By Shannon Gordon
RMOW Policy & Program Development
Who ever said sustainability is easy? It can be very complex since it is about both social and natural systems and the interconnections between them. Imagine dealing with this complexity without the clarity delivered by scientific principles and — almost as importantly — coffee!
What a perfect case study: let’s assess whether coffee has a place in a sustainable future using Whistler’s Sustainability Objectives, which are based on the Natural Step’s four sustainability principles.
Before starting, it is worth mentioning that there are already coffee options that are moving in the right direction. Locally, the Whistler Roasting Company and the Pemberton Valley Coffee Company are doing their part to help make one of the world’s most widely consumed beverages more sustainable (more on these local coffee roasters later).
Now, getting started… Assuming that we aren’t likely to find a locally-grown replacement for coffee anytime soon and that we’ll have to continue transporting it from elsewhere in the world, meeting the first Sustainability Objective primarily means that coffee will eventually have to be transported without contributing to a net increase of carbon and other metals and minerals in the natural environment.
This scenario may seem like a long way off, but extraordinary weather events and the uncertainties in the marketplace resulting from climate change risks are causing the public and big corporations to put pressure on governments to legislate greenhouse gas reductions and a market system for carbon trading. It seems that we might be at a tipping point when it comes to climate change that may help create innovations in the renewable fuels sector, taking us one step closer to sustainable transportation options for coffee.
For the second Sustainability Objective to be met, coffee will eventually have to be brought to market without dispersing persistent chemicals that are foreign to nature into the environment.
This translates into agriculture, transportation, processing and packaging systems that are either free of human-made chemicals or that completely recycle them. Recycling these chemicals prevents them from escaping into nature where they cannot be broken down by natural cycles and therefore they accumulate in higher concentrations up the food chain — ultimately ending up in humans (visit toxicnation.ca to find out more).
In applied terms this requires that coffee be grown organically, transported without emitting toxic pollutants, decaffeinated without the use of harmful chemicals currently used in traditional methods, and packaged using natural or recyclable materials.
Thirdly, coffee will be grown, transported and packaged in such a way that it doesn’t continue to destroy natural areas and their ecological services. For example, this will require that biodiversity and soil integrity are maintained in areas currently used to grow coffee, thereby avoiding the need for additional natural areas to be developed into new coffee plantations.
Finally, the trade of coffee must help those involved it its supply, distribution and sale meet their needs through such things as fair wages and a healthy work environment.
So where is coffee at today relative to where it must be to have a place in a sustainable future?
The Whistler Roasting Company and the Pemberton Valley Coffee Company are both committed to making coffee sustainable into the future. Both are home-based businesses that carry only organic (chemical-free), shade grown (soil, trees and biodiversity are maintained) and fairly traded (higher wages paid to meet farmers’ needs). The Whistler Roasting Company also avoids the use of chemicals in its decaffeination process, uses the most biodegradable packaging possible, and has chosen a roaster that maximizes fuel efficiency and reduces air quality impacts.
Having focused on their contributions to the Sustainability Objectives, it should also be noted that both roasting companies contribute to achieving Whistler2020 by supporting the local economy through employment creation and by enhancing the visitor experience through the provision of locally-branded, consumable souvenirs.
Sure, coffee still has a ways to go — especially with the transportation challenge — but it is definitely possible for coffee to have a place in a sustainable future!
If you are interested in assessing other consumer products using Whistler’s Sustainability Objectives, the RMOW’s new Purchasing Guidelines can help. Visit whistler2020.ca and go to Resources.
Thanks to everyone who is helping to make Whistler an increasingly sustainable and successful community. Visit firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved, learn more about other on-the-ground actions and how we’re performing, or to suggest a story idea or an action.