Coffee and conversation with Ethical Bean

Coffee and conversation with Ethical Bean

Monday August 26, 2019

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Walking up to the Ethical Bean head office in Vancouver, you would never imagine that their roastery is in the same building. You’re greeted by their awesome cafe, and tucked away behind that is their bright office space. Emily, the Marketing Specialist at Ethical Bean, showed me around; the boardroom that displays pictures of the students that Ethical Bean supported through school was definitely a highlight for me. 

We then donned our smocks and hairnets and walked into the very aromatic roastery. As we walked through the production facility, we were greeted by staff busy packaging the beans. It was great to see everything being completed in the warehouse with such care. 

After I got the full tour of the roastery, complete with checking out the raw coffee beans, admiring their fuel-efficient roaster, and staring in awe at the sheer amount of coffee beans housed there, Emily and I enjoyed lattes in the onsite cafe and talked about all things Ethical Bean. 

Bullfrog: The phrase “just.better.” is very important to Ethical Bean. It’s a simple phrase, but there’s a lot of nuance there—what does it mean to you?

Emily: I love this question, because I think that when people really understand what “just.better.” means to Ethical Bean, they get this spark to learn more and spread the word. To us, “just.” means justice, and “better.” means quality. It’s kind of like the Fedex logo; once you see the arrow in between the “E” and the “x”, you really can’t unsee it. Similarly, once you know that our purpose is justice for coffee farmers and their families, you really can’t read “just.better.” any other way. 

Image source.

I think knowing the story of how Ethical Bean started adds so much colour and context to what we’re doing here. In 1999, our co-founders Lloyd and Kim travelled to Guatemala to adopt their daughter. During their stay, they noticed a large gap between the premium price of coffee at home, and the less-than-desirable reality of the coffee industry in front of them. Believing that there had to be a more equitable way to honor these coffee farmers, they came back to Vancouver and started Ethical Bean Coffee in 2003. 

You know, it’s easy to sip a cup of coffee and not think about how it travelled all the way to you—from the grower, to the importer, to the processor, to the exporter, to the roaster, to the retailer, and then into your cool coffee mug with a hilarious coffee pun (just brew it!). I love those mugs, by the way. 

I mean, for most of us, coffee is a part of our daily routine. Wake up, coffee, work, second cup of coffee, head home, think about working out, watch a show, brush your teeth, go to bed, repeat. 

At Ethical Bean, we do whatever we can to create pause in this routine—to shed light on the volatility and complexity of the coffee industry. That’s why we’re just. And that’s why we’re better. 

Bullfrog: I love the layers of meaning behind what you do, and especially when it comes to the environment. Can you walk us through your sustainability efforts?

Emily: With “ethical” in our name, you can imagine that we filter all of our decisions through the lens of sustainability, doing whatever we can to make the right choice for all parties involved—one of those parties being the planet. Here are a few highlights from our environmental sustainability program: 

  • We only buy Fairtrade Certified coffee. And to be a Fairtrade Certified co-op, you have to uphold certain environmental standards like biodiversity protection, waste management, and the prohibition of GMOs. Fairtrade co-ops can also choose to invest their Fairtrade Premium into environmental programs, such as reforestation projects or water treatment systems.
  • We only buy 100% Organic certified coffee. No harmful chemicals = no negative impact on local water quality, ecosystems, and liveability. 
  • We partner with Bullfrog Power: Since 2009, we’ve been working with Bullfrog Power to reduce our emissions footprint by purchasing 100% renewable natural gas and green fuel for our head roastery and vehicle fleet. To date, we’ve displaced 938 tonnes of carbon.
  • We have a bag return program: We hear it all the time, and rightfully so: “why aren’t your bags recyclable?” Long story short: we’ve yet to find a recyclable or compostable bag that meets our standards of freshness and food safety—and trust me, we’re looking! The good news is that we have a bag return program, so people can send in or drop off their empty bags and we’ll send the bags to Terracycle, a company that specializes in difficult-to-recycle waste streams. They clean, shred, and pelletize the plastic, and then find ways to integrate it into products already in production, like park benches. Plus, when customers send us 12 empty bags, they get a free bag of fresh coffee in return. 
  • We have 100% certified compostable pods: A couple of years ago we partnered with Purpod to launch K-Cup compatible single-serve coffee pods. Made of 100% renewable, bio-based materials, including coffee chaff (skin of coffee bean), the pods break down in as little as five weeks in commercial composting systems.

Ethical Bean’s 100% compostable pods are K-Cup compatible.

Bullfrog: We’re so happy to be a part of all the good you’re doing on the daily! Speaking of which, what does a day in the life look like at Ethical Bean?

Emily: For me: Arrive at work. Check emails while sipping on an almond milk americano misto prepared by one of our cafe’s talented baristas (yes, we have a cafe attached to our head office and roastery). Get a pulse on what’s happening on social. Respond to questions and feedback. Take some photos for future collaborations (we’re always looking for ethical companies to partner with). Coffee round 2. Find new ways to optimize our online store experience. Start a new blog post. Head home and smell like a bag of coffee beans for the rest of the night…

Bullfrog: There are worse things to smell like! So I hear Ethical Bean has an app—why does a coffee company need one of those?

Emily: When I think about our app, I think about that episode of Portlandia where they go to lunch and probe their server for more information about the chicken they want to order—“So, how big is the area where the chickens are able to roam free?” “Is that USDA Organic, or Oregon Organic, or Portland Organic?”

Image source

As funny as this episode was, it touched on something pretty serious. That is, the significance of traceability, and the role evidence plays when working towards equality. 

Our app serves to answer any and all questions someone could have about the specific bag of beans they’re holding. Where was it roasted? Like… exactly where? Can I see the co-op’s Fairtrade and Organic certificates? When was my coffee roasted? For how many minutes? At what temperature? Who roasted it? How long have they worked with Ethical Bean? What do they like to do in their spare time? What’s my coffee’s cupping score? How sweet is the cup? Is there a strong aftertaste?

Screenshots from Ethical Bean’s iPhone app

In a sea of claims and certifications, it allows our consumers to make an informed decision and feel confident knowing that we’re doing what we say we’re doing. 

Also, on your next coffee break, you should probably watch this 2-minute Portlandia clip about the local chicken.

Bullfrog: That’s a great clip. It’s so outrageous, but it still gets to the heart of the matter: if a company is really doing the right thing, they should be able to prove it. 

We’ve already talked about Ethical Bean’s story and about the impact you’re making now. What do you have in store for the future?

Emily: It’s an exciting time at Ethical Bean. As many people know, we’ve recently joined a much larger family—the Kraft Heinz Canada family. With this transition comes many new opportunities to deliver impact at some serious scale. For example, our change in ownership allows us to substantially increase the funds we’re giving to the Fairtrade movement and Fairtrade coffee farmers, which was the reason we started in the first place. 

Bullfrog: I’m so glad that you’re able to scale up your positive impact. I have one final question for you: what’s your favourite Ethical Bean roast? 

Emily: Ooh, hard question. I have a few. I tend to enjoy a more chocolatey finish, so I’ve obviously fallen in love with our lush medium dark roast.

Here’s a description of lush from our Aaron, our Director of Coffee: A coffee for all seasons. Most popular for a reason. Fruit, smoke, and earth tones. If you drink coffee, you’ll like this. 

Bullfrog: Hold upwhat’s a Director of Coffee?

Emily: Pretty awesome thing to be a director of, eh? As our Director of Coffee, Aaron manages all things coffee—from sourcing, to buying, to roasting to quality control. He has over 20 years of experience, and is one of Canada’s first Q Graders (think sommelier but for coffee), meaning his sense of smell and taste are top notch.

Ethical Bean’s Director of Coffee, Aaron De Lazzer

I like to say that once you know Aaron, you know Ethical Bean. His passion for our eight different roasts, ethical coffee production, and just coffee in general is truly contagious

Why not turn your coffee break reading into an affogato? Just add our Righteous Gelato blog post!