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Bewley’s on being the first of many

From the August 2018 issue.

After nearly two centuries, Bewley’s continues its reign of coffee leadership in Ireland. CEO John Cahill tells GCR why it invested in long-term partnerships and sustainable commitments long before they were a trend.

In 1835, Samuel Bewley and his son Charles became the first Irish tea importers, chartering a ship directly from China with 2099 chests of tea on board. Following success with tea, the Bewley’s business subsequently expanded into coffee importation, roasting and coffee shops. Thanks to these two firsts in a series of many for the burgeoning Bewley’s business, Ireland’s once non-existent tea and coffee cultures have evolved into what they are today.

Over the generations, the Bewleys continued to log firsts, but it was Samuel’s grandson Ernest who set out expectations that would forever shape the future of the pioneering business.

“The challenge laid down by Ernest Bewley was ‘I want the best, and that’s not good enough’,” says John Cahill, CEO of Bewley’s. “This is a call to excellence and innovation that everyone at Bewley’s strives to live up to every day.”

Led by the entrepreneurial spirit of Samuel and Charles and accepting the challenge presented by Ernest, Bewley’s has secured many more milestones over the decades. When the first café opened in 1894, it became the first Irish coffee shop to roast coffee in-store. Decades later, Bewley’s would establish the first barista academy in Ireland and then introduce the first latte art to Irish consumers. Bewley’s was also the first Irish coffee company to import Fairtrade coffee and later become the first to source 100 per cent Fairtrade coffee across its entire business.

“Bewley’s has always had the reputation of being a pioneer and leader in the pursuit of excellence in tea and coffee,” Cahill tells Global Coffee Report. “[But] we recognise that to maintain this reputation we need to continue to lead, and that is why we invest so much in innovation, whether in new supply partnerships, new blends, new drinks or new ways of experiencing and enjoying tea and coffee.”

As such, Bewley’s has built an extensive in-house research and development (R&D) team over the years to support ongoing innovation and keep the company at the forefront of its industries, though never at the cost of quality, reputation, its people or the environment.

“While we may have a lot of firsts, sometimes we don’t come to market first because we’re not ready or the market isn’t ready for us,” explains Jason Doyle, Managing Director of Bewley’s Foodservice Ireland. “What we won’t do is come to market with something that we’re not 100 per cent convinced on or is not right for our business.

Doyle says Bewley’s is committed to being a market leader. Sustainability and the environment, however, are two areas where the company “will absolutely push the boundaries to be first”.

“We’ve been practicing sustainability long before it had a name,” Cahill points out. “A sense of dignity, fairness and respect is at the heart of our approach and conduct. We believe in being ethical and responsible in everything we do and conducting our business in a manner that improves the health of the planet and the lives of all those we deal with.”

For instance, the company’s commitment to Fairtrade began in 1996, and it has been partnering with a women-run co-operative in Nicaragua since 1997. But since 2007 in particular, Bewley’s has committed to sustainability on a larger scale, launching a number of initiatives.

“We went on a journey in terms of really identifying all of our sources and best practices around what was happening at origin and also protecting the environment that farmers are working in,” Doyle tells GCR.

As part of its sustainability commitment, Bewley’s regularly reviews its practices at every stage of the business and sets new sustainability goals accordingly. This accountability is also important as part of Ireland’s Origin Green certification that Bewley’s has achieved and the company is currently working on a new five-year plan.

Products for a sustainable future
One of Bewleys’ latest sustainability accomplishments was becoming the first Irish coffee company to offer single-serve coffee capsules that are 100 per cent compostable. Made from renewable raw materials and organic plant matter, such as sugar cane and sugar beet, the new capsules break down into carbon dioxide, water and compost in just 12 weeks. In addition to reducing the amount of packaging and volume of waste headed to landfills compared to the previous Bewley’s capsules, less energy is used and fewer greenhouse gases are emitted during production of the new capsules.

In fact, since 2010, Bewley’s has reduced waste to landfill by 84 per cent and since 2006 it has reduced carbon dioxide emissions per tonne of manufactured product by 62 per cent.The Nespresso machine compatible capsules, which are offered in four different origins of coffee, are primarily used in Bewley’s business and industry customer venues, such as hotels, meeting rooms and restaurants.

“Nobody in the Irish market was doing a compostable capsule, but if we were going to offer them, we needed to ensure we had a really good platform for these,” explains Doyle, referencing the importance of only coming to market with a product the company could fully stand behind. “As a business it’s really important for us to have the right product and a really high-quality product.”

The same goes for Bewley’s latest sustainability initiative. In May 2018 it released a line of fully compostable takeaway cups and a line of recyclable takeaway cups.

“Where other companies might have made statements about being first to market with cups [like these], we had to be 110 per cent convinced that the cups and lids are compostable, recyclable and come from sustainable sources,” Doyle says. “Just like the capsules, we have to be able to stand over the complete supply chain around these cups, so we work with very innovative manufacturers in Ireland for both types.”

The compostable cup and lid are made from materials similar to the capsules, breaking down in a matter of weeks. Bewley’s recyclable cup and lid have a special recyclable cup liner made from a new mineralised plastic mix called Earth Coating that breaks down in the recycling process, allowing the remaining clean paper to be easily recycled.

Although the cups fit perfectly among the company’s sustainability goals, they were actually motivated by Bewleys’ trade customers and coffee consumers. To support nearly 5000 customers and their environmental requests, Bewley’s decided to offer two solutions: compostable and recyclable cups.

Meanwhile, Doyle says its consumers are increasingly looking for more sustainable and environmentally friendly products as they “become much more aware of the implications of non-sustainable packaging. That absolutely put pressure on us to innovate”.

According to research commissioned by Bewley’s with Red C Research in 2017, more than 2000 out-of-home coffee drinkers in Bewley’s target markets of Ireland, UK and US are actively looking for ways to use more sustainable products. Almost two thirds said that sustainable/certified products are so important to them that they are willing to pay a premium for such products.

As the market and waste providers innovate and invest in their own technologies, Bewley’s will evolve with them in order to continue providing the sustainable products the global industry needs and its customers are asking for, Doyle says. Currently, Bewley’s innovation team is testing compostable solutions for its coffee.

Commitments for a sustainable future
Since 2009, the Bewley’s brand has managed to offset all of its operations in Ireland and the UK to become the first fully carbon neutral coffee brand in Ireland. The company strives to reduce emissions through energy-management and waste-reduction programs, then offsets any remaining emissions through carbon credits purchased from projects in its coffee-growing regions, such as a reforestation project in Peru and an educational program at partner co-operative Comisuyl in Honduras.

In 2016, Bewley’s celebrated its 20th year of commitment to Fairtrade Ireland, and the final conversion of 100 per cent of its Bewley’s branded coffee to Fairtrade-certified coffee – two years ahead of its original 2018 goal.

“Bewley’s was the first to import Fairtrade certified coffee into Ireland in 1996 and so it was a natural progression for us to make all our branded coffee Fairtrade certified,” Cahill says. “Our objective is always to achieve high quality for the consumer and a fair deal for the producer.”

The 20-year commitment was a journey for the company, one that it had to bring its producers and its shareholders along too. “In going to a much more sustainable supply chain, we had to ensure that all the coffees going into Bewley’s branded coffee products were Fairtrade,” Doyle explains. “We had to ensure that the farmers we were purchasing from would live up to our quality standards and that we were able to meet our requirements for customers.”

Unfortunately, the commitment meant that Bewley’s had to adjust its producer portfolio to ensure all were Fairtrade certified.

“What we tried to do was bring our farmers on the journey with us, and to be fair, we probably brought more coffee farmers along with us than those we had to stop sourcing from,” Doyle admits. “It was also about trust in the relationships we had with the coffee farmers. So when they committed to us we had to make sure they were going to stand up to the certification program and deliver so we could continue to buy from them.”

It is because of mutually beneficial commitments like these that Bewley’s invests so deeply in its partnerships and relationships all along the supply chain.

“We don’t seek short-term transactions. Rather, we look for direct and long-term partnerships that last generations. From the coffee farmers and our other suppliers to colleagues, customers and communities, we genuinely engage with everyone who does business with us,” Cahill says.

Among other efforts to sustain and nurture long-term relationships, Bewley’s visits coffee farms around the world, directly sharing knowledge and expertise and paying sustainable prices to help farmers improve the quality of their crop, engage in environmentally sustainable farm practices and create suitable living and working conditions for themselves and their families.

In supporting and investing in individual farms and greater co-operatives, Bewley’s can better ensure the highest-quality product and a reliable supply chain. “If farmers are producing a really good product that, in turn, benefits us, they need to share in the benefits,” Doyle says. “That’s why long-term partnerships are so important to us.”

Standards for a sustainable future
While Bewley’s can confidently stand behind the sustainable products it releases and the sustainability initiatives it launches, not all companies can do the same.  

Doyle points to those Irish suppliers or competitors with unfounded claims on sustainable products and practices, emphasising that this occurs on a global scale.

“If I go to the US or the UK and hear claims about compostable cups, against what benchmark are those claims?” he poses.

“As an industry, a more common approach to defining what is ‘sustainable’ and working on end-to-end solutions is critical. The core challenge is to develop a cup solution that consumers and our customers understand how to use, and most importantly can be handled by waste material facilities to ensure it goes to recycling or composting and not to landfill. We would welcome any further regulatory support to help set this common approach.”

Fortunately, the coffee industry is known for its plethora of other certifications, such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and Organic. Doyle is hopeful that the packaging industry will go down a similar path over time. If history is any indication, perhaps Bewley’s will find a way to check off another first on  its expanding list that started more than 180 years ago with Samuel and Charlie’s 2099 chests of tea.

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