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  • Ian McClellan

Week 24: I will respect the coffee bean.


Taking a break, and drinking coffee, go hand-in-hand in my life. I reach for the coffee machine as a habit in the mornings, and a ritual at the weekends.


If I need a break from work then generally it will be defined by sipping on a coffee and decompressing my mind, which seems to work even if I realise also is a bit of an oxymoron considering that coffee is a stimulant. This means that I probably consume anywhere from three to five cups of coffee in a day.

At the weekends, I have a different cup that I use, to make it a little bit more special. It is from a 1989 Laura Ashley set that I picked up at a local charity store, it is elegant and fabulous. It feels good to use this, as the weekend coffee is more of a ritual, to spend a few minutes staring out of the window with a small coffee, to take a walk around the garden with my cup clutched as a hand warmer, or to perch on a bench and slowly come around to the day. It is a moment that is mine, and that marks the beginning of a weekend in the same way that others might enjoy other small luxuries, that are reserved for a Saturday morning or a moment when work ends, and a break begins.


These habits might sound familiar to many, as coffee has become a very important part of many lives.


In fact, I tried to find out exactly how big coffee drinking was to illustrate that, but opinions and data seem to vary. The importance of coffee ranged from it being the next biggest consumed drink in the world after water, to top-5 consumed at least. I also searched for how many cups were consumed worldwide each day, and it appears to be somewhere in the 2 billion range. This is a lot, but it still did not sound dramatic or definitive as an illustration, in a world where we casually talk about billions and trillions every day in one manner or another.


So get a better idea of scale, I Googled 'coffee', and then Googled 'Ed Sheeran' as a comparison, and this is where it got interesting.


By Googling 'coffee', it returned 3.9 billion results. Ed Sheeran on the other hand, returned 123 million. This is more like it. This unscientifically proves that coffee is 31 times more popular than Ed Sheeran. Thinking about this helps, as I can't think of anything being 31 times bigger than Ed Sheeran right now. I'm not sure the comparison is exactly fair and I also do not mean any disrespect to Mr Sheeran or any other talented artist. I just helps me to compare these two popular worldwide phenomenons, and using these facts makes it feel like coffee is pretty big to me, so I'll go with it.


Despite this scale, and also the importance of coffee in my own life, I have also come to realise that I don't know much about it. I take coffee, in the large part, for granted. I sometimes even forget that it is an organic product, and that when I fill the bean container on our coffee machine, I am filling it with individual seeds. I could not have even told you this morning for sure if coffee was a fruit or a vegetable. Fruit that has been grown, harvested in large quantities, and processed before it reaches me. I don't think I put the value on the coffee bean that it deserves. I think it is time to reflect on my coffee consumption, and make a planetwise change.


So this week, I am going to begin to learn how to respect the coffee bean.


The start point of this, was to learn more about how coffee is made. When I mentioned that it is an important part of many lives, I was referring to those who drink the end product as consumers, but there is a long journey for the product before it reaches our cup. This includes individual farmers and workers that I am almost positive I will never be lucky enough to meet and thank personally, but should appreciate for their contribution to creating moments in my day of relaxation or happiness. It includes passionate tasters, committed roasting houses. Steps that I did not even realised or care to think existed.


In fact, when you drink a cup of coffee, and if you include the step of brewing it, then you are at the end of a process that can have fifteen or more activities. This is fifteen moments where something new has happened to the product, fifteen or more moments of care, and fifteen moments where we can choose to be planetwise.


It is not possible for me to think about how to create an impact for all of these steps, but I do think there should be a way to create a direct link in my mind for coffee from the producer to the consumer. This is because at the most simple level, a single coffee bean is a natural product, that they has things done to it, but in essence remains a bean from the moment it is harvested, to the moment we grind it. If I therefore just keep in mind the bean, and what happens to it, I should be able to make some little changes that increase my respect for this tiny and powerful fruit.


For me this week, the challenge was therefore to think of a permanent change, that considers how to make the biggest impact along the chain of steps from the seed to the cup. It felt like it needed to be more than simply a switch from one brand to another, but something that considered fundamentally how I consume coffee. Something that considers that we are all connected, and that small changes in enough numbers, can create positive connections that create behavioural change for the good of the planet.


The conclusion that I came to, firstly is to just drink less, and break the habit. Less beans, less impact. I enjoy coffee, but I cannot pretend that I need it to survive. It should be a luxury and treat, which means that I should be able to reduce my consumption to two cups a day, as simple as that. If I was to do that, and if enough of us who drink a lot of coffee did that, this would make a significant impact to any strain on the planet from the commoditisation of production, use of pesticides or other intensive farming methods that are as apparent in the coffee supply chain as they are in other food supply chains. Two billion cups a day could become one billion, or even less. We can together make coffee less important than Ed Sheeran.


The trouble with this approach, is that although progressive, it does not necessarily get to the root of being planetwise, and doesn't seem that hard. Plus, drinking less of a coffee that is produced in a way that is not kind to the planet, means still consuming some that is not kind to the planet. If it is just a case of consumer less without considering other factors, then I should simply consume none. Many would argue this should be the case based on many factors, and they would not be wrong, and perhaps for me this is in my future too. But right now, especially given how strong a habit and an enjoyment coffee is for me in my own lifestyle and wellbeing, I have decided just to take the first step of reduction. And the first step forward, is good because it is the one that you never have to take again.

It also means that drinking less should be combined with finding a brand that is also produced and supplied in a way that is good for the planet.


For this, as always I consulted the internet for the variables, and the first of these is fairness.

Sites such as the Fairtrade organisation (https://www.fairtrade.org.uk/), or the Rainforest Alliance (https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/), are easy to navigate and to discover how you can buy coffee in a way that is more sustainable, more ethical, and will explain the principles of the industry and how fairness works. It is based on the principles of better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers. These initiatives will be displayed on the pack, is a very recognisable symbol across the world in recent years. You can also find lists online of brands that carry this mark, and it is a long and very accessible list.


This is a good next step. Drinking less, and drinking coffee that at least satisfies Fairtrade or another industry standard, is a good rule to live by when drinking coffee in restaurants or other establishments. This is a choice, and one that we can control.


However, at home I think I can go further. The variable of industry fairness is a good measure, but is also very broad. It still allows for very broad sourcing for example, and with broad sourcing, I feel that the connection to the bean is a little bit lost. Knowing that prices and conditions are fair, and that production is monitored, is a really good thing and a good baseline. However, when researching fairtrade products, I still have a hunch that I would not know where a bean came from, and that it might be a blend from many different sources. Perhaps this is just hunch based on the fact that some very large producers or coffee shop chains manage to be Fairtrade, and therefore I can't see how they can control the exact source of the product. And if they cannot control it, then also we as consumers cannot.


This led me to the next and final variable - traceability. I had a hunch that just like wine, coffee must have reached a point where single source beans were available. I had read about co-operatives, and direct sourcing. I sometimes wonder if badges can restrict as well as enable producers - and that some coffee growers might prefer or might have to work directly with producers rather than through a Fairtrade co-operative or similar, and that although they don't have all the badges, it might give a more direct link to the bean.


This completed the picture, because it does seem from my limited research that this is possible. To drink less, and drink better, I do believe that you can create a link between yourself and the bean, as far as the exact local co-operative, or even the exact estate. By applying these measures, and by searching for local producers that deliver or are close enough to visit, I have found two brands that I can switch to, that I believe fulfil the planetwise rules of being little, permanent changes for good.


The first is through a local store, in our local town. This is always a good way of learning. If you have a good cup of coffee in an independent store, and they have the coffee on sale, it is usually a good indication of pride in the product. Our local chocolate store and coffee shop, Mocha (https://www.mochachocolateshop.co.uk/) stocks a brand called Grumpy Mule (https://grumpymule.co.uk/). This is produced 80 miles from us in West Yorkshire, and from what I can read has the personality and passion that creates a feeling of respect and connection to the bean. Mocha also happens to be a fabulous chocolate shop that reflect these values also. If you ever in Richmond, it should be visited for coffee but even more so for the wide range of chocolates produced on the premises or sourced with love. If you are therefore partial to chocolate with your special coffee, then the same principle of eating less, better chocolates, that have traceable origins, is a great planetwise habit. We do however find the chocolates so delicious, that a week's supply tends to only last a few days, but sometimes you have to forgive yourself these moments of pleasure.


We also have a number of local coffee roasters that I was able to find without much research, and that provide a delivery service direct from the website. We have a local producer in Middlesbrough for example, called Rounton Coffee (https://www.rountoncoffee.co.uk/). The pride and passion with which Rounton expresses the story and practices of the business, makes me feel that the humble yet powerful bean, that starts its journey many miles away, ends in a good place when it ends with roasters like Rounton. And knowing that placing a delivery order, means that you are contributing to this passion, makes me feel like we are making a planetwise choice and supporting a more direct connection and respect for the bean.


The final consideration, is that I should also acknowledge that factors such as single source, have a higher price. The final piece of the puzzle, is therefore the economics. It is granted that as you begin to refine a purchase from mass to niche, or from global to local, you will have to pay more, or perhaps pay the correct amount that reflects the respect for the bean.


The cost per kilogram of better beans, can be twice that of brands you might pick up at the supermarket or through generic online stores. However, by drinking less but drinking better, it might have a higher price, but it also has a higher value. Better beans look better, taste better, and knowing that each cup is costing more can be an incentive to maintain the habit, because as with all habits - they can take a long time to break, and sometimes you need an incentive to do it.


I also conducted an home experiment to put some further scale on the bean. I filled up our machine, and then after a cup of coffee had been dispensed, I calculated the number of beans that it took to make a cup of coffee. There were 91 used. This is 91 seeds, that perhaps began as a seedling in a nursery for over a year, then as a tree that took four or more years to grow, and to produce cherries, that became part of a harvest that took nine months to mature. That is a collective effort just in one cup, of thousands of months of natural effort. Drinking less, and drinking better, might cost more than before, but has created more respect for the bean.


I realise this is just one aspect of coffee, and that there are also ways that we can consume in a more planetwise fashion - from what else we put in the coffee to create our coffee based drink of choice, or the cup or vessel we drink it from. But at the basic level of a black coffee, to drink less and drink better, is a good start.


If we take this approach, simplistic as it is, then we can make a difference as consumers to many other natural products that we might not have considered before. If we can find a link from what we consume, to what goes into it, then although cannot directly impact everything, we can break down decisions into the things that we can control. We can make better choices, and together we can make little changes that has the potential to have a big impact.


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