When we first started discussing opening our own roastery, probably in 2014 or so, we wanted to make sustainability one of the main pillars our business stood on. However, the fact is that coffee is grown in mostly developing nations, far away from the UK. It is impossible to have coffee here without it having travelled a long way by air or sea. This has a huge impact on the environment and is something we bear in mind when choosing importers to work with. While not much can be done about the miles green coffee has to travel, there are many choices along the way that impact on the long-term sustainability of speciality coffee.
Of course, sustainability is not a stand-alone concept. It has been proven time and again that community-based programs empowering disenfranchised groups have a long-term positive impact and are much more likely to make lasting change. Social programs such as women growers’ co-operatives and partnerships, which are centered on the sharing of knowledge, have been shown to result in brilliant outcomes for coffee growers and the quality of their coffee. We look for importers that work with coffee-growing communities to help break down barriers to entering the world market and using sustainable agricultural and processing methods.
We understand that we are nowhere near meeting all of our goals on sustainability. We are on a never-ending mission to find better packaging that is also affordable. It’s very frustrating that recyclable or compostable packaging is so much more expensive and often not actually managed properly by local councils, but we’ll keep looking! Over the past three years we have made some strides towards our goals and review our sustainability plan regularly.
Changes we’ve made so far:
- We now supply most of our wholesale customers in re-usable food-safe tins and tubs.
- We’ll happily re-fill customers’ containers or used coffee bags rather than use new bags.
- We’ve changed our retail bags to an oxo-compostible material made of mostly recycled products – we’re still not happy with this material but it’s an improvement.
- We’ve ordered an e-assist delivery bike so we can drop off our coffee wherever possible by bike rather than by car
Factors we consider when choosing green coffee:
- Who the grower is & how well paid they are
- Child and forced labour issues
- Agricultural practices and their impact on the environment
- Sustainable farming practices
Obviously, top priority for us is quality. We only buy speciality grade green coffee which is more expensive but – as a rule – comes with a host of benefits. Namely, the quality is excellent, the growers have been paid fairly (massively reducing the risk of forced/child labour) and the farming techniques are sustainable because the growers are not under pressure to produce volume over quality.
We have worked with our main coffee importer – Cafe Imports – for many years, including in Australia. You can check out resources on their website but there are many things we really like about them as a company. They use mainly solar power for their own energy needs and encourage staff to bike to work or carpool. They have direct relationships with growers and co-ops and conduct lots of region visits to keep these relationships going, try new coffees and support growers to learn new, more sustainable farming practices. Check out the Environment section on their website.
Sustainable Coffee Farming
The highest quality coffee is most susceptible to our changing climate so it’s more important than ever that growers are supported to use sustainable agricultural practices which may produce a lower yield of better quality coffee. As speciality coffee is mostly grown at higher altitudes, growers are having to move further up the mountains they farm to find the right temperatures, resulting in less land for each grower. This obviously has an impact on the cost of high quality green coffee and on the ability of growers to make a living, especially if consumers make the choice to buy cheaper coffee.
The importers we work with, and many others around the world, support growers to react to our changing climate in an effort to protect the speciality coffee industry & reduce its’ impact on the environment, encouraging practices such as:
- Shade grown coffee – protects the soil & coffee plants from the sun and provides a natural habitat for birdlife. Less water is used to hydrate the coffee plants and this technique develops more natural sugars in the coffee resulting in better taste.
- Polyculture – coffee is grown in amongst other crops allowing the farmer to diversify
- Saving water – utilising composted coffee pulp and other organic matter to replace nutrients in the soil
- Using renewable energy techniques – obviously this represents a huge financial outlay if farmers don’t already have access to renewable energy sources. Working with co-operatives is of great benefit as small holders and farmers have access to shared processing facilities taking advantage of more sustainable techniques/equipment.
- Organic coffees – this is a tough one, most of the coffees we use are technically organic but being certified as such can be out of reach for many small-holders. Farmers not only need proof that the land they are using and their practices have been chemical/artificial fertiliser/pesticide free for the last 3 years but they need to have the money to get Organic Certification. We’re happy to buy certified organic coffees if they’re likely to be delicious but we don’t seek them out because so many excellent farmers are unable to get certified.
- Decaf – the decaffeination process is traditionally not sustainable. Many decafs are sent from origin, as green beans, to processing facilities in other countries before being sold. It can also be a very water intensive process, involve harsh chemicals and result in an unpleasant taste. The decaf we use is processed in country (Colombia) using a naturally derived ethyl acetate process which separates the caffeine from the green bean. While it’s still not perfect, ethyl acetate is, currently, one of the most sustainable decaffeination process.
We are not sustainability experts and we’re learning as we go. We would love to hear from you if you have ideas about how we can reduce our impact on the environment.
Unit 2, Larch Ct,
West Chirton North Industrial Estate,
North Shields, NE298SG