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Exploring the journey of a 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.

I 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.

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

To illustrate how important it is, I Googled coffee and 3.9 billion results returned. I then Googled Ed Sheeran and returned 123 million results. So there you go, coffee is 31 more times popular than Ed Sheeran.

This helps, as before this moment I could not think of anything being 31 times bigger than Ed Sheeran.

If you are like me, then also you might take coffee for granted. I sometimes forget that it is an organic product. 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 (it’s a fruit).

Fruit that has been grown, harvested in large quantities, and processed.

It is time to reflect on my coffee consumption, and make a planetwise change. For this journal, I am going to learn how to respect the coffee bean.

First off in this journey, is the journey of coffee itself.

There is a long journey for the product before it reaches our cup. It includes individual farmers and workers that I am almost positive I will never be lucky enough to meet and thank in person 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 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.

This made me think there should be a way to create a direct link in my mind for coffee from the producer to the consumer. Because at the most simple level, a single coffee bean is a natural product. It has things done to it, but in essence remains a bean from the moment of harvest, to the moment we grind it.

The challenge therefore became considering how to make the biggest impact along the chain of steps from the seed to the cup. This feels bigger than just switching to a new brand. It felt like something that considered how I consume coffee at a fundamental level.

The conclusion that I came to, firstly is to 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 did that, this would make a significant impact to any strain on the planet from the commoditisation of production. It would disincentive the use of pesticides or other intensive farming methods. 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. It also doesn’t seem that hard. If it is a case of consuming less without considering other factors, then I should consume none.

But I guess this is the case with many of the changes that I have been writing about. I do not think that advocating zero coffee is an achievable part of being planetwise. I do not believe it is something we can all do. Coffee is a strong a habit and enjoyment coffee in our lifestyle and wellbeing. We can all reduce, it is a first step. And the first step forward, is good because it is the one that you never have to take again.

But if it only less that we aim for, then it needs to be combined with finding a brand that is produced and supplied in a way that is good for the planet.

The Fairtrade organisation or the Rainforest Alliance, are good places to start. Here, you can discover how you can buy coffee in a way that is more sustainable and more ethical. It will explain the principles of the industry and how fairness works. Principles of better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers. These initiatives will be displayed on the pack. Fairtrade is a very recognisable symbol across the world in recent years. This is a good next step. This is a choice, and one that we can control.

However I think we can go further. The variable of industry fairness is a good measure, but is also very broad. Fairtrade feels like a brand as well as a measure. It allows for very broad sourcing for example. And with broad sourcing, the connection to the bean is a little bit lost. I have a hunch that even through something is Fairtrade, I would not know where a bean came from. That it might be a blend from many different sources.

This is a hunch based on the fact that some very large producers or coffee shop chains manage to be Fairtrade. 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. Just like wine, coffee must have reached a point where single source beans were available. I had read about co-operatives, and direct sourcing. A world beyond Fairtrade. A place where badges can restrict as well as enable producers. A place where coffee growers work directly with producers rather than through a large co-operative. A direct link to the bean.

I was thrilled to discover this is possible. To drink less, and drink better, I do believe that you can create a link between yourself and the bean. Down to the point of the exact local co-operative, or even the exact estate.

We have a local producer in Middlesbrough for example, called Rounton Coffee, who source in this way. The pride and passion with which Rounton expresses the story and practices of the business, makes me feel that the humble yet powerful bean, ends in a good place when it ends with roasters like Rounton. By supporting this passion, supports a more direct connection and respect for the bean.

There is probably one near to you.

The final consideration, is that I should also acknowledge that factors such as single source, have a higher price. If we refine our purchasing of anything from mass to niche, or from global to local, we will have to pay more. Or 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. 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. I filled up our machine, and calculated the number of beans that it took to make a cup of coffee. There were 91 used.

This is 91 seeds, that began as a seedling in a nursery for over a year. Then as a tree took four or more years to grow, and to produce cherries. Cherries that became part of a harvest that took nine months to mature. That is a collective effort in one cup, of thousands of months of natural effort.

It also means that although more expensive, your traceable, single estate coffee will be a fraction of your Starbucks.

Drinking less, and drinking better, might cost more than before, but has created more respect for the bean. Respect with impact.



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