It goes without saying that, as a B Corp business, sustainability is arguably one of our biggest topics of conversation–and it’s an open one, at that. It’s a conversation that has grown exponentially over the last two decades, and while we’ve learnt plenty along the way, there’s still much to be done.
Sustainability as a definition is complex and multifaceted, oversimplified and greenwashed. Our Sustainability Officer, Sarah Walker plays a key role in steering conversations to help us better understand how we operate in a sustainable manner across all areas.
Sarah graduated with an MSc in Sustainable Development from Exeter University. Today, her work includes heading up our ongoing B Corp accreditation, a process that is vigorously reviewed every three years, and overseeing our NetZero ambitions.
In the first of this series, we sat down with her to talk about the role both she and Origin play in the future of sustainable speciality coffee, and why consumer awareness is more important than ever.
HOW DID YOUR SUSTAINABILITY JOURNEY BEGIN?
I was working in the Marine sector, visiting businesses, and soon realised that those working on sustainable initiatives were the most enjoyable experiences for me; eye-opening and educational. There were companies that were inspiring - like Fourth Element - whose commitment to the environment was evident in every conscientious business decision made, such as edible packaging, meaning that if it ended up in the sea, it would act as a non-harmful food for marine life. On the other side of this, I would visit shipyards where boats of fibreglass (a reinforced plastic, woven and embedded with glass fibres) were being produced on a shocking scale. I not only saw just how much plastic was going directly into the water, but witnessed the reality that it’s often easier for many to sink a boat, rather than work to recover it, leaving an indelible mark on the planet with little thought for such actions.
I understood then that there existed this parallel of problems and solutions being created, and that my frustrations could be shaped into hope. With that realisation, I knew I needed to be actively involved in shifting the balance from problem to solution. So I quit my job and began my degree, and haven’t looked back. Soon after, I helped conduct the first carbon audit with Falmouth Town Council, and have been involved in conversations that I hope encourage others to look around at what is seen as normal, and help shape change—in the coffee industry and beyond.
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE MOST CHALLENGING ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES THAT WE, AS A SOCIETY, ARE CURRENTLY FACING?
This last year alone has provided plenty of examples of the climate crisis in action. Wildfires in France. Flooding in Pakistan. In the speciality coffee industry, we’ve witnessed devastating frosts and severe droughts in Brazil that have changed the prospects of coffee production for the country’s farmers.
At present, what we are witnessing is Climate Apartheid, where the equatorial band is being affected first–and yet they’re the least responsible. We need to come together and work as a global society before it’s too late: right now there’s still too much of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude. We can’t afford to wait until the problem is on our doorstep, or continue in a reactive manner: putting out fires simply isn’t enough.
THERE SEEMS TO BE A COMMON BELIEF THAT THERE’S A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN THE COUNTRYSIDE (SUCH AS IN CORNWALL) THAN IN URBAN LANDSCAPES (LIKE LONDON). WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS?
While it isn’t entirely exclusive, it’s true that the further removed a person is from nature, the harder it is for them to have a connection and therefore this affects how they care. In order to witness the benefits of nature, people need to experience it. As urban environments continue to grow, the challenge is to find ways for people to connect to nature. There’s a real threat of ‘extinction of experience’ that is intergenerational; it’s up to us as a society to create support and interaction—in both urban, as well as more rural, landscapes.
WHAT SUSTAINABLE INITIATIVES CAN PEOPLE TAKE TO REDUCE THEIR IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT?
It’s no small or easy task, but we can all do small things to reduce our impact: carry reusables; car share and rely less on personal transport; consider purchases and buy less and secondhand. Eat less meat, and eat to your own country’s seasonality. Support local and independent businesses and shop closer to home.
THERE’S A LOT OF JARGON THROWN AROUND BY COMPANIES ALL CLAIMING TO BE SUSTAINABLE—WHAT SHOULD CONSUMERS LOOK OUT FOR AND BE WARY OF?
It’s always good to try and take time to consider, firstly, whether the purchase is a need or a want, and then to ask if you’re buying something that is not ultimately good for the environment. Clothing is an easy example: are you buying a fast fashion item, or something designed with longevity in mind? Side by side, if both are making sustainable claims that seem legitimate, then consider the obvious: how much do they produce? How do they treat their workers? Where are their items made?
As more and more businesses recognise the growing demand from consumers to do better, it’s good to remain cautious and not take everything at face value: the Ethical Consumer magazine, and digital apps such as Good on You, are great for answering questions and learning more. Look out for certifications, but consider the claim and what it actually means. Our home compostable bags are a great example of this: a lot of packaging is marketed as compostable, but there is only one certification for home compostable items, which is the one ours carry: TUV.
WHAT DOES BEING PART OF THE B CORP COMMUNITY MEAN?
Being recognised as a member of the B Corp community means we’re able to substantiate what we do well (trading directly and in a fair and transparent manner), sharing that evidence with others. We’re recognised by people outside of our own community which helps us engage in bigger conversations—some of which just wouldn’t be possible without that connection. We’re able to set clear goals and objectives, offering a trajectory that we and others can follow.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT NET ZERO REALLY MEANS?
Very simply, our commitment to Net Zero means we’re taking every effort to reduce our emissions and are held accountable to offset those that cannot be reduced. We can invest in ‘credits’, which are proven ways of taking carbon from the environment (seagrass, trees, machinery, etc.), but these do have to be future-proofed—we can’t go planting trees and then chop them down, for example, just as soon as we’ve hit our target. Alongside this, we can look at carbon neutral practices for the businesses, creating policies that mean we’re not increasing emissions just because we can offset them; it’s about being responsible in every decision made.
WHAT ARE WE DOING NEXT?
We’re keeping the conversation open–listening as well as responding. The global coffee landscape is likely to change dramatically over the course of the next few decades, with scientific studies reporting that around 50 percent of the land currently suitable for growing coffee will no longer be arable; this means that drought and disease resistant varietals are needed, as well as education and training and support for landowners and producers, without causing deforestation or a loss of biodiversity.
We invest money in World Coffee Research ($0.01 per lb for the total volume we purchase), who aid research into crop resilience. We also work with Enviritas, who help us direct our efforts with scientific reasoning. It’s efforts like this that keep us focused on considering people who are part of our community, which is global. We’re making sure we fully understand our impact - which is a difficult task - and making reductions any way we can. As an industry we have to find ways to adapt as the landscape changes, and be able to support the farmers and countries that make our business possible.