Starbucks farm constitutes an important role in the regional economy.

Nonetheless, Hacienda Alsacia’s business ethics are questionable. Despite its enormous revenues, Starbucks pays each field worker about $2 per basket, roughly totaling $16 per day. Compared to the cost of living in Costa Rica, this pay does not constitute a living wage. Does the Starbucks farm practice sustainable agriculture? The company conducts research to develop hardy plants to avoid using agricultural chemicals, but the Hacienda Alsacia farm currently uses pesticides. Additionally, instead of supporting biodiversity, the company razes all native vegetation and supplants it with a single crop, coffee berries.

Although it is economically profitable, Hacienda Alsacia is not ecologically sustainable, and seemingly it does not treat all employees fairly. While it is proper for competitive business to pursue profit, “economic interests easily end up trumping the common good.” Starbucks company owners may sincerely advocate values of equality, justice, and sustainability. However, the company’s agricultural methods, employer practices, and social attitudes reveal that profit is the primary value of the organization. When money is the predominant goal transcendental values become secondary, and this hierarchy of values creates systems that hinder the common good.

At this point in our analysis, we appear to be at a crossroads. According to our observation of farms in Costa Rica, it seems difficult to integrate economic interests with ecological and social concerns. Is it possible to find an ethical yet competitive business?

In fact, it is possible. El Toledo Coffee farm is a family-owned, organic coffee farm in Atenas, Costa Rica. The owner, Gabriel, began our tour in an unorthodox way by informing us of the negative economic, social, and ecological consequences of the coffee market. The global agricultural community currently devotes a significant percentage of crops to a luxury item, coffee berries. The agricultural community could sanction more farmland for nutritious food since sociologists predict future food shortages. However, crop choice is determined by principles of supply and demand. Farmers grow coffee berries because there is high demand from developed countries where people consume coffee daily. An additional issue concerning coffee production is that most farmers only sell a small portion of the fruit that is produced from the coffee berry crop because they discard the skins and juices. Considering the overall situation, coffee consumption and production at the current rate is irresponsible, if not unethical.

Rather than completely change his business, Gabriel decided to renovate his coffee farm to develop ecologically sustainable production methods. He introduced us to coffee tea, which he developed from the skins of coffee berries as a successful attempt to reduce waste. We toured his extremely biodiverse farm, which includes banana trees, ginger plants, and many other plant species. We learned that his wife enjoys participating in the farm business by cooking for tourists and by selling her own artwork. In addition, rather than cycle through migrant workers, Gabriel employs two Nicaraguan workers to work on his farm throughout the entire year. From all appearances, the El Toledo farm is monetarily prosperous and ecologically sustainable.

Based upon his intellectual integrity, his resourceful creativity, and his ethical diligence, Gabriel is a true practitioner of integral ecology. Guided by moral values, this farmer uses his intelligence by cooperating with nature to develop ethical ways of growing, producing, and selling coffee. El Toeldo coffee farm is ecologically sustainable and economically successful because its business model exemplifies the principles of integral ecology. In his book The Joyful Mystery, Christopher Thompson explains the theology of creation of St. Thomas Aquinas, who teaches that the natural world is endowed with meaning and providentially ordered by God. As rational creatures, human persons can perceive the inherent intelligibility of created things. For this reason, “integral ecology…is an ars cooperativa, a ‘cooperative art,’ because its demands are ineluctably aligned with the intelligible forces of nature itself.” Through attentiveness to creation and through creative application of his intellect, man can use material goods to sustain himself while preserving the provident order of the natural world.

Whether I choose to purchase groceries from Cub Foods or Mississippi Market seems trivial, yet according to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic act.” Through purchasing we indirectly create conditions that either support or harm the common good. While we may not be directly responsible for adverse effects of our purchasing decisions, as Christians we cannot remain indifferent to their consequences. Love requires genuine concern for our neighbor that manifests itself in action — not passive acquiescence to the conditions of the market.

While it is difficult to achieve business models that are ecologically sustainable and economically successful, it is possible. As Christians, we are called to heroic virtue by supporting ethical companies according to our means and circumstances. For students on a budget, this might mean making one small change, like buying apples from the local farmer’s market. However, small actions eventually lead to habits, which determine our moral character.

Let us begin by informing ourselves of the effects of our purchases. What employer practices am I supporting when I buy this item? Does this company use ecologically sustainable methods? Then, let us make a choice. One choice. Do I need to buy this item? Could I reuse or recycle this item? Will I purchase from an ethical company, even if this takes a toll on my pocketbook? Through prudent purchasing, consistent moderation, and courageous witness, we can create conditions that promote the common good.


Benedict XVI. Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (29 June 2009). In Laudato Si (2015).

Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2015.

“Coffee Farmers.” Fairtrade Foundation.

Workers/Coffee (accessed May 5, 2020).


States/Cost-of-living (accessed May 5, 2020).

Pope Francis. Laudato Si (2015). Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2015.

Plumer, Brad. “How much of the world’s farmland is actually used to grow food.” Vox Media. (accessed May 5, 2020).

Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. “Crop Yields.” Our World in Data. (accessed May 5 2020).

Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Gaudium et Spes. In Laudato Si (2015). Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing

Division, 2015.

Thompson, Christopher. The Joyful Mystery: Field Notes Toward a Green Thomism.

Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Publishing, 2017.

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