A day of nothing but tasting, smelling and talking about coffee? I’m in! Yes, I like my java. I was feeling caffeinated just walking into the room of Coffee Fest, a coffee trade show recently held at Navy Pier. It was open only to coffee industry people, so with media credentials hanging on my neck, I felt especially cool as I made my way in to mingle with all the hip baristas.
Coffee is an enormous industry; it’s the world’s second most valuable traded commodity. What goes along with that is a lot of environmental and social impact along every step of the process, from bean to cup. Poor conditions for workers, farmers being taken advantage of, degradation of the land and the waste created by disposable cups are among the many issues involved in coffee production. And don’t forget about the quantities of water and energy used. Until recent years I doubt that most of us thought about all of these things, but today it’s hard to not be aware of concepts like fair trade, shade-grown, organic and bringing your own cup.
The growing awareness and demand for more responsible coffee was apparent everywhere I looked at Coffee Fest: it seemed like almost every coffee company at the event had something to say about direct trade, sustainability and organic coffee, or compostable cups and even more natural and organic syrups and pastries.
The folks from Eco Products had a great display of their plant-based cups that look like plastic or paper but are actually compostable. They even had straws, stirrers, cup sleeves and a brand new cup lid. So cool!
Eco Products cups and lids
One of my favorite stops of the day was at Cupcoat Expressions. They had a really eye-catching display of paperboard cup sleeves (how did it become a necessity to have one of those things on your coffee cup?) on the floor equalling the number of cup sleeves the average person uses each year.
Display of paperboard sleeves used in a year by one person
Cupcoats are reusable cup sleeves made out of fabric–cotton, bamboo or even jute. They come in a ton of styles, from basic solid colors to a ridiculous (in a good way) pink fuzzy option. They were nice enough to give me a cupcoat and I have since been carrying it around in my purse. (So far it’s been like getting into the habit of using reusable shopping bags: I keep forgetting. I know I shouldn’t be using paper cups anyway, but I’ve already admitted I’m not perfect.)
Cup coats made from natural materials
While the barista competition echoed from across the hall, I spoke to people about their efforts to create relationships with coffee farmers, establish values and guidelines in how they conduct business and carry out environmental audits in their facilities. Companies like Zingerman’s, Intelligentsia and PT’s emphasized their values of quality and sustainability. They personally know who grows their coffee, and they want us to as well.
Intelligentsia baristas making their fabulous coffee
I have to throw in here that I was a little distressed by all the trash I saw piling up everywhere. Disposable sample containers, plastic bottles and paper handouts–almost all of which did not need to be garbage–added up fast. This was a typical garbage can by early afternoon:
After making my way through every square inch of the show (I took it easy on the espresso shots) I felt encouraged about the direction coffee, or at least specialty coffee, is going. But, although these companies are heading in the right direction (and some have been leading the ground-breaking way), many were still selling traditional coffee. Then, it’s up to the retailers and consumers to decide whether they want to pay higher prices for the more responsible option. And of course the coffee giants, whose coffee makes up the majority of the coffee consumed in the world, aren’t as evolved and will need some nudging to change.
This is where we come in: We need to put our dollars toward reponsible coffee and help turn the industry into a much healthier one for all of us coffee lovers. And ditto for tea. I’ve been buying organic coffee for awhile now, but I’m going to make sure it’s also fair trade. It might hurt a bit to spend more, but I really believe that after thinking about how huge the coffee industry is, and how much impact we could make by making smart choices, it’s a no brainer to get the good coffee. I’m pretty sure it’s going to taste better too, plus I can wake up with a lighter conscience.