As a Brit who loves drinking tea, I have always been a fan of the simple, effective and cheap product that is the tea bag. However, when I stumbled across an advertisement for Taylors of Harrogate’s (ToH) Coffee bags, I had very mixed emotions. First off, I couldn’t believe that no one had done this before, seeing as coffee is the second most consumed drink in the UK (after tea). Sadly, this disbelief turned into a stark realisation. The reason it had never been done before is because it’s highly unnecessary, and misses the mark in many of the areas which draw me to teabags. Not only are they expensive, they are not as potent in flavour, and most importantly come with a load of extra packaging compared to similar alternatives such as Instant coffee. I know I haven’t necessarily touched on the sustainability of the product yet, but I think that the actual design and reasoning behind the product shows a lot about an approach to sustainability. In my view, the reason for the coffee bag is to give people an alternative in the cheap coffee market that seems reliable and familiar due to their similarity with tea bags. This is generally a fine ambition, but one that dangerously treads the line between being wasteful and unnecessary. When it comes to the actual product specifications, I cannot fault ToH for their transparency and honesty in regards to the packaging of their coffee bags. Equally as a premium brand in the UK, ToH have the resources available to push further into the research and production of even better packaging for their products. Finally, ToH coffee is littered with valuable certifications that commend their sustainability commitments in relation to carbon neutrality under the Food & Drink Federation, and rainforest protection with the Rainforest Alliance.
Although not the main focus of my review, it’s important to touch on the actual coffee that ToH fills their coffee bags with. I emphasise this because ToH do a great job in sourcing their coffee beans from independently certified farms and co-operatives. The certifiers are exclusively limited to the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ and Fair-trade, all of which are robust standards for sustainable coffee production, with primary focus on tackling social issues in coffee production. ToH also does its own work with the actual coffee suppliers to encourage them to reduce their levels of waste water and carbon footprint. This can be exemplified through the initiative with their 4000 Kenyan suppliers, who they have helped plant over 1.5 million trees in the Mount Kenya region. All in all, the coffee in the coffee bags are harvested and farmed in a sustainable manner.
Moving on, the coffee bag itself is entirely made of PLA or Polylactic acid. This is one of the most common bioplastics, and is derived from fully renewable sources such as corn starch. Although these base ingredients are fully renewable in the conventional sense, some important ethical questions arise. Most notably, is it right to be producing plastics out of food resources such as corn, especially in a growing population where food supply may become strained. Ironically, this might make the production of PLA unsustainable in the longer term. Having identified this weakness in the coffee bag, I’m sad to report that there are more. ToH claims that the PLA teabag is entirely compostable, which under European Standard EN13432 will mean that 90% of the product is converted into carbon emissions by microorganisms within 6 months of use. However, surveys of German composting plants undertaken by the German Environmental Aid found that 95% of PLA cannot be composted within these regulations. This means that either these coffee bags are made with some pretty special PLA, or ToH are simply lying.
Another oversight that worries me about these coffee bags concern the sealing of the bag. Having looked into common issues with conventional tea bags, the sealing of bags with plastic glue has been highlighted as a major one, which may further detract from the compostability of PLA bags. Seeing as ToH’s website makes absolutely no mention of how the bags are sealed, I’m led to believe that it’s something they haven’t considered, and definitely urge them to consider. If we trust that the PLA bags are genuinely compostable, the plastic sealing glue would likely derail the sustainability of the disposal process for the coffee bags.
Despite this oversight, ToH is very honest in the limitations of its envelope sleeve, which is made out of a petroleum based laminate. This is produced from glaringly un-renewable fossil fuels and is un-recyclable. You might expect me to heavily criticise this, however, it is the only material that can keep the coffee fresh, and ToH have actively tried to minimise their use of this resource by 25%. Inherently, although its not great, it’s an inevitable part of the coffee bag design, and thankfully ToH have taken accountability of it. To end this section on a positive, the actual box holding the bags is made of entirely FSC certified card which is easily recyclable. FSC is the leading Forest Stewardship institution in the UK and is highly reliable.
With this review being centred on the intricacies of the coffee bag itself, I’ll make sure to be brief but complementary to Taylors of Harrogate when considering their production processes. Since the middle of 2020, all ToH products have been certified as Carbon neutral, with the company itself now being a Carbon Neutral company across all operations. This goal of carbon neutrality has evidently been a goal of ToH for a long time, as in 2015 they partnered with natural Capital Partners, an independent expert in carbon emissions. With this partner, ToH have worked hard within their entire supply chain to improve carbon efficiency. This can be evidenced through their work with TIST (International Small Group and Tree Planting Programme) by aiding small farms in planting fruit and nut trees for carbon offset purposes. This has applied to all of their farms in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda.
Moving along from their suppliers, ToH has actively made drastic changes to their factories and supply chain to reduce their carbon footprint. This extends to the point that they have changed where their produce is shipped to in order to minimise transport miles. This is impressive to me as it likely would have increased their operational costs. To summarise, 100% of all gas and electricity for the Harrogate HQ is renewable, with rainwater being collected for their toilets and there being zero waste to landfill. The only improvement I can suggest is that ToH strive for carbon negativity, and potentially provide more information on their water usage data, as this is an area that is of upmost importance to any sustainable initiative.
When it comes to social responsibility, Taylors of Harrogate have done a really good job ensuring the financial and social stability of all of their suppliers, no matter their size. This has been represented through the Taylors Sourcing Approach (TSA) which is a mechanism of creating long-term contracts with suppliers, at fair prices. What is even more interesting is the detail that ToH provides in regards to their contracting system, which few companies ever shed light on. For instance, in light of the pandemic, ToH shortened a third of their payment commitments to Net Cash Against Documents (NCAD) in order to increase money flow to suppliers. Equally, ToH is very in touch with the UN’s sustainable development goals especially in the realm of wage inequality. This has been stressed by their work with IDH (Sustainable Trade Initiative) in order to measure the living wage gap with their suppliers. By undertaking this research, they are now able to better pay their employees and close the wage gap. All in all, I am thoroughly impressed by the work of Taylors of Harrogate, and encourage you to look at their impact website to learn more about social sustainability, because I definitely learned a thing or two.