When it comes to sourcing ethical coffee, there's no one correct route to take. Elly Earls looks at how to find the right provider for your business
More consumers are demanding a shot of sustainability with their regular lattes, and with multiple ethical trade routes available, from long-established accreditation schemes to direct relationships with farmers, there's no excuse for operators not to oblige. Those that do can reap benefits including a cleaner conscience, higher quality coffee and a boost to their bottom line.
It's just 13 years since coffee company AMT became the first UK chain to go 100% Fairtrade and a decade since Costa made the wholesale switch to Rainforest Alliance. Today it buys 12,500 tonnes of certified beans every year. In the intervening period, while those two brands have become household names, customers' taste for ethical coffee has soared, with a third of UK consumers now choosing ethical coffee brands.
Sourcing coffee that is accredited by a well-known scheme such as Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance is one route operators can take to boost their ethical credentials, the ultimate choice depending on their values and priorities. As Andrew Stephen, chief executive of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), which is running a month-long campaign in February to help operators find their own recipe for ‘good coffee', explains: "In the very broadest terms, Fairtrade prioritises the needs of the growers and the communities in which they live, while Rainforest Alliance is characterised as the mark with environmental concerns at its heart."
That said, there is much more to it than this simplistic breakdown. For example, while Rainforest Alliance is based on the fundamental principles of sustainable agriculture, with a focus on conservation of natural resources, ecosystems and wildlife, and encouraging farmers to use better, more environmentally friendly methods, the mark also recognises the importance of workers' rights and the community.
Both schemes also have their critics. "Fairtrade's goal is to tackle poverty and empower producers by paying a guaranteed minimum.
Critics argue that this can have an effect on quality as there's no incentive for the growers to invest in improving their product," Stephen notes.
The other option is to establish direct relationships with farmers, and while this is not for the faint-hearted, the rewards of knowing exactly who you're paying and how much you're paying them, as well as having more control over the quality of the product, far outweigh the logistical challenges for many operators.
For Tom Haigh, head of coffee at Coffee by Tate, which has its own roastery within the rounds of Tate Britain and sources its beans directly from growers in Brazil and Columbia, it's the transparency of the model that's its biggest plus.
"There are fewer people in the chain and we get to work directly with the producers rather than through an organisation," he says, adding that meeting the
producers and hearing their stories first hand is absolutely invaluable, and that here possible, he will directly offer the farmer a price - always at least 50% higher than the Fairtrade minimum price.
Coffee by Tate's relationship with the producer doesn't stop there, as Haigh will then roast the beans, taste them and send his comments back to them via the exporter, helping the farmer make any changes and improvement during the next harvest and production.
"For me, this is how direct trade should work. If we're contributing to the improvement of the quality then the price they can ask for the coffee can increase and we're happy to pay a premium for that quality," he says. "As part of our two-way dialogue I also send them samples of the roasted beans and photos of their coffee in the café."
That said, Haigh is the first to admit it's not the easiest route to take. "There's a lot more work involved. We have to source the coffee ourselves, analyse the coffee ourselves, hunt down the producers and develop a programme. It's not something you do overnight, but the benefits of the model we've got in place far outweigh that."
Perkee coffee is uplifting for Bartlett Mitchell
Ever since they founded Bartlett Mitchell, Wendy Bartlett and Ian Mitchell have served Fairtrade coffee as part of their commitment to having an ethical supply chain, but when speciality coffee started hitting the market in a big way, they decided they needed to go one step further. If they were going to compete, they thought, they'd need not only a great-tasting, high quality coffee, but one with an authentic story behind it.
After consulting with their long-time roaster Bewleys, they decided to source their beans from the female-run Soppexcca cooperative in Nicaragua, where women make up 40% of the workforce and profits are used for healthcare, education and developing other enterprises in case the crop fails.
After extensive tasting by a dedicated team, they came up with a roast that met their high tasting criteria too. In November 015 Bartlett Mitchell launched a Fairtrade-certified, single origin 100% Arabica coffee sourced from the co-operative. They named it Perkee, reflecting both the uplifting feel coffee gives and the boost received from making a difference to the community.
As Perkee is certified Fairtrade, the team can be confident that their customers understand it has been ethically sourced. "It's got a really high level of recognition and is the only certification that guarantees growers a minimum price for their coffee," says the company's marketing director Lin Dickens.
"There's also a level of security that comes with using the Fairtrade mark because it's so trusted. It gives customers peace of mind."
The response to Perkee has been really positive. "We rolled it out into our sites in spring 2016 and it's now in about a quarter of them. Coffee sales in these sites went up 20% and have maintained that level," Dickens says. "Customers have bought into the story and love the flavour. In blind tastings Perkee consistently comes out on top."
SRA Food Made Good: join the conversation
The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) has launched Food Made Good, a campaign and online community that it hopes will be the go to place for anyone who shares its goal of making sustainability a part of the DNA of every hospitality business.
Throughout February, the campaign is concentrating on coffee, urging the hospitality sector to serve only 'good' coffee - good for farmers, good for the planet andgood for business.
The SRA is encouraging operators to join its online community and link with other businesses, read case studies, swap stories, access resources and engage in live chat with experts, all with the aim of sourcing 'good' coffee.
To find out more go to www.foodmadegood.org or follow the hashtag #coffeemadegood on Twitter