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Discussion with “L’épicerie” on the environmental challenges of the coffee value chain

We had the pleasure of welcoming the hosts and team of L’ÉPICERIE, the well-known TV series, for a discussion of environmental challenges in the coffee industry.

First, let’s get some things straight. The coffee industry can hardly boast of being green. Like the aviation sector, we need to improve; we can’t claim to be purists. Coffee grows in the South and is consumed in the North. Growing and processing the coffee cherries, exporting the beans, roasting and brewing them: the entire process, with transport and packaging, demands tremendous amounts of resources, water and energy. At Faro, we know there’s plenty of room for improvement and we need to do better. That’s why we have adopted an environmental policy and introduced the topic of eco-responsibility in our weekly meetings, like we do with finance, marketing and human resources. The facts are simple: we are not perfect and we are not carbon neutral. That makes it our responsibility to reduce our footprint, while maintaining financial stability.

Processing of beans at the source 

Wet mill

From the very start of the value chain, the industry needs rethinking. Visiting coffee-producing countries (as of 2020, we are offsetting the carbon emissions compared with our initial visits) has allowed us to see just how much water was required to process the beans. In our opinion, this is one of the major problems in originating countries.  Fermentation in huge tanks is a disaster in itself. The polluted water is discharged into rivers or left standing in open-air lagoons. According to CoopeTarrazúthis processing method requires 65.2 litres of water per pound of coffee. Luckily, recent years have seen authorities and cooperatives demanding an end to this technique. Fermentation by friction (rather than soaking) and closed-circuit water use have reduced the water requirement to 4.3 litres per pound of coffee. Moreover, this water is discharged onto grass beds that absorb the sweet pulp from the coffee fruits and use it as nourishment. Water use is thus cut by more than 90% and the waste is treated.

The problem of leaf rust (a fungus that attacks the leaves of the coffee plant) has upped the demand for fertilizer by 150% (2 to 5 applications a year). With the new methods, the cherry skins and pulp are also used as fertilizer to help the plants fight off the fungus. There’s hope!

With this new knowledge, we can now select our coffees better. For instance, we realize that while triple wash and double wash coffees may be of higher quality, double wash means twice as much water.

How can we buy eco-friendly coffee? 

Through our environmental policy, we have adopted some simple, logical objectives for improving our record. Including these objectives in our weekly meetings is a watch strategy. Today’s consensus is not tomorrow’s, so we must constantly challenge ourselves. Here, then, are our main actions and our advice to you on ways to reduce your footprint while enjoying your coffee.

1. Reduce the distance your coffee travels

Here’s a truly absurd example: often, beans for water-decaffeinated coffee are bought in Latin America, sent to Germany for decaffeination, then shipped back to New York and ultimately to Montréal. In our view, we should be preferring coffee that’s bought in Colombia, processed in Mexico and sold directly in Montréal. The same logic applies for coffees from Asia and Africa. Generally speaking, pick an origin that reduces the transport behind your morning beverage.

2. Reduce packaging

Compostable coffee cup BPI

We suggest our clients to use transport bags if they can. Aluminum preserves coffee quality, so it’s hard to eliminate it completely. Incidentally, we are taxed on the quantity of aluminum packaging we use, which in itself is a good thing. Large formats and bulk buying reduce packaging. Also, our cardboard cups are now 100% compostable, but of course we advise customers to go for a reusable cup.

3. The small-step approach

It doesn’t take too much thought to find small things we can do to improve. Offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from our travels by purchasing carbon credits, buying coffees with various social and environmental certifications and implementing better waste management are some examples of small actions that move us forward. We stopped carrying plastic capsules in 2019.  

Environmental inconsistency

It’s hard to talk environment knowing that, one way or another, we’re contributing to an increase in consumption. That’s why we can’t claim to be a green firm or an eco-pioneer. Still, that doesn’t stop us from improving and forging ahead with our efforts. What used to be seen as a competitive advantage must become a market requirement.

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