Reinventing the Coffee Business Around Ethics and Sustainability

Can you run this kind of company and make money? You betcha.

Dean Cycon, CEO of Dean's Beans and award-winning author of Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee uses only organic fair-trade coffee and cocoa, typically pays farmers well above the fair-trade minimum while still keeping consumer prices very affordable, and reinvests substantial profits into locally governed sustainability/economic development projects in the communities that supply his coffee. He's also perhaps the business person with the highest integrity that I've ever encountered. Not surprisingly, his revenues and profits have grown every year, despite the recession. In a speech to small business owners in Massachusetts, Cycon described how he had decided not to invest thousands of dollars in a more eco-friendly liner for disposable coffee cups, that in a year would keep about a basketball's worth of plastic out of the landfill on a year's volume of 100,000 cups. It didn't make either economic or environmental sense, he said. On the flip side, Cycon was asked to be the organic coffee supplier when Keurig introduced its wildly popular single-serve coffee makers. He looked at the machine, was disturbed by the large amount of plastic that would be consumed, and suggested to the engineers that they redesign it more sustainably, replacing the disposable plastic containers with biodegradable ones made of the same thick paper used to make egg cartons. When the company declined, he refused to supply the coffee, a decision that cost him millions of dollars, but which still feels like the right decision to him. He's actually looking to develop a competing model that would be more eco-friendly. Cycon has also been an agent of change within the coffee industry, challenging companies like Starbucks and Green Mountain to up their percentage of fair-trade sources, and to make much larger donations to village sustainability programs in the coffee lands: $10 million to his $10,000, in one case. On the fair trade issue, he points out that if a large coffee roaster sources four percent from fair-trade co-ops, that could mean 96 out of every 100 farmers are not making a living wage. His challenge to business in general? Bring CSR and sustainability "deeply into your business" as an integral part of decision-making, and don't just tack it on at the end. With that attitude, Cycon believes companies can influence their vendors, their customers, and other stakeholders to take many more sustainability steps: from convincing UPS to use biodiesel trucks in the fleet to biodegradable paper from their label supplier.

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