One year ago, President Obama came to office in the US with a wave of enthusiasm. Yes We Can was the mantra. Yes We Can to all kinds of things. Yes We Can end war. Yes We Can fix healthcare. Yes We Can promote equality. Yes We Can address climate change. Regardless of how you may feel on any of these topics, it’s the last point I want to address here. And I’ll give you a prelude to my opinion: the mantra should have been We Don’t Really Care. At a minimum, it’s safe to say, We Haven’t Yet.
This week, I have the opportunity to be penning this missive from Europe. On this trip, I realize that I’ve been coming here quite often, for quite some time now (several times per year, for nearly the past 20 years – it’s safe to say I’ve probably been here 50 or 60 times in the last two decades). The advantage of being in Europe is that one is acutely sensitive to world news here. (To be fair, one reason for that is that world news in the only English-language television or newspaper available, aside from porn.). In addition to Europe, I realize I’ve been exceptionally privileged to have traveled extensively throughout the world. I used to keep track of the statistics – dozens of countries, hundreds of cities (thousands of excellent meals and probably an equal number of dreadful cups of coffee), but honestly, I’ve lost interest in scorekeeping. For one reason, I have nothing left to prove. But more to the point, everything is becoming the same, everywhere. It is a small world, after all. As one of my graduate engineering professors liked to point out, everything is connected, it’s a matter of how tightly. That extends to you, your coffee, and your future. As well as mine, and everyone else’s.
The news in Europe this week is the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen (show of hands – how many of you even knew it was going on?). The world must act, is the punch line of all the coverage. (Despite all the coverage, it’s not clear to me whether President Obama will be here; presumably he will send representation, at least.) So what does this have to do with your morning cuppa? That’s a fair question. The answer is, hardly anything. And that’s part of the problem. It’s hard to care about small things. But it’s hard to act on big things. The classic Catch-22.
Climate change, driven by man-made carbon emissions, is a multi-faceted problem. The elephant in the room is building heating, cooling and electrification generally, accounting for approximately 50% of emitted carbon by some estimates. Nobody seems interested in addressing this (not easy, or sexy), so we make noise about chipping away at other stuff. Auto emissions, maybe high single digit percentage on the Bad Actors list. Aircraft emissions, 2%. Coffee – the proverbial pimple on the ass of the elephant.
But pretend for a minute that we really do care about chipping away at the small things. Organic. Fair Trade. That’s the answer, right?
Let’s dismiss the obvious. Fair Trade has to do with prices, not the environment, per se. But to some small extent, the ability to make a living wage on a small plot might prevent some slash and burn to plant more coffee (though from a pure carbon perspective, the coffee trees are good, too), so Fair Trade probably has some de minimus positive influence.
Organic? It’s hard to argue that organic practices aren’t better for the environment than conventional agriculture (at least you avoid fixing nitrogen from fossil fuels), so you get some points there. But both of these things, organic and Fair Trade, are pimples on the pimple of the ass of the elephant. It’s been observed that better than half of the carbon emitted due to coffee consumption is due to things that happen after beans leave origin, namely roasting and consumption. (I should observe here that I am very favorably impressed with the Rainforest Alliance and what there certification implies for sustainability. They are really about much more than rainforests, and my opinion is that they have missed an opportunity to reach American consumers because they are narrowly branded with a topic that most Amercans, frankly, do not really care about. Maybe that can be the topic of a separate post.)
On the consumption side, it’s the disposables that are the big culprit. Want to make a difference? Reusables are the answer, wherever possible. Bring your own cup, in other words. But packaging is an opportunity, too. At Muddy Dog Roasting Company, we package all our coffees in biodegradable, compostable bags. How do I know they are compostable, aside from the claim printed on the bag? I compost them myself. Three months in my Earth Machine and there is no sign of coffee bags, just rich fertilizer. Buy one from us and try it, I dare you. To our knowledge, we are the only company in the southeast using this particular compostable bag, and one of the few in the nation using any type of environmentally friendly packaging.
So what about roasting? Well, in most cases, this is an activity that has not technologically changed in a hundred years or more. Essentially, most coffee roasters (machines) operate by continuously heating room air, and blowing that hot air out the ceiling in almost instantly. This activity requires a prodigious amount of fuel. Say what you want about natural gas being better than other forms of fossil fuel, burning less of it is better than burning more of it. At Muddy Dog Roasting Company, we partnered with US Roaster Corp to help develop a new type of eco-friendly roasting machine, one that oxidizes smoke and recirculates heat. We use 94% less energy than conventional roasters. We can roast coffee in North Carolina and ship it anywhere in the US with less total emitted carbon, from roasting PLUS shipping, than the same coffee roasted on site with a conventional system. We are one of only a few of these systems installed in the world. You would think that people would care about these kinds of improvements. To be fair, most people, when they learn of our environmental leadership activities, are favorably inclined (the rest don’t care, and they say so). But it’s also fair to say that they were going to buy from us anyway, regardless. They buy from us because we’re local, they like us, and in some cases, it’s convenient. And we sell excellent products. By and large, they don’t make environmental responsibility part of their purchase criteria.
And therein lies the opportunity.
All else being equal, selecting the organic, Fair Trade, locally roasted option is usually the best course of action. And nine times out of 10, when you ask the right questions, you’re going to find that your options are roughly equivalent in terms of roasting and packaging technology. Same circus, different clowns, as it were. But occasionally, when you peel the onion, and ask the right questions, there is something new. Something different. Something better. When you find them, select them. And make a difference.
Yes We Can. Change We Can Believe In. CHOPE. Call it however you like it, just DO something.