6 Ways We Are Raising The Standard In The Coffee Industry

6 Ways We Are Raising The Standard In The Coffee Industry

Australia’s coffee industry is booming. With the market reaching a revenue of over US$2.3 billion in 2020, it’s no surprise that the number of coffee importers and specialty roasters across the country continues to rise.

While many Australian coffee players are working hard to make positive impacts on farming communities and the environment, it can be overwhelming trying to find an operator that encompasses people and planet into all that they do. Words like sustainable, ethical, certified and Fairtrade are in abundance, but when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, often the good work being done in one area will overshadow the lack of action in another. 

Here at the Corner Store Network, we are committed to Raising the Standard in all facets of our business. We have embraced transparency in everything from the price paid at farm gate (at least 17% above the International Fairtrade rate) to the trees we plant and grow (which you can track via Tree02) to how we calculate our yearly emissions to offset (more below!).

While there’s always room for improvement (ideas and feedback welcome!) we are proud to be at the forefront of The New Standard in coffee. 

Here’s what it looks like.  

bags of ethical coffee lined up for shipping in australia

1. Home compostable packaging

When it comes to packaging, many operators understandably choose the cheapest option. Especially when starting out, it’s tempting to pay 4c a bag (we know because we’ve been there ourselves!) but when the cost of packaging is low, the cost to the planet is high. Aluminium, paper, polyethylene, metalized PET and other multi laminates are all commonly used materials for coffee bags. While packaging made of these materials can be touted as 100% recyclable, it is often impossible to separate the materials for recycling so instead they end up in landfill. And since most recycled items don’t actually go on to be reused, it is clear that recycled packaging, even when correctly disposed of, can’t be relied on to minimise our waste and footprint. 

The new standard: Our coffee bags and packaging are now 99% home compostable, so you can put everything (except the freshness valve, which goes into your soft plastic bin) into your home compost for the worms to enjoy. We’ve worked long and hard to find local suppliers for home compostable corn mail bags, stickers, paper web bubble wrap and tape. We believe home compostable packaging is the future and the more businesses that get on board, the more affordable it will become for organisations and customers alike!  

2. Not just planting, but growing trees

It’s no secret that trees have a positive impact on the environment and climate change so it may seem a good thing that more Aussie businesses are pledging to plant trees as part of their offering. But before you hit that purchase button and give yourself a pat on the back for contributing to reforestation, we encourage you to take a closer look at those promises. You’ll find many are vague, conditional, an optional extra or part of a carbon neutrality effort rather than the customer’s own contribution. Some examples:

“With every purchase, you’re contributing to tree planting”
“We plant a tree with the proceeds from every order of this collection”
“You have the option to add a tree at checkout”
“Your purchase contributes to our annual tree donation”
“We achieve carbon neutral status by offsetting through tree planting” 

The new standard: For every kilo roasted we pay WithOneSeed $1. Simple. That $1 propagates one sapling in Timor-Leste through WithOneSeed, our partner program who uses tree growing to reduce poverty and fight climate breakdown. WithOneSeed partners with smallholder subsistence farming communities to not just plant trees, but to grow them. By paying tree farmers an annual incentive to nurture trees on their own land (rather than just plant and forget), their trees have a high survival rate of 74%. Best of all, we are now able to track and trace all trees planted through WithOneSeed’s new app, TreeO2, giving transparency to the planting, growing, location of each tree and the farmers they are benefiting. 

3. Reducing before offsetting carbon emissions

Since the Australian Government’s “plan” towards net zero by 2050 lacks clear direction, there has been a growing trend for businesses to take direct action, with many now offsetting their carbon emissions through renewable energy projects or tree planting programs. While the more carbon offsets businesses purchase the better, it is concerning that carbon neutrality has become an easy (and perhaps even trendy) way to claim action without looking into how other processes and operations may contribute to environmental decline. Reducing our footprint to begin with is always better than offsetting what we’ve used, which is extremely difficult to calculate in reality. Carbon offsets, whilst important, shouldn’t be viewed as the silver bullet to continue business as usual.

The new standard: We offset more carbon emissions than we use through Timorese tree growing program, WithOneSeed. Instead of paying the hefty fees to certify carbon neutrality, we’ve chosen to offset more than we use by auditing processes of our organisation including flying for work, shipping coffee from Timor-Leste, gas and electricity bills and even staff commuting. Furthermore, we annually review our emissions via an audit, reduce by finding processes and solutions that are more environmentally sound, then finally where we can’t eliminate carbon emissions, we remove by offsetting double what we’ve accrued. This is all on top of the tree growing undertaken for every kilo roasted, which we see as our customers’ very own contribution to reforestation.

4. Not serving single use plastic cups

When people became aware that plastic lined and lidded take away cups could not be recycled, due to the difficulty of separating the paper from the lining, outrage ensued. Then arrived a swath of ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ takeaway cup options. While sounding like a much more environmentally friendly alternative, the reality is that the majority of these cups will only break down in a commercial composting facility, meaning they will almost always end up right beside their plastic counterparts in landfill. 

The new standard: In 2019 we completely phased out single use cups, opting for upcycled jars or reusable mugs for customers who didn’t bring a keep cup. Once covid-19 hit and we were no longer able to supply reusable vessels for sanitary reasons, we made the switch to the most environmentally friendly cup we could find by I am not paper. Made from plant pulp and upcycled materials, with no bleach and plant inks, it is totally home compostable and can be fed to the worms or buried under a tree. We also continue to accept keep cups throughout the pandemic and beyond and will return to no single use cups (paper or otherwise) as soon as it’s safe to do so. 

5. Mitigating pollutants from roasting

Unbeknownst to many, coffee roasting produces smokey emissions that contain a number of pollutants which can harm the environment. Without proper systems in place, carbon, hazardous gases, particulate matter and smoke are released into the environment with each and every roast, causing irritation for those living or working near the roastery as well as contributing to greenhouse gas pollution. 

The new standard: We found the only way to negate these pollutants was to install an afterburner, a machine that oxidises waste gases from roasting to produce a much cleaner emission. Though expensive, the machine allows us to reduce our footprint without compromising the quality of the roast. We recognise that this solution is not perfect as the afterburner still relies on gas, so we are working hard to move to a solution that includes an infrared electric coffee roaster run from solar power. 

6. Reusing coffee by-products

By-products are an inevitable part of the produce we consume - think vegetable peels, fruit seeds and rice hulls. Coffee is no different. In order to harvest, roast and brew coffee, by-products like pulp (the red skin of the coffee cherry), chaff (the skin of the bean which comes off during roasting) and grinds (the coarse product that remains after you’ve made a cuppa) are left behind. While easy to dispose of into landfill, these by-products have a myriad of other uses from gardening to beauty and are far too precious to dump in the bin! 

The new standard: Rather than letting coffee by-products go to waste, our community has found many ways to reuse them. At the roastery, we use what we can in our garden while giving away tubs to locals and customers for their composts at home. We also donate grinds to a local soap maker who uses them to make ‘closed loop’ soap that we sell in store. The hessian sacks that our coffee arrives in are sold to individuals for reuse; we’ve heard great stories from our customers who have turned them into outdoor furniture covers, cushion covers, worm blankets and even scarecrows! 

A final word

In a global climate where buzzwords and greenwashing are rife, we encourage you to dig a little deeper before purchasing to find brands whose actions align with their words in every way possible

Now that you’re aware of a New Standard, don’t be afraid to ask questions and push for change in the coffee industry and beyond. Meaningful action often comes from the ground up, so if enough customers raise their expectations, brands will be forced to follow. 

And if all else fails in your search for a truly regenerative, carbon negative, home compostable bag of coffee you needn’t look any further than our shop, where we stock three different varieties from our long-term farming partners in Timor-Leste. 

If you have any questions, ideas, praises or otherwise we’d love for you to get in touch via info@cornerstorenetwork.org.au. The road ahead is long but as we always say, it’s the simple actions by many people that make the biggest impact.