Sustainable from the start

Since 1989, Jasper Coffee has been doing coffee differently. Passion shines through, be it for quality, sustainability or social justice, and Fairtrade and Organic certified coffees provide the foundations on which the business is built.

“We were dead-set hippies,” says Wells Trenfield, by way of explanation. Jasper Coffee was founded by Wells and his partner, Merilyn Parker, and their philosophy was influenced by their background in biodynamic farming, composting and vegetable growing. “Looking after the planet is looking after ourselves, and in coffee we saw a product to create with, not to bastardise.”

Re-humanised coffee

In a world in which some coffee is produced with what amounts to slave labour, Wells says the Fairtrade system is the most effective way of improving the lives of growers and their families. About 60% of world coffee production comes from small family plots, often tended by some of the world’s poorest people. “Out of necessity that can put pressure on the land,” says Wells. “Fairtrade means that people get a decent price for their crops, allowing them to grow coffee more sustainably.

It’s clear that Wells takes just as much interest in the people who grow his coffee as he does in the product. He regularly visits his growers around the world and sponsors some to come to Australia to meet the ultimate consumers of their coffee. “In Ethiopia, the premium paid to just one Fair Trade cooperative directly benefits two million people,” he says. Those benefits include providing access to electricity, medical care, schools and books. Yet despite the many, tangible success stories, there is still scepticism around Fair Trade. “A lot of misinformation is spread by people who want to keep prices down.”

Fair and organic

Whilst there are overlaps in the two systems, Fairtrade and Organic are two separate certifications. Of over 30 single origin coffees sourced by Jasper Coffee, around 14 are Fairtrade and organic, and they make up 75% of sales. Clearly these labels are a factor in people’s buying decisions. Many coffees are also shade grown. “Rainforest is sometimes cleared to allow development of high yield coffee plantations,” says Wells, “but coffee can be planted under a canopy of indigenous trees, preserving wildlife habitat and providing diverse income for the indigenous people.”

Sometimes this means the coffee misses out on certification. An early request from a customer for details on where a particular coffee came from lead Wells into the remote mountains New Guinea. “The coffee grows wild in the forest and is harvested by local villagers. They can’t afford the certification process and without roads it’s difficult to get auditors into the area, but the coffee is about as organic as you could find.” Income from the coffee harvest is starting to improve infrastructure, and bringing a higher standard of living to the area.

 A matter of personal taste

One barrier Wells has encountered is the belief that if something is Fairtrade and organic, it must be inferior. This isn’t helped by some larger players who are keen to bolster their sustainability credentials, but have opted for cheaper, lower quality product. They may still have Fairtrade and organic certification, but they don’t stand up to Wells’ key criteria for selection. “We only sell coffee we personally like, and that happens to be the best and most expensive Arabica coffees”.

This obsession with quality actually held back the development of the business. “There was a different mentality at that time. People thought coffee was coffee.” So to begin with Jasper Coffee focused on retailing the product. Lots of tastings of different coffees were held in many different stores to let the public taste the difference. “Café owners didn’t understand what we were about and didn’t care, so we aimed to get retail packs onto the kitchen benches of as many homes as possible.”

It took ten years for Wells and Merilyn to feel like they were on their feet, in control of their market, and with an established reputation for sustainability and quality. “It’s a niche market. We punch above our weight, but we are a small player and intend to remain that way.” The business employs about 85 people in total.

What does the commitment to Fairtrade and organic coffee mean for the final price? Wells is careful to emphasise the importance of factoring quality into the analysis. “If we ensure that we compare coffees of equal quality, then the sustainable, Fairtrade product costs around three cents more per cup.” A pittance when compared to the benefits achieved.

Carbon neutrality

In 2009 Jasper Coffee embarked on the journey to become carbon neutral. It took  four months to achieve that goal. Every aspect of the business is included in the audit, not just the products. Roasting takes place in the world’s most energy efficient roaster that burns off the volatile compounds released by the coffee. All emissions are accounted for and outstanding emissions are offset through the purchase of verified carbon offsets generated by a biomass-fuelled electricity generation project in India.

Risky business

Businesses in general are no strangers to risk, but in developing Jasper Coffee, Merilyn and Wells have had a few more risks to contend with. Going down the sustainability path was one of them. Fairtrade and organic certifications, auditing carbon emissions and buying offsets all incur costs that competitors avoid, but Wells has absolutely no regrets about pursuing these initiatives. “You don’t change who you are,” he says.

Another risk was opening their store and espresso bar in the Chadstone shopping centre. “It takes Fairtrade into a new arena, to where a lot of people have never been exposed to the Fairtrade message,” says Wells. It is a risk that has paid off, with plans to roll out more retail stores in large centres. Future growth will also involve developing the market for the product amongst cafes, consumers and corporate customers. Large businesses now have sustainability officers, and Wells points out that by switching to the Jasper product those companies can elevate their standing in the eyes of their customers.

Asked what, with the benefit of hindsight, he would have done differently, Wells nominates marketing. “I would have spent much more on marketing earlier on. I would have taken more risk in that area.”

What other advice does this self-described hippy caffeine dealer have for the wider corporate world? “Companies that don’t engage with sustainability as a strategy for future growth will be buried.”

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