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Hologram is now conventional.

We believe in pushing potential in every aspect of what we do—from employee development to coffee-buying relationships—and we believe improvement is a journey not a destination. We're proud of all of the coffees we sell and we want to celebrate their journey to higher quality and sustainability. With that in mind, we are making a change to Hologram that will impact its organic certification. Starting February 15th, 2016, we will be removing the USDA Certified Organic label from Hologram for all West Coast products. The label was removed from all East Coast products in early January.

Hologram is one of our most popular blends and the vast majority of coffees used in Hologram will still be certified organic, but we saw great potential in a few groups of growers that are not yet certified. To support these coffees, whose flavor profile will work well for Hologram, we are making the choice to remove the certification and work with these growers as they continue on their journey toward greater sustainability.

In summary, changing Hologram to conventional allows the inclusion of coffees that are making progress moving along the continuum towards greater sustainability and we are committed to helping them push their potential.

We understand that some of our customers will still want coffee that has reached the organic certification benchmark and we are committed to offering a large selection of certified organic year-round options that include Apollo, Fast Forward, and Forty Six in addition to the numerous single-origin organic offerings.


POSTED IN: coffee
A look back at 2015 in sustainability at Counter Culture Coffee.When I started this blog back in the spring, I began with trying to answer "What is sustainable coffee?" I knew from the outset that this was a bit of a rhetorical question, but I thought I could at least put some parameters around an answer—I needed to for my own piece of mind. Almost a year later, I've decided that once you get down to it, the topic of "sustainable coffee" encompasses just about everything. If we want the coffee industry to keep going indefinitely, that involves an interaction of coffee prices, quality, care for the environment, community viability, and the viability of all of the businesses in the supply chain. The more I think about it, the more I struggle to come up with any industry topics not related to sustainability.

In some ways this is good—it means that people like me who are officially "in charge" of sustainability don't have sole responsibility for addressing the myriad issues in the coffee industry. On the other hand, it means that no one company, Counter Culture included, is going to make coffee sustainable all on their own. So, if a sustainable coffee industry necessitates the involvement of everyone and covers just about every topic, what the heck do we do?

My answer to that question at this point, eight months into my job, is: do the best that we can within our own operations, be transparent about our work so that others can learn from our successes and failures, and join others in the industry to magnify and focus our impact.

Internally, we worked on environmental sustainability through improvements to our greenhouse gas data collection and waste management. We also set team sustainability initiatives for the first time in 2015, as an attempt to further infuse sustainability into our own operations. Just last month, we became part of the Durham Living Wage Project, and we continue to support sustainable livelihoods for coffee producers through our Seeds fund.

Our systems of reporting and ways to share information about our successes and failures are both works in progress, but we think it's important to keep sharing even as we work to improve those processes. I talked about this a lot in my presentation at the National Coffee Association's Fall Summit, which gave me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of working on sustainability issues, despite their messy nature. We also launched a new version of our Transparency Report this year with the intent to show rather than tell people how we buy coffee.

Even if we get everything right internally, Counter Culture is still a relatively small entity in the coffee market. If we want to make industry-level impacts, we need to join forces with other coffee folks and work towards common goals. I was fortunate to inherit a role in the Coalition for Coffee Communities from my predecessor, and we've recently committed to help build a framework for measuring and defining sustainable coffee as part of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge.

I talked about continuous improvement and movement along a continuum a lot this year, in reference to our own operations, how we view sustainable coffee production, etc. No one company or buying relationship or certification is ever going to make coffee a truly sustainable industry, but I'm hopeful that if we put our minds and dollars together, we can start moving along the spectrum more deliberately and at an increasing pace.

Meredith Taylor
Our company meeting in August 2015!We were first introduced to the Durham Living Wage Project back in May during our 2015 Sustainable Spring event series. Our support team was asked to find businesses or organizations in their communities doing inspiring work in sustainability and invite them to speak at our training centers. Our team here in Durham invited Lindsay Moriarty and Rob Gillespie from Monuts Donuts to speak, and, I must admit, I was a little skeptical. I'd heard about Monuts long before moving to Durham—they're a local favorite here—but I wondered what they would have to say aside from some tips on running a restaurant sustainably. Instead, I was awesomely surprised when Lindsay and Rob focused their presentation on the Durham Living Wage Project and introduced me to an aspect of social sustainability that I hadn't previously considered.

A living wage is the amount of income needed for one person to meet their basic needs without public or private assistance. The North Carolina minimum wage is $7.25/hour, for example, while the living wage for Durham, calculated by the city using a methodology tied to the federal poverty level, is $12.53/hour. To put it another way, that's the difference between earning $15,000 a year and $25,000 a year. The Durham Living Wage Project is a voluntary program that local businesses can join to certify that they pay all of their employees at least $12.53/hour. The minimum is $11.03/hour for employees with employer-provided health insurance or where employees are reimbursed for at least 50% of their cost of health insurance.

After spending many years on the front lines of the service industry in DC, I left Monuts' presentation thinking, "That's so cool! I wonder if most of my friends in the DC service industry get paid anything near the living wage for that region?" I was also feeling a bit guilty that I couldn't leave the presentation and say, with any degree of certainty, that Counter Culture paid a living wage. As a company, we talk a lot about projects we support at origin and ways we're working to reduce our environmental impact, but what if we weren't even paying our own employees a living wage? To say that's not sustainable is an understatement.

To my relief, I looked into the certification more, found out that we do meet the Durham Living Wage Project's requirements and joined the project. The whole process taught me two things about sustainability: Never stop digging into your company's own practices, and always look to other businesses for new ideas. Without Monuts, I'm not sure if the Durham Living Wage Project would have appeared on my radar, and I'm grateful to them and other certified businesses in Durham for setting such a good example for us to follow.

Meredith Taylor
Since 2002, coffee has been a major export for East Timor.Sustainability Manager Meredith Taylor visited East Timor last month. It was the first time anyone from Counter Culture has visited the country. Since 2002, coffee has been a major export for East Timor, and Meredith was excited for the opportunity to check out this under-the-radar origin.

Read Meredith's trip report on Flickr.

Pre-competitive collaboration is among the emerging trends in coffee industry sustainability efforts.I started working in coffee a bit accidentally—happening upon a job as a barista until I "figured out what I really wanted to be." After a few years on the job, my former-boss here at Counter Culture, Kim Ionescu, suggested I apply for the Specialty Coffee Association of America's Sustainability Council. Being on the council opened my eyes to how other folks were thinking about the intersection of sustainability and coffee, and I realized I'd found my career path after all. Throughout my time as a barista, shop manager, and then in customer service for Counter Culture, I always came back from industry events that touch on sustainability with a renewed energy—inspired by the prevailing spirit of idealism and collaboration.

I'm happy to say that this feeling hasn't waned in my new position as Counter Culture's Sustainability Manager. I recently had the fortune of experiencing it once again at the National Coffee Association's (NCA's) Sustainability Summit. I participated in the conference itself, as well as some side meetings, and was struck by the convergence of these separate groups on what's needed to make the coffee industry more sustainable and how to move the sector forward. I'm one of those people who always likes to know the big picture on a topic, and, in that spirit, I'd like to share two of the trends I observed in progress at this summit:

Working Toward an Industry Definition of "Sustainable Coffee"
As I said in my NCA presentation, it's not that the lack of an industry-wide definition of "sustainable coffee" is stopping us from working on the issues we know are related—climate change, food security, and environmental protection to name a few. Instead, the lack of a definition makes it hard to establish a baseline for whether initiatives we try are, in fact, making coffee more sustainable. The lack of a shared definition also makes it difficult to communicate to consumers whether or not the coffee they're buying is sustainable or at least moving in that direction. The exciting news on this front is that there's a new industry-wide initiative in the works that's working to propose a definition. I really hope Counter Culture will be involved with this work and that I can write about what's sure-to-be a messy-but-exhilarating process on this blog!

Pre-Competitive Collaboration
Another trend tied very closely to defining sustainable coffee is working with other companies, even direct competitors, on projects in communities where coffee is grown and processed. As a roaster, for example, we share many supply chain partners with other roasters, and there's a growing realization that we can make a bigger impact on issues like food security in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, for example, if we pool resources with other folks also sourcing coffee in that region.

If we're all working within a shared industry vision of what sustainable coffee is, we can design research and implement shared projects that are much-better coordinated across coffee-growing regions instead of doing one-off projects within our own supply chains. For example, the Coalition for Coffee Communities, of which Counter Culture is a member, is working on a landscape survey and gap analysis project in Jinotega, Nicaragua, and the results will help companies figure out how best to work collaboratively in that region. Hopefully, this will lead to producers, exporters, importers, non-governmental organizations, and government bodies all working together with shared metrics and goals—something that sounds simple, but hasn't been the model in the coffee industry in the past.

I came back from the NCA Summit with an enormous amount of renewed energy and a great reminder of why I work in coffee: The industry is full of people dedicated to sustainability—regardless of their job title—and we're nothing if not relentlessly ideal. A sustainable coffee industry has the potential to make a huge global impact, and I'm excited for what we'll be able to accomplish working together.

Meredith Taylor
As I've said in previous posts, we have some awesome employees here at Counter Culture who think about sustainability not only at work, but in their own lives, as well. One of these sustainably-minded folks is Chelsea Thoumsin, the customer support representative at our Philadelphia Training Center. Chelsea knows more about bees than anyone I've ever met and, given that we depend on flowering plants for coffee, I asked her to write about her work with the Pollinator Project and shed some light on the importance of pollinators. –Meredith

In Pennsylvania alone, beekeepers experienced an average of 60% of honeybee colony loss in the April of 2014–April 2015 season."I keep hearing in the news that the bees are dying. Why's that? And what can I do to help?" As a beekeeper, I am on the receiving end of these and many other insect-related questions. These two, in particular, essentially spurred the creation of the Pollinator Project—wildflower seed packets designed to help honeybees and other integral pollinators.

Just how dire is the honeybee situation, anyway? In Pennsylvania alone, beekeepers experienced an average of 60% of honeybee colony loss in the April of 2014–April 2015 season, and, according to Science Daily, the national average of recorded losses was more than 40%. These numbers are staggering, but also considered "normal" over the past decade or so. Extreme losses indicate a larger, more convoluted issue of honeybee health and survival.

These are just a few of the factors of what can cause a colony to die: pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, starvation (due to lack of a variety of nectar and pollen-producing plants), stress of environmental change, agricultural stress (including migratory beekeeping), prematurely failing queen bees, varroa mites, disease (such as American/European foulbrood), tracheal mites, nosema, wax moths, and small hive beetles.

But why do we need pollinators? Pollinators facilitate plant reproduction, and, without them, we wouldn't have more than 85% of both food and plant resources in the world. Honeybees alone are responsible for about 30% of our food resources. Coffee trees are self-pollinating, but studies have shown a 15-50% increase in production when honeybees are aiding that pollination. To state it another way, the loss of pollinating bees would result in about a 33% reduction in coffee production.

Supporting the survival of honeybees is relatively simple for the average citizen: plant pollinator-friendly flowers. That alone provides a more habitable environment for honeybees, bumblebees, hundreds of species of native bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps and hornets (yes, they're important, too), and hummingbirds. Lack of food, aka "forage" to us bee folk, is one of the main contributors of the honeybee's decline, not to mention the vast reduction in populations of other effective and very necessary pollinators we often forget about.

Pollinators facilitate plant reproduction, and, without them, we wouldn't have more than 85% of both food and plant resources in the world.While the idea of sprinkling wildflower seeds to make the world a happier and better place for honeybees seems like a Lisa-Frankean pipe dream, it truly does make a difference in the ecosystem at large. Wildflowers are hearty, they provide habitat for insects and birds, they re-seed easily, and they take minimal resources to maintain and propagate. Pollinator Project seed varieties are selected with the intention of providing forage during all seasons possible.

Since April of 2015, when Pollinator Project came to fruition, enough wildflower seeds have been purchased (and presumably, planted) to cover more than 3 full acres—that's more than 130,000 square feet of land—in solid wildflower mass. This certainly isn't nothing, and the repercussions are great since these wildflowers re-seed and exponentially increase their numbers each season. Another mission of Pollinator Project is to focus on education with the goal of demystifying the role of pollinators—and how we can better support them for their (and our) future. I've hosted presentations for groups ranging from high school students to residents of a boutique hotel, but one common theme rings true: It's inspiring to experience others wanting to make a positive change—for pollinators or otherwise—and I am thankful that Pollinator Project can do just that.

–Chelsea Thoumsin

Pollinator Project is a small business in Philadelphia that fills up much of Chelsea's free time. Twenty percent of proceeds go The Xerces Society.

Our 2016 Origin Field Lab will be in Honduras!March 13–19, 2016

On this weeklong trip, students participate in each step of the coffee production process at origin—from harvest to export—and learn about the benefits and challenges of building long-term coffee relationships.

The 2016 Origin Field Lab will cover the complexities of contemporary coffee farming in general, and in Honduras in particular, and with on-site experiences which will illuminate the intricacies of coffee cultivation and processing for farms of varying sizes.

(Application limited to Counter Culture's wholesale customers.)


We've been working hard over the last few weeks to prepare our upcoming 2014 Transparency Report. One of the metrics we include every year in this report is the "FOB" price paid for each coffee. Following an internal review of the draft report this week, I got some really good questions about this metric merit a post on the topic of price transparency.

FOB stands for "Free On Board" and represents the price paid for a coffee at the point of export, when it is ready to be loaded onto a ship at port. In terms of the coffee supply chain, it's a point that falls somewhere in the middle between what the farmer gets paid and what Counter Culture pays. This is because there are a number of supply-chain steps between us and the farmer: the mill, exporter, international shipper, importer, warehouser, and domestic shipper to name a few. Each of these steps serves a purpose, and each adds cost to a coffee. The wrinkle is that every coffee supply chain is different: Sometimes the mill and the exporter are the same entity; sometimes the coffee comes through a co-op; etc. There are also important distinctions at the farm level between a farmer who does their own processing and a farmer that delivers coffee cherries to a mill, for example. To compare them on the same standard would be confusing. The only point in the supply chain that is guaranteed to happen for every coffee is that it will get on a boat bound for the U.S., and that's why the FOB price is the standard reporting metric in the coffee industry.

The problem with the FOB price metric is that it's neither what the farmer gets paid for coffee, nor the price Counter Culture pays for green coffee. So why do we use it? Isn't knowing what the farmer got paid what we're really after? Well, yes. And, in many cases, we do know how much the farmer actually got paid. But how is knowing that a farmer in Burundi got paid $3.00/lb helpful? How is knowing that or the FOB price helpful, or meaningful across local (country) and international markets? My point is this: Knowing what the farmer gets paid isn't meaningful without a whole lot of context. What we really want to get at is fairness. Is that farmer getting paid a fair share of the final retail price for their contribution to that coffee's supply chain?

The answer to that question is in traceability. Any single price point in the coffee supply chain doesn't mean much; what's really important is how all of the pieces fit together. Can we look at a coffee's supply chain, trace the costs that get added to it between the farmer and Counter Culture, and justify those price points?

Our coffee-buying philosophy is to build supply-chain relationships and use them to push the quality and sustainability of coffees. This philosophy doesn't work unless everyone in the supply chain is committed to it as well. For example, let's say a coffee will taste better if we can speed up the time between harvest and shipment to Counter Culture. Everyone in the supply chain will need to be involved to make that happen and will likely incur cost to do so. If we're successful, everyone should also share in that success, and the only way we can be sure that's happening is through traceability.

Right now, we're reporting the FOB price because, as a common industry-wide metric, that allows you to compare us to other companies. That's just the beginning of what we'd like to do. To be able to incentivize quality and sustainability improvements, to fill in that context that's missing with FOB price, we need to be able to trace price throughout every coffee's supply chain. Then, we need to figure out how to report on that traceability. The forthcoming 2014 Transparency Report is the first step of many in that direction.

Price transparency is a complicated topic, and what I've laid out here only scratches the surface. In a future post, I'll fill in some of the details I've left out here—with specific examples from our supply chains and how traceability has played an important part in those examples.