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.

Blog 2 - Big Dave rides again

This Sunday (27th October) sees the launch of David Attenborough's newest series on BBC1. It is entitled Seven worlds, One Planet and the pre-screening blurb promises us a feast of wonders with a focus on the "extra-ordinary diversity" that can be found across the seven continents that make up Planet Earth.

It will also inevitably, pressingly, show how that diversity is under greater threat than ever before.

The planet wide scope of the series is welcome for all sorts of reasons, not least that it cuts to the heart of one of the biggest problems we face when dealing with the climate emergency we are living through. It's just so big.

Humans have not evolved to think on an earth-wide scale. We think of home, family, work, friends, hobbies and food. We do not instinctively think of how each of our actions combines and intertwines with billions of other actions. On a daily basis we don't easily draw the line between our food choices and the deforestation of the Amazon. We don't naturally perceive the link between water shortages in Australia, China and central Africa. It's not easy to think that big.

And yet clearly we must.

When we focus on the immediate we miss the point. This is not a conversation about the weather on our doorstep. This is the story of rising polar temperatures, disruptions to weather patterns affecting harvests in Asia and /Africa. It is the water shortages appearing across the globe and wildfires spreading like, well, wildfires across North and South America and Russia. This is a picture so big is can boggle our brains.

At least we're reaching a point where the science is becoming settled. Well over 95% of climate related science is now in agreement about the changes happening to our world and the primary cause of it. That's safely in the realm of settled fact. Not that you'd always know it by the words of some, including the United States Denier-in-Chief.

By accepting the facts is one thing. Becoming slowly accustomed to the idea of the Anthropocene is all very well and good, but slow accumulation of disparate knowledge does not summon up righteous anger and passionate, impactful, quick, change. And if you can't see it in your day to day life, what does light that spark in people.

It's a challenge for media outlets old and new. The BBC has copped a lot of flak over the past decade or so for giving a platform to those who dispute the established facts on climate change. They don't do that now, but the long years of seeking balance by offering opposing views lingers on. Social media operates on soundbites, memes and tweets. None are suited to detailed analysis that pulls together the strands of change from around the globe into a meaningful story.

Attenborough's attempts to do this job will be vital. His is an increasingly lone, trusted, voice in the never ending noise of the modern news cycle. If his words cut through in the way they did on plastic use during Blue Planet II then we may reach a tipping point of awareness. The story of change is global, the story of humankind's thoughtless impact is planet wide. The answers will need to be just a large in scope.

We often speak to our customers about the importance of believing that the little changes do add up to something meaningful, that it is worth refilling one plastic bottle at time. And that is totally true. We have to keep faith that our individual and community wide actions can have an impact. But it's also true that such an argument contains a paradox at it's heart. Yes we must believe in the small changes that are within our power, but we must never lose sight of the big picture that drives the need for them.

Ultimately, as with so much in life, careful, painstaking education is the answer. To come up with effective solutions, we need as much information as possible as well as the ability to filter the trustworthy from the less so. Attenborough is vital in this, but it's not his job alone. It's up to all of us to understand, to gather information, to think on scale way beyond our doorsteps and neighbourhoods.

So, yes, it matters that we refill our bottles, tubs and jars. Yet we must do more. It might be distant to our day to day lives but the Amazon is being pillaged, the glaciers of Antarctica are melting, the rivers of Australia are running dry, the trees of Europe are under threat as warmer weather aids the spread of parasites, the Polar ice is disappearing as temperatures warm there four times faster than anywhere else... and on and on and on. The climate emergency and its threat to the diversity of life on our planet are global and overwhelming. Our responsibility is to look it square in the eye and arm ourselves with the knowledge to make a difference. The time has passed for blissful ignorance.

Can Attenborough do for diversity what he did for plastic? Maybe that is the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking; If he can't, who can? The clock, after all, is ticking...

Friday, October 18, 2019

Blog 1 - Ice, Comedians, You.... and Hello.

Blog 1
So, finally, the doors are open and many of you have already visited the shop. Thank you all for getting the Sustainable Weigh off to such a positive, flying start.
Now that we’re up and running (although with loads still to do!), our thoughts are turning to the other part of our ambitions for the Sustainable Weigh/Siop y Glorian. This blog is part of that. And where else to start the life of the SustainaBlog but on the 5th October 1893…
Far beyond the reach of daily life, in the frozen wilderness of the Arctic north, a wooden ship by the name of Fram was preparing for winter. She had left Norway that June, specifically designed and built for an expedition headed by Fridtjof Nansen, who’s aim was to be the first man to reach the North Pole. His plan to do so was contemptuous of contemporary thinking on the subject. Instead of fighting the polar conditions, Nansen sought to capitalise on an insight gleaned from his scientific work and use the ocean currents and pack ice movements as tools to help him reach a new furthest north. Instead of avoiding ice for as long as possible, Nansen would seek it out, pick his moment and then confounding all logic, deliberately get his ship trapped for the winter. Once locked in place, he would rely on the ocean currents to carry the helpless Fram, over the North Pole.
It was an audacious plan. No one else considered deliberately wintering trapped in the frozen north to be a good idea. Nansen, bought up on long solo trips cross country skiing, immersed in the spectacular natural wonders of the Norwegian countryside, understood instinctively that his best chance of success lay in working with nature rather than against it.
So it was that on the 5th October, the rudder of the Fram was shipped aboard and the vessel and her crew were committed to the mercy of the ice for however long it took. The pessimists suggested they might be trapped for 3 years. The end result of that long drift was a new Furthest North record. The Fram, specially built with curved, strengthened sides survived and lives on in a museum to this day. The lessons were clear. Nature could be harnessed rather than fought.
By now the moral of this tale and its link to the subject of Sustainability should be clear. It should be possible to work with our planet, not in rapacious opposition to it.
That is the basis upon which we’ve created the Sustainable Weigh. We’re not a total solution and we don’t have all the answers. We don’t know everything and we’re very confident that we’ll make mistakes. But we do know we have to try and do something. So, we’re going to seek to offer an alternative to consumption as usual. Using our definition of Sustainability as a guide, we’ll look to sell products which can help make a positive impact on reducing food waste and packaging use, find more meat and dairy free alternatives and support schemes such as Fairtrade.
There is a well known quote from the American actor and comedian, Robin Williams which you’ll find in our shop and on our website. He famously said that “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world”. We want to take that thought and help people change their worlds just a little bit at a time in a way that adds up to something meaningful and impactful. There is much in the world that needs changing on a systemic level but there is also much that is in our hands. We can make changes that have an impact.
As we’ve worked on developing the ideas that have become the Sustainable Weigh over the past year, it has become clear that as much as we are a shop, here to sell things to people, our role can’t end there. We need to be part of the conversation on what our future looks like. We need to be a source of information and ideas. We need to be knowledgeable and authentic in what we’re saying to our customers. This blog is part of that. Part of the need to share ideas in the hope they change the world a little faster. Part of the wider ambition.
And there is a dramatic need to move faster. Every week there is news showing how humanity’s impact on the planet is driving climate change, species extinction and resource depletion. The time for action is now. To return to where we started this blog, far in the artic north. If someone wanted to recreate Nansen’s frozen polar drift of 120 odd years ago, they couldn’t. The ice no longer exists.
We all need to be part of the change that stops more damage being done and even more being lost to future generations. And it’s that need for change that brings us to the final part of our trilogy of subjects for today. You.
You can make a difference. Small changes do add up to something meaningful. And because of that, plus the power of ideas, we look forward to seeing you in the shop, changing your world one plastic bottle and refilled pot at a time.