How to Green a Coffee Shop: Top 5 Strategies

shutterstock_368498870Throughout history, coffee shops have been where citizens gather to change their society. In the 1700s, coffee shops were where the fires of the American Revolution were fueled. In the 1800s, coffee shops were where laborers debated their rights during the Industrial Revolution. Today, as we too fight for our right to a sustainable society, coffee shops may yet again become one of the most important small businesses in America.

If you currently own, or plan on opening a sustainable coffee shop, it is in your best interest to green your storefront as much as possible, in order to confidently align it with both the local and global sustainability conversation that will increasingly take place inside your shop’s walls in the years to come.

Here are the top 5 ways to make your coffee shop more sustainable:

1. Start with great coffee that people will feel great about drinking. Coffee comes in all flavors, textures, colors and varieties. In addition, for sustainability-minded coffee aficianados, there are four main considerations. First is chemicals. That one’s the easiest–there are a plethora of organic coffees on the market. Next is the land. In many cases, tropical forests (coffee is a tropical plant) are cleared to create farmland for coffee farms. It diminishes biodiversity, ecosystem resiliency, carbon sequestration, increases mosquito infestations–a slew of problems. The answer is “shade grown” coffee. This coffee is grown in a healthy ecosystem in which the forest is left standing. Birds and other wildlife may barely notice the difference. Carbon is fixed from the atmosphere into the healthy plants and soils. Runoff is decreased. And so on and so forth. Third consideration is the labor. In many cases, coffee farmers are forced to work insane hours for pennies on the dollar. In addition, they may be subjected to unhealthy work conditions with lots of chemicals and little if any personal protective devices. So choose “Fair Trade” coffee. Last, if you decide you’re not too snooty to carry decaf coffee (are you listening hipsters in San Francisco?), consider that the process of removing caffeine from coffee is very chemical intensive. There is an alternative–it’s called “Swiss Water Decaf”. In effect, the process takes a little more time, but removes any chemicals from the equation. So you can get “Triple” certified coffee (organic, fair trade, shade grown), and choose the swiss water method for any decaf varieties you carry. Check out Tiny Footprint coffee as an example of great tasting, sustainable coffee, if you need inspiration.

2. Embrace vegan alternatives. Dairy sales are down across the board, not simply because people are eschewing hormone laden, factory farmed dairy products, but because non-dairy alternatives have gotten much better, and much cheaper. Almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, rice milk and a host of other vegan milks will generally have a much lower carbon footprint than dairy milk, as well as being better for your customers’ health. Organic options, of course, abound, and may cost just a few cents more per gallon.

3. Switch to LED lighting. LED lighting, much like nondairy milks, have gotten better and cheaper very quickly. But even if they do cost a bit more than other lighting, their payback period (the time in which it takes for them to pay for themselves through energy savings) tend to be very rapid. A typical LED will pay for itself in less than a year in a commercial setting, and will last as long as 50,000 hours, meaning maintenance and replacement costs are far less. You can get just about any lighting color spectrum, from 2200K to 5000K, and the color rendering index has gotten virtually indistinguishable from incandescent bulbs.

4. Replace stirring rods with spoons. An efficient, as well as stylish, way to make your coffee shop more sustainable is to get rid of plastic and/or paper stirring rods for good. These are quite wasteful (and boring). Instead, you can provide your customers with silverware to stir with. Nice, durable silverware that is classy, yet affordable, can be found pretty easily. Not only will this make a positive impact on the environment, it will cut down on your monthly expenses, and set you apart from the competition. An easy trick is just to put out two large containers: one marked “Dirty Spoons”, and the other marked “Clean Spoons”.

Clean vs. dirty spoons sustainable coffee shop

5. Cups, cups, cups. The number of disposable, single-use coffee cups we Americans throw away each year is estimated to be about 14.4 million. At 0.25 lb of carbon emissions per cup, that adds up to 3.6 million pounds of CO2 emissions annually, just for a cup you use for 15 minutes, then toss in the trash. So think through options for your customers. Give them a discount if they bring their own mug (it saves you money after all). Sell re-usable mugs right at the register with your logo on it (branding!). Provide “for here” mugs for customers who will actually be hanging out in the shop.

Overall, there are several key strategies for greening your coffee shop. Some are less obvious than others, but they are all of equal importance. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that successfully greening your coffee shop does not have to be costly or inefficient. You can get the job done on a budget. By implementing any or all of these five strategies, you can not only make a meaningful impact on the environment, you can also differentiate your business from the competition and make more money than ever before.

Photos from Shutterstock

About the Author

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride. Find Scott on