Ditching the paper cup

The Green Cafe Network goes beyond fair trade


GREEN CITY Statistics show that Americans drink more than 400 million cups of coffee a day. While most buy the average Starbucks and Folgers blends, a growing number of consumers are beginning to care more about what's in their cup and where it comes from.

I work part-time at Coffee to the People in the Haight, which specializes in high quality, Fair Trade products, and I often field questions from customers about the origin and certification of the shop's java. But no one ever asks about the flush capacity of our toilets, or the environmental impact of our cleaning products, or whether all of our appliances meet Energy Star standards.

In the past, if they'd asked about such things, I would have told them that the toilet ran constantly, the petroleum-based dish soap we used probably killed fish in the Bay, and that the two refrigerators behind the counter had been around since before I was born.

It's not that the owners never cared about having a greener business — they just couldn't afford to pay attention. Stocking gourmet coffee and tea is costly, not to mention the astronomical rent and power bills they have to pay every month.

That's where the Green Café Network comes in.

Environmental educator Kirstin Henninger founded the nonprofit collective a year ago to help its members achieve higher standards of environmental stewardship. So far, the network is composed of 10 cafés, including Coffee to the People. Owners meet periodically to discuss and share business strategies. Recently they went in together to purchase compostable to-go containers. They hope to do the same with eco-friendly cleaning supplies in the near future.

Henninger, 39, originally wanted to open a green coffee shop of her own. After surveying shop owners on their business practices, however, she saw a better way to make a difference. Many owners told her they had the desire to be more environmentally responsible, but not the know-how, staff, or money to put anything into action. So Henninger decided to do something to help them.

"Instead of me opening one more café, I realized a way I could have much more of an impact," she told the Guardian. "I saw potential to actually support a new movement toward a green economy, and that was much more possible by affecting multiple cafés instead of my one café."

Henninger said she chose to focus on neighborhood coffeehouses because they are often the center of close-knit communities. "By the process of cafés becoming green businesses, we aim to educate everyone in the mix," she said. "The owners, staff, customers, neighbors, other local businesses — this is a necessary part of the process of supporting a local, green economy." She also offers consulting to any business, coffee shop or not, that requests it.

Joining the group didn't make Coffee to the People's toilet stop running, but we are at least heading in the right direction. Henninger acknowledged that while customers notice changes in the products they pay for, other aspects of a green business go unappreciated. The ultimate goal for cafés in the group is to become certified green businesses (all Bay Area counties have a green business program). But the certification process can be misleading. Most localities only require that a business conform to five out of 20 guidelines, and once the placard is placed in the window, the motivation to complete the next 15 steps can tend to flag. Henninger hopes the members of her network, by working together and helping each other, will be as green as they can be.

"We need people striving to make the extra effort because it's the right thing to do," she said.

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