Whether you believe the recession is over or not, ‘conscious capitalism’ appears to be somewhat of an oxymoron, especially when it comes to paying employees a living wage and attempting to make environmental sustainability a common practice.
Imbibe coffee roasters, based in Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin, not only aims to take these areas on, but also extend the benefits to their suppliers, community, and customers, proving that ethics and capitalism do not have to be mutually exclusive. I spoke to Gary Grant, founder of Imbibe, to find out how the business has implemented this ethos in a practical way.
Gary had always planned to go into the speciality roasting business, but he felt that the Brexit vote accelerated this. “The business was in a sense born of Brexit,” Gary explained. “The day the UK voted leave was the day I decided to roast after 8 years of being a coffee wholesaler.”
The product would have to be excellent quality to keep the competitive edge, but he thought it could be so much more than simply about that, which led the business to the concept of conscious capitalism.
“We wanted our business to make a positive impact in the social sphere,” he said. “In order to do this we looked at a number of projects and decided we’d donate 1% of our turnover (not just profits) to Women’s Aid. We also decided that the bulk of our output would be organic – it accounts for about 90% of production.”
This brought Imbibe down somewhat of a rabbit hole as they spotted other areas that they could have a positive impact on, such as supporting The Cafe Femenino Project and offering a zero waste facility for wholesale.
In November 2018, Imbibe began its zero waste delivery system, which is now at 65% of its wholesale coffee deliveries, with Gary hopeful that the percentage will continue to increase. The business offers an innovative coffee can pick up and drop off that operates by dropping the cans to customers, replacing them and returning the empties to the roastery, where they are cleaned and refilled, before sending them on their way out to customers again.
“In a way it’s a nod to the milkman days of my childhood,” Gary said, which again, highlights not only the environmentally sound methodology of the business, but also the personalised service that the business offers consumers.
Imbibe imports coffee from all over the world, having recently contracted to buy three coffees from Panama, one of the world’s finest regions, including the Gesha variety. Coffee from this region breaks records most every year as the world’s most expensive coffee, and a batch recently sold for $75 a cup in a US café. Although Imbibe’s coffee wasn’t from this farm it is from the same region, making the business the first in Ireland to ever have Gesha from Panama.
There are clearly some difficulties involved in making a business profitable whilst still ensuring that both suppliers and staff are paid a decent wage, as well as providing an exceptional quality product. The business is currently looking at obtaining coffee from Yemen, which as Gary explained is a difficult and expensive place to get coffee from. “This is not something we want to make money off so we’re currently looking at something that will enable us to donate 100% of all monies form this coffee to an MSF project in Yemen,” said Gary. Although at an early stage, he was hopeful to have this endeavour up and running by September.
Imbibe’s current biggest seller is their organic blend Kaleidoscope, which is comprised of coffee from both Peru and Colombia. The Peruvian element comes from a 59 member all female producer in a community called Lonya Grande that is part of the Cafe Femenino Project which promotes gender equality in coffee producing communities. The other component in Kaleidoscope is Colombian, which Imbibe has recently contracted a container of coffee from.
“We paid a premium on this coffee in order to fund a river crossing so kids can get to school,” said Gary, yet again showing how their ethos extents to every element of their business model. “We did this in conjunction with Olam, one of our green bean suppliers.”
There are some issues with operating as a ‘conscious’ business, as Gary feels that Imbibe has sometimes been challenged on their ethics – “There was perhaps a perception that we were just ‘nice guys,’ so to speak,” he said. Gary now believes that the quality of the product, roasted on a 15 kilo Giesen coffee roaster, is speaking for itself.
“The social stuff is great to do but the coffee needs to be front and centre, hence our concentration on only the very best single origins,” he said. “We want people to think ‘wow this is great coffee’ and then look at the other things we do as a bonus and reason to support us.”