Stop greenwashing and tell the truth!

Introduction

With the word “ethical” in our company name you won’t be surprised to hear that we are often asked what ethics means to us; why we do what we do; how we do it; and what makes us different to others. Particularly being in the coffee world which in the past has had a notoriously bad reputation for the way it’s treated coffee growers and the environment. 

Our journey began in 2006 with a vision to sell high quality arabica in the UK at an affordable price whilst offering fantastic customer service. We also wanted to pay farmers what their coffee was worth and throughout the entire process be environmentally friendly.  By our own admission, we set the bar high!

We made it a priority to visit the coffee farms to not only see how the coffee was grown and processed, but to meet the farmers, giving us an understanding of what their lives were really like. When we got on the ground with small farmers, particularly in East Africa, we realised that if we worked through organisations like the Fairtrade Foundation then we wouldn’t be able to meet our own high standards. Although Fairtrade can be good we knew we could do more by working with the poorest farmers directly. We quickly realised that if we were going to work with these communities and do right by them, then we would need to work directly with them. We were determined to do the right thing, not just be seen to do the right thing. 

Fast forward to 2021 and it’s a very different market to 15 years ago. More consumers seem to care about ethics and more companies are taking up the mantle to support and work alongside coffee growers rather than exploit them. As a business we need to make a living for the EA team in the UK but also ensure the farmers we work with around the world are treated fairly and paid a good price for the coffee they produce. As we have always done, we continue to strive to be a more sustainable business and take the threat of environmental disasters and ecology seriously. We vowed to never rest on our laurels and to continuously make sure we are doing everything we can. 

And yet, there’s a real difference between those companies like ourselves that are genuinely in it to do the right thing and those who are simply jumping on the bandwagon for their own gain. They see the credentials of ethics and good behaviour simply as a marketing tool. It is what is known in the food industry as greenwashing[1].

It gets frustrating when you’re in this industry, or in any industry, trying to genuinely do the right thing, and all around you others are misappropriating language.

Greenwashing

There is an article I read recently by Greg Meenahan referring to this phrase, greenwashing, first coined by Jay Westervelt in 1986, which really resonated with me. So if whitewashing means to cover up unsavory or incriminating information to make a business look clean then greenwashing is when a company makes claims about environmental (or social) ethics but is not actually living up to those claims fully, maybe just doing the bare minimum, or in some cases outright lying. These situations are driven by a corporate culture of dishonesty and amoral behaviour for the purpose of profit rather than ethical behaviour.

You might be guilty of ‘green-washing’ if:

❒ You imply that a coffee is green based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes, without paying attention to other important environmental issues.

❒ You make claims that cannot be substantiated by supporting information or reliable third-party verification.

❒ Your claims are so broad or poorly defined that their real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.

❒ Your claims may be truthful, but are unimportant or unhelpful for consumers concerned about the economic and environmental well-being of producers.

❒ You make abundant use of jargon or technical information that the average person cannot understand or verify.

❒ You are making claims that are simply false.

‘Selling Sustainability’ Standart Magazine no. 21 – Greg Meenahan

This mindset can be true of all sized companies but it can be particularly noticeable from large corporations. It is easy for these large corporations to make these big claims, knowing that in some cases it takes a lot of time and resources to prove them wrong. 

A large multinational can say that they have donated a sum of money to a particular project which on paper sounds fantastic because it could be millions of pounds. Yet, when you look into how much profit they make, that donation is just a drop in the ocean. They may well spend more on promoting the ‘good’ they are doing to generate more profits for themselves than the amount they gave away. [2] [3]

In absolute terms, the amount given by large multinational companies is often more money than we could ever give away, so it is doing good for sure, but proportionally they could do so much more. At EA, we want to behave better in all our business relationships, and act generously from our heart to be more significant, and more proportional in the impact that we make. Our behaviour and generosity needs to come from a value and belief system, rather than trying to grab a marketing advantage.

In the coffee industry greenwashing is happening in both small and large companies. It gets frustrating when you are in this industry, or in any industry trying to genuinely do the right thing, and all around you people are misappropriating language. In this article I want to talk about some of the morally grey statements that are used in marketing within the coffee industry. The type of things that sound fantastic on paper but in reality, make little to no difference whatsoever to the coffee farmers or the environment. 

For obvious reasons I will not be naming names. This is more of a ‘for your information’ type of article to inform you of what is happening and what you decide to do with it is up to you.

Zero effort Veganism

With the driving popularity of veganism, there are a lot of companies promoting their coffee as ‘plant-based’.  It is a seed, all coffee is plant-based!  

That’s not to say we haven’t been completely innocent of playing up to this marketing ourselves during ‘veganuary’, granted it was a tongue in cheek effort. 

Donating to charity but selling the product for a much higher price

This happens a lot in many industries, but I saw one coffee company who teamed up with a charity and said, ‘for every bag that we sell, we’re going to donate a pound to this charity.’ At face value, that sounds fantastic. The coffee bag was the same weight and contained the same grade of coffee, BUT the price was increased to cover the donation and a bit more!  So they were justifying selling coffee at a much higher price because it was for ‘a good cause’, whereas in reality they were not donating anything themselves, and in fact earning more from the promotion.

Girl Power?

I have seen a significant increase in adverts promoting equal opportunities and empowering women in the coffee industry from growers and pickers, through to roasters and baristas. And to some extent, so we should, but it infers that certain companies are supporting women in the coffee chain more than others, or that women are kept in the minority.  The truth of the matter is that the majority of coffee across the globe is picked by women during harvest time[4], that is one of the jobs that they have done for a very long time and will continue to do.  So, ‘hand-picked by women’ is not a unique credential, or a good thing one company is supporting, it is nothing more than a long-standing fact exploited for marketing purposes. 

If companies actually want to make a positive impact for women then giving women more influence within their communities would be a really positive step forward.

Weightier issues

What about the instant coffee company that stopped selling in glass jars and switched to ‘refill pouches’, proudly claiming a 98% reduction in packaging? A small asterisk led you to read the (very) small print that simply said “98% less weight.”  The irony being that at least glass is recyclable and the pouches were not!

CSR or just tick box ethics?

CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility, is a set of policies and commitments laid out by a company which states how they are going to be a beneficial influence on the world. That can mean volunteering time and money to charities, dealing with environmental issues or defining their ethics within their particular industry. 

It is really frustrating to see businesses who just use CSR as a marketing tool rather than having a genuine desire to do the right thing. Those organisations who outsource their CSR so they can go down their CSR audit, tick some boxes and then the marketing team use it as a sales tool to say how great they are. It is a very cynical way of thinking and we are not interested in that at all.

Direct Trade

We use the term direct trade to explain that we literally trade directly with farmers.  You would think something like trading direct or direct trade as a phrase doesn’t need any explanation. They are two really simple English words that we all use and yet, the phrase gets misused or even abused. 

So sadly, we feel the need to clarify our definition. We know everything throughout the process, including the environmental and social conditions for our farmers. We literally buy direct from the farmer or smallholder community, negotiating volume, quality and price. We offer full transparency. That for us is direct trade. 

In our opinion the phrase ‘direct trade’ should only be used in this scenario. It should not mean that you buy from someone who buys from someone who trades directly – there is always someone in a chain who has to trade directly with the producer. It is not that you know some of the details of the trade; not that you have a photo of the farm, or even that you visited once. Direct trade seems like it should be clear and obvious in what it means, but it gets manipulated to mislead consumers all too often.

Now the caveat in that, is that trading directly does not mean you are necessarily doing the right thing. In theory, you can trade directly with farmers, even pay them slightly more and make a larger profit by cutting out the middlemen. It is also no guarantee of working conditions or environmental care, this only comes through transparency and openness of the company who are trading.

So, when EA says ‘ethical’ – what do we mean?

‘Direct Trade’ we think is easy enough to define but ‘ethical’ is not.  It is broader, more nebulous and of course subjective – where I set my ethical bar may be different to yours, there is no absolute ethical value. The big question in ethical business is who defines it and where does the company choose to set the bar? For us, it means being transparent, showing customers, our farmers and those we are accountable to exactly what we are doing. Our founding principles were to set the bar particularly high, because that’s our ethical value. Others may set the bar lower and genuinely for them that is their ethical value and there may be nothing wrong with that.

My biggest frustration is organisations claiming credit for what other coffee companies are doing just for marketing purposes rather than just being honest. Honesty is all that we ask for.

With most of these concerns and questions for us it comes down to the heart value.  Are we operating this way because it’s who we are, and how we want to behave to make a better world and to treat people well, or is it simply a business gimmick?  For us it’s in our DNA. 

To be honest our business would be much easier if we did it differently, but by trading directly wherever we can; investing in coffee producing communities; being generous with our profits; striving for excellence in our products and customer service – in all this we are trying to live out heart values that drive us personally and corporately for our behaviour as human beings and as a business.

To be honest our business would be much easier if we did it differently, but by trading directly wherever we can; investing in coffee producing communities; being generous with our profits; striving for excellence in our products and customer service – in all this we are trying to live out heart values that drive us personally and corporately for our behaviour as human beings and as a business.

What does transparency mean to EA?

Put simply, openness and honesty. We encourage questions and accountability. We try to be clear who we are, what we do, and what we don’t do that we want to improve. Happerley Transparent is a company that takes the time to research food companies to discover which ones are being fully transparent and honest about the claims they make. We were one of the founding members because we have nothing to hide. They have checked all our supply chains and certified us to their highest ‘Gold Standard’, which confirms that we practice what we preach. We are proud to be part of a food community who have similar principles to ours.

A few years ago, journalist Connor Woodman investigated us as part of his research whilst writing  the book Unfair Trade “How big business exploits the world’s poor and why it doesn’t have to”.  Initially checking out whether we truly did what we said or not, he ended up using us as an example of positive alternatives to ‘unfair traders’.  He visited us in Gloucester, then travelled to Tanzania, to meet the farmers who grow coffee on the highest slopes of Kilimanjaro.  Alongside other great companies with great ethics, he included EA in two chapters of the book. 

We’ve also had numerous undergraduate and post-graduate students write about us as part of their academic research and I have also been asked to speak on this to various groups, universities and podcasts. 

For us at EA though, the most important people who testify to our claims through the last fifteen years are the farmers we work with, and our loyal customers. Videos, interviews, and online reviews testify to our values and authenticity.

So my wish is that ethics becomes the DNA of UK coffee companies, rather than just being something that is outsourced to tick a box, or manipulated for marketing gain. I hope that transparency becomes a part of corporate social responsibility rather than a marketing tool.

And I guess the challenge for us as individuals is to decide how our ethics affect how we purchase and consume and who we choose to buy from.  

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