This is part 2 of my interview with Catherine Franks, founder and owner of Steampunk Coffee Roasters in North Berwick, Scotland.
Part 1 can be found here.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You changed your packaging recently—can you tell me about that?
Changing our packaging was part of this focus on improving what we do. I’ve been trying to cut down on plastic use myself over the past six months (haven’t we all?) and I’m endlessly frustrated by the amount of plastic packaging out there that can be so hard to avoid. I think it is the responsibility of businesses to operate in the least environmentally harmful way they can.
Of course nobody is perfect but that should not stop us trying to make improvements wherever we can. I think that too often a defeatist attitude can surface when you want to make changes—it's hard to source materials, it's expensive, it's not as good or as attractive … Nothing would ever improve if we took that approach.
I believe you should just make a small step in the right direction first and see where it leads you. So we decided to take the plastic out of our packaging. First we launched the Naked Coffee which is packaging free and sold out of bulk hoppers by weight and then we worked for months with our pal Rachel who does all of our design work. We looked at endless samples and tried lots of ideas. At first we were going to go for compostable (plastic-lined) bags and pouches which a lot of other roasters are going for.
But I have concerns about composting plastics and micro plastic pollution so we decided that wasn’t going to meet our requirements. In the end we came up with a solution we are really happy with. It is 100% plastic free and easy to recycle and compost. We have also decided to offer a minimal packaging service online which offers a savings incentive, and we are happy people are taking that up.
Does living and working on the coast impact your views on environmentalism and sustainability?
No doubt it does. I walk my dogs early every morning and I see first hand the mess caused by litter, during holiday times especially. I have also become aware of a dramatic and noticeable increase in the amount of plastic I am finding on the beaches. I pick it up as I go so I am well aware of how it is increasing.
Being part of a small community also makes me super aware of the impact our business has on the area. I would be horrified to find a Steampunk take away cup on the beach! Through our reusable cup campaign we have gotten our usage of reusables up to 30% of our takeaways. We want to get this number even higher. Also, because we live in a small community, we can share what we are doing—and why—more easily with our customers.
How does your green coffee sourcing reflect your eco values?
We work with Falcon Specialty and Nordic Approach because we respect their ethical and transparent approach to their sourcing. They give us great information about the growers whose beans we are buying and we can see if they are using sustainable methods, improving their own environmental footprints.
Is it possible, in your opinion, to be a truly "green" coffee roaster, in spite of all the challenges that exist throughout the supply chain? How does one go about this?
I’m not sure it is possible to be truly green in any sort of industry that involves shipping products halfway across the world. I guess we should all be making dandelion tea if we want to be truly green as we should only really consume what we can produce hyper locally.
But I think there is a case to be made for trying to improve our current system while we are working within it. I think we will convert more people to understand why drinking less, better quality coffee is better if we can share knowledge of the system and offer realistic alternatives. That is why it is so important to me that we are friendly, open and accessible. We will win more people over that way than we would by suggesting everyone currently drinking plastic cups of frappuccino should switch to home grown dandelion tea.
That is also why we have not taken the stance of refusing to do take away coffee. We think we can convert more people to an understanding of the importance of reusables if we keep offering a discount for using them and charging for disposables. We also make a point of collecting our used cups for composting, pointing out to customers that if they end up in landfill they won’t break down. We think in this way we can make more people waste aware.
What's the next environmental challenge that Steampunk is going to address?
This month we are looking at waste. We are looking at both ends, trying to reduce waste that is produced by giving people ideas of how to lead a more sustainable life, putting them in touch with local initiatives, businesses and services that can help (refill schemes, suppliers of zero waste items) and also looking at the impact of too much waste by hosting a community litter pick.
Through all we do, we try to bring different people together—customers, other businesses, community groups. That is what coffee is the best at, bringing people together. It would be good to remember that coffee houses were traditionally places that folk came together to discuss important matters of the day and as such they were often disliked by the ruling elite as they gave a space where people could plan the changes they wanted to see in their society.
We are proud to continue in this tradition of challenging the status quo and encouraging change no matter how difficult or overwhelming it might seem.
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