Sustainable. We see that word thrown around everywhere – if something is made of bamboo or can be repurposed as a wind chime someday, companies call it a “sustainable” option. If a café switches to compostable straws, that café can call that a “sustainability” program. It seems to be an umbrella term that covers anything, as long as the negative environmental impact isn’t immediately obvious. Even big oil companies have sustainability programs. Like so many buzzwords, we have no practical definition and no clear gauge of success for an individual or small business. When Baratza made a strong commitment to revisit our sustainability program this year, we found that first we needed to create a definition for ourselves and set our own goals for reducing our environmental impact.
The bottom line is – we manufacture and sell coffee grinders. So in a consumption-fueled world, how can Baratza not be part of the problem? How can the company win without the planet losing? Even further, how can we continue to grow while minimizing our environmental impact?
What we ended up with is a two-fold program: a system for prevention (not creating waste) and a program for damage control (what to do with the waste we inevitably create). Many sustainability programs are focused on damage control because it is the most accessible change to make, especially for a business. For example, it’s relatively easy for a car dealership to start recycling paper (damage control), but not using paper, to begin with – that’s the preventative step which would require a big systematic change and a lot of resources to establish. This is the step at which many businesses decide that the cost of prevention is not worth the benefit. This is completely understandable, and every business will have different limitations when it comes to a sustainability program.
We’ve found that it’s way less painful if prevention is built into the business structure from the beginning, especially if sustainability is a core philosophy of a business. Fortunately, that is exactly what Baratza did 20 years ago. When President and Product Visionary, Kyle Anderson, set out to design Baratza’s first proprietary grinder, user serviceability was a big priority. At the time, Baratza was thinking more about longevity and user experience than strictly environmental impact. But 20 years later, with sustainability at the forefront of cultural conversation, we sure are glad that we got off on the right foot. All of our grinders are designed from the ground up to be user repairable and to last a lifetime with regular maintenance and occasional repairs. This intentional design is the key to preventing Baratza grinders from ending up in the landfill.
Technically there’s still nothing stopping someone from throwing their grinder away, and sometimes people do. Maybe because tossing it is easier than repairing it; more likely because they didn’t know that repairing it was an option! Planned obsolescence has become the standard in our market of small appliances (think about it … what will you do when your toaster oven breaks?). Consumerism teaches us that buying something new is always better than making do. We’ve gotten into a bad habit.
A few companies out there are actively combating that habit, Baratza included. We start by making a robust product, but equally important is our customer support system that can accompany the customer through the life stages of the product. This includes offering accessible repair options, as well as talking about the beginning and end of a product’s life (how were the materials sourced, and where do they go now?). These are the questions that we want to bring to the front of the consumer’s mind, and they are the same questions we are still grappling with as a company. Having this conversation is the first step to changing our collective habit. We look to organizations like Patagonia for inspiration, and we are grateful that the consumer conversation is shifting: from “which rain coat can I get the cheapest and fastest?” to “which rain coat was made with responsibly sourced materials, and will it last my whole life?”. We will never be truly free to choose until we know the real cost of the materials around us.
Now that we have a product designed for longevity and a team in place to support our consumer base, what’s next? Does that mean we are done with our sustainability journey? Definitely not. We have a lot of self-reflection ahead, and many avenues of impact that we can work on reducing. We are far from perfect, but it is not our goal to be perfect. Baratza’s goal is to care – about our customers, partners, team, and about our shared environment.