Thursday, December 3, 2020

Your High Street Needs You! (Or Why Sustainable High streets have to be local)


It has been a bad week for the UK’s high streets. Arcadia, owner of brands such as Topshop and Burtons, has fallen into administration. Debenhams has suffered its final collapse and will be put out its misery in January having used the Christmas period to sell through as much stock as possible. All 120+ department stores will close. Between the two companies 25,000 jobs are at risk. 25,000 households face a pretty bleak Christmas.

In Caernarfon, where our shop is, we’ve already lost KFC, Holland & Barrett, Poundstretcher, and almost certainly Argos, this year. With the group that owns Peacocks and Edinburgh Woollen Mill teetering on the edge as well, there may be more pain to come. For Bangor the loss of Debenhams will be a huge blow to a high street already scared by endless empty units.

All of this is grim news. The pandemic is accelerating trends that have been decimating high streets for years now. Online shopping, unreformed business rates and poor management were already a pretty toxic brew for High Street retailers to confront, covid is merely applying the final nail in the coffin to retailers who have been in and out of administration for years in some cases. 

Does this really matter? Isn’t it a good thing that people can shop from the comfort of their own sofa’s for everything they want? Surely low prices and maximum convenience is a win for the consumer. If that means some lumbering, unresponsive retail dinosaurs from the pre-digital age have to be read their last rites, well, so be it.

That view is short sighted at best. If we start with just the jobs aspect of the equation, 25,000 more unemployed people is a real blow at a time when the economy is struggling anyway and those job losses will fall disproportionately on women as well, further adding to the gender imbalances in employment statistics. On top of that much of our money spent online goes to companies not based in the UK who pay little tax here. Yes, warehouse distribution jobs are created by online sales but not in the quantity required to offset the high street losses.

But beyond the painful statistics, the decreased tax take and the families missing out on Christmas presents this year, there is a wider reason to care about the fate of our High Streets. The vibrancy, attractiveness and well being of our towns depend on them. If you’re fortunate enough to own your own home, the value of that can be dependent on them too.   

When we were deciding where to open our shop, we spent a lot of time choosing the right location. When we looked at Bangor we saw the largest conurbation in the area that had a university population full of more environmentally aware younger shoppers. We also saw a high street already hollowing out with a large number of national retailers still to lose. In addition to that Bangor has large shop units, marketed by national letting agents ideally suited to those big multiple players. However, they are too big and too expensive for independents to get started in. We couldn’t see how Bangor could bounce back quickly from the trends sweeping through high street retail even before Covid struck.

In contrast, Caernarfon had lost a lot of its national chains, although a few remained. Put brutally, much of the pain had already occurred and the town had a healthy sector of small independent retailers with small shop units ideally sized and priced for others to follow suit. To us, the choice was obvious. So far, time is proving us right.

But the challenge is huge. There are no white knights riding to the rescue of our high streets. No big retailers desperate to open large chains of stores across the UK. Our high streets, the places we walk and work every day, are only going to recover from the onslaught of cyclical change and coronna virus if we, the local people who live in towns and cities up and down the land, have the courage and imagination to bring them back to life. Sustainable high streets are only possible if independent retailers, owned by local people, responding to the needs of their families, friends and customers, take up the challenge of opening shops and fighting to make them viable.

In that sense Caernarfon has a head start on what the future has to look like. The correct size shops, a strong tourist trade anchored by a World Heritage Site, and a network of established independent shops who will welcome newcomers with open arms if our experience is anything to go by. That recipe is repeatable elsewhere, maybe with a slightly different mix of those vital ingredients, but still hewing to the basics of local people taking responsibility and ownership of the places they live.

The idea of no big chains coming to rescue our battered high streets can be scary, but it is also a massive opportunity once the worst of the pandemic passes. We have it in our power, through the pound in our pockets, to start creating the town centres of the future. You can start this Christmas by shopping as locally as possible and challenging yourself to by locally produced presents for family and friends. There’s loads of great stuff out there, it’s really not that hard. The most difficult part is making that conscious choice to get off the sofa and make a difference.

And in the new year, as spring arrives and the world slowly recovers, well then it’s time for people to step forward full of amazing ideas that make the best of their skills and find ways to open small shops and bring our towns back to life.

 As our example shows, it is possible, just expect to work plenty of overtime…

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Blog 8 - There is no Them

Sustainable; able to exist over a period of time without causing damage.

Sustainable. The word is over our door, it’s in our DNA as a business, it’s a fundamental part of what we believe as people. It applies to the way we as humans treat our planet. The way we suck resources from the earth as if there is never a price to be paid. The way we consume as a hobby, buying to pass the time. The way we struggle to think beyond ourselves and our brief time as custodians of the miracle that is a habitable, fragile, planet. It’s there in our plastic use, our food waste, our thoughtless use of water. It’s there when ice caps melt, seas warm, corals bleach, coasts disappear.

But it is more than that. Sustainability is also about how we treat each other. How we function as a society. Sustainability is about the way we live our lives, every interaction big or small. A sustainable planet cannot exist without fairness, equality, justice, respect. Social sustainability is as much a challenge for twenty-first century societies as the environmental type is.

All of which drags us from our sheltering pod hiatus and out into a world where genuine, wide ranging sustainability seems further away than ever. It brings us to George Floyd.

We’ve thought long and hard before writing this Pod but ultimately, for a business or an individual, there comes a point where to stay silent is to be complicit. We as a business exist because we want to change the world we all live in. It seems a dereliction of duty to sit silent at a moment like this.

Let’s start with the basics. The person writing this blog is a white male. That means they won life’s lottery. To be born white and male in a western democracy is to be granted a life time of privilege compared to others. And that is, of itself, plain wrong. Your life chances, your opportunities, your freedom, your health, should not be dictated or shaped by the lottery of parentage. Far too often, they are. Those of us fortunate enough to have won this particular roulette should be both aware, and vocal in acknowledging, our privilege.

For those of us who believe in the idea of a sustainable future we should be offended by that fact. No, we should be enraged. There cannot be a sustainable planet until racism, alongside all other forms of discrimination, are eliminated. There is no point building a world free of fossil fuel use and single use plastics if huge swathes of the population remain disadvantaged by the colour of their skin. Changes to the way we treat our planet must go hand in hand with changes to the way we treat each other. I Can't Breathe is the same as We Can't Breathe

The starting point for all change is to recognise, honestly where we are. Can I, a white male, understand the challenge of being born black in a society riddled with systemic racism? Of course not. But I can empathise, I can educate myself and I can be an ally in their fight. I can understand that fighting for equality is not the same as all communities facing equal challenges. In the same way one person cannot change the planet, but each of us can educate ourselves, change the actions within our control and seek to influence those around us. If we can be passionate about saving the planet, we damn well should be passionate about saving the lives of our fellow humans.

Racism, like all other forms of discrimination, seeks to divide us. Racists seek to define a Them and Us. There is no them. There is only us. All of us, crowded onto this tiny blue and green miracle of a planet together. We are born the same way, when cut we bleed the same way, when hurt we cry the same way. In the end, we fall to the ground and die the same way. Racism is the very opposite of a sustainable society. The longer it exists the more it damages all of us. Physically and morally.

Events of the last few months have shone a harsh spotlight on the world we have created. Coronavirus has ravaged those most vulnerable in our societies whilst expecting the lowest paid to shoulder the highest burden. Racism has reared its head, flames of anger fanned by those who seek only to appeal to our basest instincts. We have found ourselves isolated, confused, scared in ways most of us have never experienced. All the while our planet continues to suffer the ill effects of man-kinds desire to reap the benefits of globalised capitalism whilst never quite getting round to paying the tab.

This does not have to be our future.

All of these challenges, disease, racism, planetary degradation, are interlinked and the way we respond to them is a choice. Our choice. Our societies are a mirror on ourselves. We have the power of protest , the power of voting and the power of our money.  We can build a world where no damage is done to those who are vulnerable in the face of the most powerful, be they human or animal. To cherry pick between the issues facing us and only seek to resolve the one that touches closest upon our individual lives is a mistake and in the current circumstances, indefensible. We must understand that we can fight for the rights of others without needing to view ourselves as a victim of the same forces.

There is only us and our one planet. Equality for all, planet and person, starts within each of us and the voice we chose to use. This blog is our voice and we will not be silent or complicit. We refuse to be divided, scared into submission or silent. We refuse to accept eight minutes of a boot to the throat.

There is no Them. There is only Us.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Blog 7 - The most important, boring sounding, thing of the year!

Not everything that matters sounds sexy. Not everything important involves tiny, adorable, fluffy baby penguins struggling to survive a changing climate in a thoroughly telegenic manner. No, much of what really matters is boring and detailed. And on that note, let me introduce to you the fabulously dry sounding COP26 summit to be held in Glasgow this November.

Now, dear reader, it may be that you are well educated, passionately dedicated to climate change and, by coincidence, a huge fan of international agreements and their mandated five year review processes. If so, then this blog is not for you. You know all this already. For the rest of us, it's time to get focused on where the biggest climate stories of the year may well emanate from.

COP26 is the follow up to the Paris Climate agreement of 2015. It is a gathering of all the signatories of the Paris deal to see how much progress they have made in that time period. Before we get into the nitty gritty of Glasgow, it's worth reminding ourselves of what Paris achieved.

The Paris Climate agreement was the moment when countries around the world agreed that we needed to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050. That by itself was a significant step forward. What was then unique was that action was not centrally mandated. Instead 197 countries put forward what they felt they could do over the next five years (2015-19). These actions were knows as Nationally Defined Contributions (NDC's). Glasgow is the review of those plans. It as also the time for countries to step up and show where they can do more as technology, investment and political activism make climate friendly policies more possible.

The COP process has plenty of critics. At last years meeting in Madrid (COP25), many of the big decisions were pushed back and will now be on the table again in Glasgow, doubling its importance. Negotiators failed to come to agreement on issues like carbon markets and financial aid for smaller nations. Meanwhile, outside of the endless round of negotiations and discussions, global emissions are at an all time high. 
On top of that the person meant to lead the discussions in Glasgow on behalf of the UK government was sacked a few weeks ago. Claire Perry O'Neill was a former clean energy minister and had been appointed President of COP26. It was suggested by that as she was not a member of the current government she may have lacked influence and power to get hard decisions taken but her removal is more widely seen as politically motivated by a Prime Minister with a decidedly thin skin when it comes to those who criticise him.

None of this helps.

COP26 marks a crucial point in our planets journey to finding the collective answers needed to the climate crisis were are living through. The problems facing our world are only going to be solved by far reaching multi-national action and the COP process is the only framework for that. We are also running out of time for countries to stop looking for accounting loopholes and quick fixes when it comes to the actions they commit to taking. Ignoring the impact of aviation, for example, is not feasible and undermines the credibility of what is agreed. As we've said on this blog before, time is running out and serious structural change is needed to how we, in the western world in particular, live our lives. Whilst we can all take individual actions, we need top down legislation and action to drive change in those sectors where the current status quo is both comfortable and profitable.

Had I mentioned all the big oil companies will be at COP26, lobbying the participating nations furiously?

The other elephant not in the room is large, orange and incredibly ignorant. The only nation to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord was the USA. Partly this is due to the rampant climate change denialism that surges around the right wing of American politics, partly it is due to the anti-science leanings of a spectacularly uneducated President. Sadly, a lot of it also down to the fact that anything Trump finds out Obama signed up to, he immediately seeks to overturn in a display of petulant insecurity. The absence of the U.S further harms the credibility of any agreements struck.

But, it is important to focus on the positives. 196 nations have remained committed to the ideas of the Paris Accord, even if none are on target currently to meet their commitments. Glasgow provides an important opportunity to apply pressure to countries in a bid to show them they need to step up and deliver not just what they promised was a starting point, but go beyond that and show a truly credible path to net zero by 2050. The agreements made at Paris would lead to a projected temperature increase of over 3 degrees across the globe by the end of the century. The commitment agreed was to reach net zero by 2050 in order to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees and preferably below 1.5. So, there was always an acknowledgement that more action was needed and that NDC's had to become more ambitious as time passed. Glasgow is the moment when we see if that review process and peer pressure can lead to that happening.

For all of us who passionately believe in a sustainable future for generations to come it's important we engage with this boring stuff. Carbon markets and taxation are nobodies idea of a good time but they are a crucial component of providing a way for large companies to pay for the pollution they cause. It's also important that the pressure is maintained on the UK government to do the necessary, detailed groundwork that could make COP26 a success rather than a photo opportunity. Across the worl
d citizens have a window of time in the first half the year to lobby their elected representatives to make meaningful increases to their NDC's.

This isn't sexy. It's isn't fluffy baby penguins but it is vitally important. We've got eight months to get educated, informed and influencing. The clock, as ever, is ticking.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Blog 6 - Veganuary (or Bananas vs Avocados)

Christmas has passed, the new year has been ushered in and so that can only mean one thing, it's time for Veganuary!

Veganuary began in 2014 and participation in the month long attempt to wean people off animal products has doubled in number each year. In late 2018 the Economist magazine predicted that 2019 would be the 'year of the vegan', Twelve months later they pronounced that piece of crystal ball work as one of their more accurate. Veganism has hit the mainstream and its rise shows no sign of stopping as traditional moral positions on animal welfare and rights are buttressed by rising awareness of the environmental impact associated with eating meat and dairy products

A survey in 2016 by the Vegan Society found that the number of vegans in the UK had grown from 150,000 to over half a million in the course of a decade and that number will have grown significantly since then. By some measures it is the fastest growing lifestyle movement in the UK. A different survey by Compare the Market in 2018 extrapolated that there were 3 million vegans in the United Kingdom but this figure is questionable being based on a small sample and a loosely worded question. What isn't in doubt is the huge growth in vegan living recently.

Veganuary has faced some criticism for focusing on the food aspect of the vegan lifestyle at the exclusion of much else. There are also some campaigners who feel that focusing heavily on the environmental impact of meat and dairy consumption underplays the moral and ethical case for veganism. Some this critique may be true but, because we're a blog linked to a shop that predominantly sells food, that's what we will be focusing on. It's probably also important to note here that realistically the idea of 'going vegan' a few days a week or a month at time is a misnomer at best. Being vegan is a lifestyle that encompasses everything a person chooses to consume and isn't realistically something that you can dip in and out of. Are you sure that on your vegan Mondays your shoes contain no leather? Do you have a different handbag for January? It is more accurate and realistic to refer to adopting an animal free diet for specific periods of time. That's not to say that doesn't still have a real impact, it does. Not eating meat two or three days a week is measurably better than not making the effort. It just doesn't equate to going vegan for a few days.

Anyway, now we've got that out the way...

So, what is the carbon footprint of all that meat we eat? It's not easy to get a precise figure but the best research suggests that human consumption of animals is responsible for 58% of all greenhouse gas emissions whilst only providing us with 18% of our calories. The same study, published in the journal Science in 2018, found that meat and dairy production uses 83% of farmland and that widespread adoption of vegan diets could reduce the pressure on land use which is driving deforestation in parts of the world including the Amazon rainforest. In fact, most studies find that adopting a plant based diet can lead to a 50% reduction in the carbon footprint associated with an individual’s food intake.

It's easy to understand why cutting meat out of our diets makes a huge impact. Growing crops and eating them directly is far more efficient that feeding that same crop to an animal and letting it convert it into tissue that can be eaten later whilst emitting methane along the way. It's this inefficiency that means cheese can sometimes have an even higher carbon footprint that pork. Speaking of cheese, let’s use that to understand what sort of numbers we're talking about. Mike Berners-Lee wrote a fascinating book called "How Bad are Banana's, in which he tries to work out the greenhouse gas emissions associated with² equivalent emissions. (CO²e is the most commonly used way of measuring emissions, It take all type of gas emission and other inputs and equates them to equivalent amount of carbon dioxide). That 12kg figure for our big block of cheese is the same as a four mile car journey. A leg of lamb might work out at as much as 38kg CO²e for a 2kg joint. For the same emissions you could have a bowl of porridge every day for four months. As a comparison, your average banana, despite being shipped across the world, comes out at 80 grams of CO²e per fruit. Even the humble egg has four times more impact than that.
all sort of food and every day products. In the book Mike finds that 1kg of hard cheese could be responsible for up to 12kg of CO
It's hard to find a less impactful way of consuming calories than the humble banana.

But, it's not totally clear cut. Plenty of vegan friendly options come with a surprisingly high carbon footprint. Rice is one good example. Grown inefficiently, using an excess of nitrogen based fertiliser, rice can have a higher emissions footprint than burning a litre of diesel. An avocado air-freighted across the globe is not a sustainable option compared to locally sourced meat that has been reared on land unsuitable for crop farming. Blindly ditching cows milk and switching to a poorly sourced soya product will only generate half the benefits a sustainably managed product would give. (But it should be noted that if we cut our consumption of cows milk and meat then we’d dramatically reduce our need for the soya which often feeds them and in turn help to reduce the deforestation associated with soya production). Equally a lot of almonds are grown in California and contribute to water shortages in the area. Is that really a better option long term? Our detailed choices really do make a difference.
However, even allowing for those nuances, the case for at least reducing our meat and dairy consumption is very strong from an environmental perspective. But what about our health? Can we really get all we need for a healthy diet without eating animal products?

In time for this year’s Veganuary, the New Scientist ran an experiment where they asked 19 volunteers to eat a vegan diet for a fortnight. Now, obviously that is a ridiculously small sample size over a short period of time, but even then some hints about how changing diet can affect us started to show. The first was that all the volunteers ate more fibre and much, much less saturated fat. As a result of the reduced fat intake, there was a corresponding, 80%, drop in cholesterol intake as well. So far, so healthy. However, the volunteers also saw smaller but significant drops in consumption across a range of vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin C and calcium.
Other studies have shown a need to make sure enough vitamin B12 is consumed on a vegan diet. This plays a key role in you nervous and immune systems. For non vegans eggs and dairy products are reliable sources of B12 but non animal substitutes aren't always easy to find. What is clear is that making sure you eat a healthy balanced diet takes some work but, really, that's true for all of us, carnivores or not. Most of us need to eat less starchy, fatty foods, many people don't get enough iron and huge swathes of the population come no where near having their five fruit and veg a day. Being vegan doesn't change any of that, but actually taking the time to consider what you put on your plate in the first place may make you more likely to actively seek out the balance you need. As ever, awareness and education are key.

Adopting a vegan lifestyle can seem like a big challenge. It certainly is a commitment that touches on every aspect of how you live your life and it’s ok for that not to be something everyone chooses to do. Life would be very boring if we were all the same. Equally, those who take such a clear ethical and moral position are to be applauded for their consistency of thinking and actions, without using that to minimise the efforts of others. It might well be that in Veganuary you don’t adopt a fully vegan lifestyle. There might be shoes you really like, foods you don’t want to go without, choices you aren’t comfortable making. But, from an environmental perspective it is clear that any change you can make does make a difference. Being aware of the impact the food we eat has on the planet we live on is key to helping build a better, sustainable, future. So, experiment with meat free Mondays, try the vegan option when you go to a restaurant, see if you can handle well sourced soya milk on your B12 enriched cereal. Baby steps matter and they do add up.

Just make sure you have a banana instead of an avocado.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Blog 5 - Happy New Year... Maybe

Welcome to the new decade. The glorious, roaring, twenties have arrived. Lets hope 2029 sees us in a slightly better place than its 100 year past predecessor though.
Mind you, 1929 might have seen the world tipped into the largest peace time financial crisis it had seen but at least the oceans weren't full of plastic, large swathes of the planet weren't scorched by bush fires and no one was calling the North West passage a regular shipping route. That's the thing about progress, it's a funny old beast.

But what about the decade before us, what do we stand on the cusp of? It's easy to feel very pessimistic when we see the news every day. We're currently being bombarded with images of Australian's fleeing their homes as fires rage with an intensity and breadth that is unknown. Aussie firefighters admit there is nothing they can do in the coming days. The fires are too big, too widespread, they will do what they will do, and humans can scurry around like frantic ants in the face of the destruction as much as they like without making any dent in them. It won't be the last time in the next decade that we are powerless to deal with the consequences of the climate emergency we are living through. Wind, rain, heat will batter us, sometimes into submission.

Closer to home supermarkets pledge to reduce their plastic use. This is fantastic, long overdue, important news. Yet despite the eye catching press releases and proclamations, the big retailers sold more plastic in 2019 than ever before. Sales of bottled water continue to rise. Someone, somewhere, isn't getting the message.

Partly that is due to the confluence of forces stacked up against meaningful change and it is these that will make us feel most hopeless in the coming years. Many of us understand the need for change on a personal level (we wouldn't be in business if you didn't), yet change is also required on a systemic level and here we run into problems. In 2020 no government in the world will be run by a Green Party. The closest may be the Greens becoming a powerful force in a new coalition in Germany if they have a slightly earlier than planned election. Greens are minor partners, shrill opponents or an easily ignored fringe in too many places. This allows governments to listen to those able to shout louder, in particular, big business.

It is a sad fact that all the largest oil producers in the world forecast continued growth over the next decade. Just take a moment and get your head around that, Oil producers, despite all we see going on around us, still believe they'll find a way to sell more oil in 2029 than they did in 2019. Sometimes it can truly feel like we're screwed.

A lot of that growth is planned to come from increased production of plastic. As we burn less petrol in our cars, the oil majors are working to compensate by feeding the ravenous plastic monster that is western consumerism even more. Sustainable it is not. Oh and we haven't even mentioned their opposition to carbon taxes in places like Canada. There is plenty to be pessimistic about if we look for it.

And yet, there are reasons for optimism and it's important we cling on to these. Awareness is rising, particularly among the young, they have seen the future we want to bequeath them and they don't like the look of it one bit. A child born this year will retire in around 2090 (if retirement as a concept even really exists by then). What world are they going to face by then? Will then be happy to work for 50 odd years to find their retirement is blighted by the problems we saw coming but never found a way to deal with?

As that increased awareness took root climate protests rocked major cities around the world in 2019 as the power of the pavement took a definitive step in finding a way to challenge the clout of big money. More and more of us will take the the streets to protest in 2020 and beyond. If we act together we have to believe that our voices can become a tsunami that washes away those who would rather safeguard their next quarter's profits at the expense of the next generations future.

That rising, urgent shout from the streets may claim its first large scalp in 2020. The EU has long been negotiating a trade deal with the bloc of South American countries known as Mercosur, a group which feature Brazil amongst its members. As international outrage at the increasing rate of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest under new President Bolsonaro grows, the EU is considering ditching the agreement instead of ratifying it as a means of showing its unwillingness to be complicit in such environmental destruction. Public pressure has moved the position of President Macron of France in particular on this issue, alongside leaders from Ireland and Austria.

In 2019 the UK burned less fossil fuels for it's electricity than it had for decades. We went weeks without burning any coal at all as renewables become an ever bigger part of our energy mix. This is a real step forward and does show what's possible even as solar panel subsidies for individual households bit the dust. By the end of the decade we could have weaned ourselves off coal totally.

Single use plastic bags continued to disappear from high street shops last year across the western world as more and more countries bought in outright bans or charges to acts as a deterrent. Scotland saw the UK's first meaningful trials of deposit return schemes for plastic bottles. The way forward it out there, we just need to find the right mechanisms coupled with the correct incentives to drive changes in behaviour. The next few years will continue to see shoppers change their habits. It's important to remember that the big supermarkets only sell cucumbers wrapped in plastic because we buy them. A fortnight long, nationwide boycott of wrapped cucumbers would see them removed from our shelves never to be seen again. We have power, and in the next decade we will learn how to use it meaningfully as our knowledge and anger grow.

And therein lies the biggest reason for optimism about the next decade despite all the evidence to the contrary. If we look back at 1929 we have one huge advantage on those who didn't see the great financial crash coming, we have so much information at our fingertips. Ignore those who cry 'fake news' all the time, they merely seek to render all facts as challenge-able opinions. A huge percentage of the knowledge we need to make meaningful changes is out there already. We have agency, we can arm ourselves with facts and information and make the 2020's the decade that real change happened because we learned what it could be. If one Swedish schoolgirl can shout loudly enough to make the world hear her, what's stopping the rest of us?

Here's to 2020, the year we optimistically find our voices and shout for change.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Blog 4 - Coffee Conundrums

Of all the things we sell in the shop, it was coffee that we thought about longest and hardest. Before our move to Caernarfon we didn't sell coffee. We never felt we quite understood what the right option was and how to deal with issues of freshness when selling it unpackaged.

When the time came to move we knew we needed to add loose coffee to our range. So, we went and did some homework.

Our first instinct was to find a local brand we could support. Obviously, even us coffee neophytes knew that not a lot of people try to grow coffee beans in rural Wales, but, there are a number of roasters local to us and that seemed a good place to start. We spoke to a few people, had a couple of small scale roasters visit and still we couldn't seem to quite find what we were looking for. This may well have been more about our lack of knowledge than those we chatted with. It's hard to give someone what they want when they have no more than a vague idea of what 'it' actually is.

And then we came across Heartland Coffee. Based in Llandudno, they were knowledgeable and building up a great reputation. When we spoke with them, they oozed a certain type of passion for their product that we found irresistible. And then we found out how they work with individual coffee growers, often buying up the whole years supply from single farmers to create great 1-2-1 relationships and unique coffees. This was most definitely what we had been searching for. We wanted to know the stories behind the coffee and have confidence in a sustainable, equitable, supply chain. We felt we'd hit the jackpot.

Fast forward a few weeks and we were pulling a ridiculous, 36 hour straight shift to get the shop ready to open a mere 24 hours late. We got to the filling the coffee jars at about 3am, opened up the big bag of Rwandan Cocatu beans and WOMPH! There was another hour worth of energy just from the smell. It was rich, dark, chocolatey, gorgeous. We didn't need to drink it, the aroma told us everything.

But it wasn't just night shift rocket fuel we were after. We'd spotted something else on our research too...

Originally coffee was grown in the shade of other crops and trees. The shade provided a home for insects and animals, creating a habitat not dissimilar to natural forests. The banana and fruit trees that that provided the cover also gave an additional income for the farmer. Coffee beans had been grown this way for hundreds of years.
All that changed in the 1970's and '80's as international aid produced 'improvements' in agricultural techniques. These changes led to coffee being grown like other crops, a mono culture dependent on sun, fertilisers and pesticides. Great for short term yields, terrible for biodiversity and the environment.

It is, however, possible to buy shade grown coffee. Enter our second coffee brand; Bird & Wild.

Bird & Wild are dedicated to selling only shade grown, Fairtrade, organic coffee. What's more they work with the RSPB to ensure their beans are grown in a way that provides a natural habitat for migrating birds in the Americas. Once we'd read all that we knew we had the missing piece of our coffee jigsaw.

According to their studies, a single shade grown coffee site can have up to 120 species of plant and 13 to 58 varieties of tree. One location in Mexico recorded 609 types of insects. A study in Guatemala found birds were 30% more abundant and diverse on shade grown plantations compared to sun grown mono cultures.This is a simple product choice that can make a real difference. Another of those magical 'little changes' we talk about so often.

So there you have it, our blend of local and ethical coffees, giving you great choice, amazing taste and a way to make the world a better place. Time to put the kettle on I think...

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Blog 3 - What is Sustainability?

When our shop was conceived it was as ‘The Sustainable Weigh’. It later gained its fabulous Welsh name of ‘Siop y Glorian’, but at the heart of the idea was sustainability.

But what is Sustainability?

The Collins dictionary defines it as “the ability to be maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage.” Which seems a reasonable enough, if slightly bland, starting point.
The most popularly used description of Sustainability is known as the Brundtland Definition and comes from an eponymous report from 1987. This is primarily concerned with international development and frames it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The trouble is this is all a bit vague. How do you define ‘needs’? Is a new TV every other year a need? Is one foreign holiday a year a need? Is a new dress for a night out a need? It opens up a can of worms and a million interpretations. Our needs are almost certainly different to yours. And so on. 7 billion different needs, 7 billion definitions of sustainability.
The truth is terms such as ‘Sustainability’, ‘Sustainable Development’, ‘Sustainable Growth’ and many other variants are used pretty much interchangeably. This has a limited advantage in that the inherent vagueness of such an approach allows a wide range of people and organisations to support the broad concept of ‘Sustainability’ without ever having to define exactly what they mean, and if we’re cynical, take the hard choices to bring to life such broad brush support.
Faced with this lack of certainty, we went looking for more inspiration and something we could use to help us define what our nascent shop was going to be.
First up was Sustain. Sustain is an alliance of food and agriculture organisations working for betting food and farming practices in the UK. They came up with a list of what sustainable food would look like:

Aim to be waste free
Eat better, and less meat and dairy
Buy local, seasonal and environmentally friendly food
Choose Fairtrade-certified products
Select fish only from sustainable sources
Get the balance right
Grow our own; buy the rest from a wide range of outlets

This felt much more like what we were looking for. This was backed up by our next port of call, The Kindling Trust. Their description was very similar:

Local & Seasonal
Organic & Sustainable farming
Reduce foods of animal origin and maximise welfare standards
Exclude fish species identified as at risk
Fairtrade certified products
Promote health & wellbeing
Food democracy
Reduction of waste & packaging

By this point we felt we had the outlines of what we as a business needed. A simple, bullet point style list, that could help us communicate our boundaries and beliefs to our customers. But before we finalised that, our research had one further port of call; The Sustainable Development Commission, a body set up in 2001 to advise the UK and devolved governments.
The only trouble is it was closed down in 2011.
A victim of budgetary cuts and ‘a bonfire of the quangos’, the government announced it would stop funding the organisation in 2010 and a year later it ceased to function. All that is left is a slightly dated looking website and ten years worth of work that ran into a dead end.
Its closure was described at the time as an act of ‘ideological vandalism’ and time is only reinforcing that judgement. The UK needs more non-partisan guidance and expertise, not less. Sadly, we are living in an age where ‘experts’ are derided by cabinet ministers. The Sustainable Development Commission is just another forgotten victim in a long running battle.
Before their untimely demise, the commission defined sustainable food in the following terms:

Is safe, healthy and nutritious, for consumers in shops, restaurants, schools, hospitals etc Can meet the needs of the less well off people
Provides a viable livelihood for farmers, processors and retailers, whose employees enjoy a safe and hygienic working environment whether in the UK or overseas
Respects biophysical and environmental limits in its production and processing, while reducing energy consumption and improving the wider environment; it also respects the highest standards of animal health and welfare, compatible with the production of affordable food for all sectors of society
Supports rural economies and the diversity of rural culture, in particular through an emphasis on local products that keep food miles to a minimum

The points about affordability and supporting rural economies really hit home for us. As has been often said, we need 1 million people doing sustainability imperfectly, not 1 person doing it beautifully. Only by making it as accessible as possible can we make meaningful change. Although they wouldn’t ultimately form part of our definition, these ideas influenced our opening hours and our desire to keep our prices as low as we possible can to make refilling an option for as many people as we can.
And what of our final list? By now we felt we’d got a good grasp on what others deemed important and how they fitted in with our goals and beliefs. The end result is our Sustainable Seven:

 1) Locally sourced    
2) Contributes to reducing packaging
 3) Offers an alternative to meat or dairy products
 4) Offers a Fairtrade or similarly ethically sourced option
 5) Is Palm Oil free
 6) Helps reduce food waste
 7) Helps you Make It, Bake It, Grow It.

This is our foundation stone. Everything we bring into the shop has to meet one of the bullet points. It helps us make decisions and to explain to customers why we make certain choices.  It gives us an anchor in a world full of shades of grey. Most of all we’re proud of it. We are the Sustainable Weigh, and this is what we believe in.