“Capitalism isn’t ethics based.”
– Olivia Brinton, co-founder of Little Goat Coffee Roasting Co.
I interviewed Olivia because I wanted to get to know ethical business owners, and learn how they incorporate their personal values into their business models. Besides being insanely quotable, Olivia was knowledgeable, insightful, and had some tips for other entrepreneurs who want to build ethical foundations for their businesses.
Like our conversation, I’d like to start this post at the very beginning…
Some Background on Coffee
“The cool thing about coffee is where it comes from.”
– Still Olivia
Of the many origin stories out there, Olivia’s favorite is that of Kaldi, the Ethiopian goat herder. Legend has it that Kaldi noticed unusual behavior from his goats after eating the berries on a certain tree. They kicked and ran and became so energetic they didn’t sleep at night. Kaldi collected the red berries from the tree, was brave enough to try ingesting them himself, and noticed the same energizing effects he had observed in his goats. From there, the knowledge of these berries spread, people came up with new and improved ways to prepare them, and coffee gradually evolved into the beverage we know and are addicted to today.
I love this story, and I love seeing the kicking goat represented in Little Goat’s brand and logo.
What I loved less was learning about the negative impact of coffee production. Coffee typically grows in tropical environments, and as demand increases, is increasingly grown and harvested with more productive but also more ecologically harmful methods. Side effects range from deforestation to water contamination. Beyond the negative environmental impacts, coffee production harms the local communities which are often in lower-income countries and often suffer “unique and especially harmful patterns [of] deforestation, hunger and schooling…” And it should probably come as no surprise that coffee workers don’t fare much better than sweatshop laborers when it comes to working conditions and pay.
Ethical Business Foundations
“You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.”
– Olivia, but quoting someone else
Olivia described her internal conflict as she learned more about the negative impacts of coffee production. Fortunately, Olivia attended a college with a focus on sustainability, among other things. (Their motto? Peace. Justice. Sustainability.) After moving around the country a few times, Olivia returned to the Delaware area, noticed a lack of locally roasted coffee suppliers, and began to buy her own fair trade coffee beans to roast at home. The way she describes it, Little Goat Coffee Roasting Co. grew organically out of this home practice with family friend Joe Lins. What began as a personal hobby moved into farmer’s markets and finally into the little shop in Newark, Delaware with its cozy and aromatic atmosphere.
Those values that drove Olivia and Joe to begin roasting and selling their own coffee continue to play into their business model. All products are purchased with environmental and social impact in mind. Their importer sells only fair trade products harvested sustainably, and even donates 15% of coffee costs back into the local communities where it is harvested. Olivia’s face lit up as she described one of the coffee farms that supplies their coffee beans, which works as a dual coffee/honey farm. Each of these ecosystems supports the other which minimizes ecological harm and increases sustainability.
Challenges Faced as an Ethical Business
It’s not always that simple. Olivia described some of the compromises that have been necessary to keep her business running. After all, fair trade products are more expensive than those created without social welfare in mind. Many of the products she would like to use would force her to raise prices to the point where her customers wouldn’t be able or willing to continue to shop there. Sometimes compromising means choosing cups made of recycled materials instead of compostable to-go cups. Sometimes it means not being able to pay employees as high a wage as she would like.
Tips for Ethical Business Owners
When we talked about compromises and business ethics, I asked Olivia for her tips for other ethical businesses. She gave me a few:
- Know that it’s possible
- Decide how uncomfortable you’re willing to be (an ethical business might have to grow slower, survive on less income, or make other difficult decisions)
- Pick your core values that you can’t compromise on, and then allow yourself to be flexible on the rest
Despite the challenges that come with growing an ethical business, Little Goat is flourishing in an area that is absolutely permeated with coffee shops. Olivia attributed their success to several factors:
- Filling an unserved need/finding a niche (locally roasted beans)
- Grassroots marketing (getting out and meeting people at farmer’s markets vs spending a lot of money on ads)
- Wholesale model in addition to retail (Little Goat offers larger quantities for retailers and should be opening up their online store soon!)
Sitting at the counter, chatting with Olivia and sipping from a mug of a Peruvian blend I would have known nothing about if not for the chalkboard descriptions, it was hard not to believe that there’s more to it than that. I think once people discover Little Goat, they go back for the atmosphere, and also BECAUSE of their ethics, not despite them.
I think, as a culture, we’re becoming more aware of our impact. We want to know that the businesses we frequent, and the products we buy, stand for something other than the bottom line. Even (some of) our corporations contribute to good causes. Think the Ronald McDonald House, or the Dove Self-Esteem Project. Capitalism may not be ethics based, but we as individuals can be. And I hope to see more of that in our future.
Do you build ethics into your business model? How do your core values affect the way you work?