#34: Re:co Podcast – Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner on the Evolution of Innovation

This is the second episode of “Evolution of Innovation: How New Ideas Will Shape Specialty Coffee,” a session recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. This session offered a glimpse of new ideas in coffee from some leading thinkers in specialty coffee and a discussion of how they are likely to shape the future of our industry. If you haven’t listened to episode #33, we strongly recommend going back to listen to it before you continue with this episode.

On this episode of the Re:co Podcast, we’re pleased to welcome Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fronner, Chief Imagineer and CEO of Design by Freedom. Design By Freedom is an invention company on a mission to move the United States to zero waste, starting with coffee.

At Re:co Symposium in April, Anukampa implored us to imagine a zero waste future and use it to promote the redesign of single-use products used by the specialty coffee industry.

Special Thanks to Toddy

This talk from Re:co Seattle is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates, that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at http://www.toddycafe.com.

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Table of Contents

0:00 Introduction
2:30 There is a silent trash epidemic and global trash crisis. What if we redesigned everything to be entirely waste-free?
5:30 And what better place to start than disposable coffee cup sleeves.
5:15 Solution: a reusable coffee sleeve that is also designed to have many other uses that integrate into everyday rituals.
10:30 It’s possible to do – the vegan movement is proof you can shift consumer habits.
13:00 Cafes and baristas are crucial to building this ecological movement.
17:30 Coffee is the perfect product to affect change and grow the movement.
20:30 The coffee industry can be recognized by Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, like the #MeToo movement, if we work together and achieve sustainability.
22:30 Outro

Episode Transcript

0:00 Introduction

Peter Giuliano: Today, we’re very happy to present the second episode of “Evolution of Innovation: How New Ideas Will Shape Specialty Coffee,” a session recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. This session offered a glimpse of new ideas in coffee from some leading thinkers in specialty coffee and a discussion of how they are likely to shape the future of our industry. If you haven’t listened to episode #33, we strongly recommend going back to listen to it before you continue with this episode.

On this episode of the Re:co Podcast, we’re pleased to welcome Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fronner, Chief Imagineer and CEO of Design by Freedom. Design By Freedom is an invention company on a mission to move the United States to zero waste, starting with coffee. In her role, Freedom drives industrial design to eliminate the very need to create trash. She also builds partnerships and coalitions, while defining zero waste values. Freedom is an avid outdoors-woman, cyclist and wilderness explorer. In addition to eliminating trash from public lands and water bodies, Freedom is passionate about helping to preserve endangered wildlife and marine life.

At Re:co Symposium in April, Anukampa implores us to imagine a zero waste future and use it to promote the redesign of single-use products used by the specialty coffee industry.

Also, to help you follow along in this podcast, I will chime in occasionally to help you visualize what’s being displayed up on screen.

2:30 There is a silent trash epidemic and global trash crisis. What if we redesigned everything to be entirely waste-free?

Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Good morning to all of you. I urge you to send a text message with the word “sleeve” to a number that shall shortly appear here. Here you go.

So as this sparks your wonderment, let’s go on an adventure.

Imagination is the beginning of creation. Imagination is the soil that brings dreams to life. Imagination is everything – it is the preview of life’s coming attractions, to reimagine the health of planet Earth, to recreate what a zero-waste future for the United States could look like, we asked ourselves one question: What if we reimagined trash?

What if we recreated disposables? What if we engineered packaging? What if we redesigned everything to be entirely waste-free?

There is a silent trash epidemic in our country and a global crisis on the only planet. Our backyards, our public lands, our waters, our marine life, are wildlife, are all impacted by trash. Some of the remotest places on planet Earth are afflicted with this right now.

Here at home in the U.S., go to our revered national parks. And even those have not been spared. This is not a littering issue. This is not even a recycling challenge. There is a fundamental problem in the way things are designed. The fact that waste is an accepted byproduct of every single consumer good that exists on planet Earth, It’s an error of design.

So we decided to solve that problem by redesigning one-time-use products. Disposables, packaging, into highly functional, fun, fashionable, portable, bold, inventive, zero-waste solutions. In our exploration, we study Dustin’s in the San Francisco Bay area. We started keeping the list of pieces of trash that we found on trails. And a result of that exercise was a list, a list of 100 inventions, which if brought to the market place, could move the everyday American consumer, to a zero-waste future.

5:30 And what better place to start than disposable coffee cup sleeves.

And we started with coffee. Of course, nothing moves without this drink right? There is something about coffee that brings people and ideas together. There is an emotional connection with this drink that makes us want to yearn for it. People go on dates over coffee. We have business meetings over coffee. This is a ritual in our everyday lives and we wanted to drive the dialogue on design with coffee.

So we asked what if we redesigned coffee itself to be waste-free? Could this spark a joy? A deeper meaning? Add more meaning in more connection with sustainability, in the life of everyday Americans in a way that has never happened before? Could we reimagine seemingly inconsequential but profoundly wasteful products within coffee to achieve this goal of zero waste? And the answer to that question was an astounding “yes.”

And with that astounding yes, Clifford, who is my partner in crime, and I decided to go on a redesign journey and we started tackling waste in our personal lives with one thing: this little cardboard coffee sleeve. We used this one sleeve, which is intended for single use only, for six straight months. We took it everywhere with us. We were in 10 different states. We traveled all around. And I used this sleeve every day for six whole months and it worked just fine.

It was it was only when I jumped in the Great Virginian Shenandoah River, I parted ways met with my little buddy. Goes on to tell you something… That there is a problem: every day 40 million cardboard coffee sleeves get discarded. If these sleeves were put one behind the other, if they were lined up, they could wrap the Earth around five times. And this is just from the United States. And this is unacceptable.

So we decided to reinvent it, to be a “Sleevie Wonder.” Meet the Freedom Sleeve, which is obviously a coffee sleeve, that protects your hands from warm and cold but it is designed to be multifunctional. It’s designed to be portable. It’s designed to be a bag tag, a laptop wire tie. It’s designed to be integrated into people’s everyday rituals that they already follow when they go get their coffee. So they never forget to carry it.

We looked into consumer resistance towards bringing your own. What do we do to make this fun? What do we do to make this an experience for the everyday person? And we invented this.

But innovation without context is unjustified. In a list of a hundred inventions, “why the damn sleeve, guys?” Like, there’s a lot more waste here, right? But there’s a strategic reason we started with this. It turns out the average national rates of use and reuse of personal mugs in our country is under 2% right now. And that’s a problem. That’s a problem because, here in the industry, we haven’t really worked on an ecosystem to make reuse fashionable, to make that integrated with the coffee experience. Adding 10 cents, 15 cents, even 25 cents as a discount to someone’s drink when they bring their own mug, just doesn’t work. Because us Americans, we love convenience. And that number alone is not going to break that barrier.

We need to do something different. Design and redesign is obviously a part of that answer. But things like every time you brought your own, if the Barista said “thank you for making that switch’, it counts and it matters. It’s going to change the way we interact with some of these everyday pieces of trash. And then if things like the sleeve with a personal mug were integrated into loyalty and rewards program, they would have a much higher likelihood of success.

10:30 It’s possible to do – the vegan movement is proof you can shift consumer habits.

The bottom line here is: we need to work with our patrons. We need to take them on our journey. And if you think all of this is too much or too hard or too difficult. Think again. The vegan industry is an aspiration for all of us here in specialty coffee. Some of the best vegan chefs came together and they were able to switch the American palate. Since 2014 veganism in America has grown by 600%. I bring this up because there is a parallel here. Those guys did not start by saying “we want everybody to stop eating meat.” No, no, no. That’s not the way they started.

They said “could you switch one meal in one week and try out a plant-based diet?” Of the 21 meals the everyday person eats in one week. One meal, could you make that simple switch happen? And that’s simple switch was complemented by the most delectable plant-based food. It was complemented by an experience that was far superior to what the original people who are eating meats were getting earlier.

And that’s exactly what we are trying to do: one simple switch to get them started. To get them on the path. Put them on a journey. Take them on an adventure with us.

If we want to be real trendsetters, if we want to be change makers, if we want to really drive specialty coffee to the next level, that is the passion and commitment we have to bring to experiences of our customers.

On this screen, you see a U.S. Marine in his 60s on the left side, a cryptocurrency miner in his 20s. And even he has a message for us. My point here is that all of these are very diverse groups of people, but they want to take climate action in their own hands. They want to take environmental action in their own hands. This is the 98% of that coffee community that has never been invited to this dialogue on what zero waste can be and design in specialty coffee can get us there.

13:00 Cafes and baristas are crucial to building this ecological movement.

But we can’t do any of this alone. This has to be done with our most favorite coffee shops, with our community cafes and with our baristas. That’s where the zero waste cafe collective comes into place. We are working to roll out data and design them in programs, just like the freedom sleeve, in coffee shops around the country.

We have partners and 20 different cities right now. And this is just the beginning. There is a customer case for things like these, there is an environmental case for solutions like these and there is a business case for innovations like these.

And all of this, that was just one example, that was just one redesign. But I started this Re:co talk with one question. And that was: what if we redesigned everything to be entirely free of waste? Now, we are looking at a whole macro system and a large-scale transition of an entire industry to move to a zero-waste future. That’s the kind of systems change we are talking about. Starting with one piece at a time.

Here are some of the other innovations and inventions in the works. With the rise of specialty coffee and milk based drinks, we are dealing with an unparalleled number of milk bottles, milk caps, milk boxes. What do we do about that? We’re looking to redesign milk delivery systems. How do we radically change the way coffee grinds have been used inside cafes? Can we make products from those things that could be used within those coffee shops? The answer is “yes’, and we are working on those inventions.

What do we do with those jute bags and the plastic lining our beans come in? How do we reintegrate these pieces back in the circular economy? All of these pieces, when they move together, will lead to the future. Again, my point here is: Big complex system make problems can be solved by methodically working on every element in that system, by innovating one piece at a time. And when all these pieces come together, industries transition.

But in all of this, where are we going? What is the future? How does it all tie into specialty coffee? Here is the future: can we create a coffee shop that is scalable, has a business model around it, and pleases the customers across the country? Can coffee be reimagined? Can our services be redesigned?

If you are still wondering why any of this is relevant to all of us, just a few weeks ago in the UK a new tax was implemented. It’s called the latte levy. Every time a customer doesn’t bring their own mug, the government wants to charge them 34 cents as a fee or a penalty because people are not using their own mugs.

That’s not the way to make innovation and transformation happen. We are all trendsetters and movement builders and revolutionaries. Why should legislation be the only impetus to drive us? I mean, that’s boring. It really is. That falls in the realm of followers. That falls in the realm of people who join something at the very end. Not for the people in this room who want to take everything that we do to a whole new level.

Coffee has the power to drive the next chapter of human evolution. And it’s very, very, very easy to forget that. Especially in a world that is consistently driving us towards high-tech and artificial intelligence. And this flight to Mars. The thing is: we have so much power over the communities that we serve, that we can make some really real humane connections and drive change at a really large-scale, in a world that is consistently looking to bypass the human connection, with everything artificial and mechanical.

17:30 Coffee is the perfect product to affect change and grow the movement.

We in the coffee industry offered a ritual without any competition. If our coffee shops led the narrative on redesign zero waste and the health of planet Earth, there is an opportunity to unleash a movement like any other. There is a possibility to touch people’s lives in many impressionable ways. There is only one planet and in the coffee industry, we have the influence to drive people’s actions for good.

We did this experiment earlier. We SMS “SLEEVE” to this number.  Let’s see what happened?

Peter Giuliano: Freedom has a slide up showing that 384 people texted “SLEEVE,” like she asked at the beginning of her presentation. The slide suggests that if each text translated to a paper coffee cup sleeve not being used, that would save .58 trees and .27lbs of carbon.

Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: This is just one room of a few hundred people. This is what collective action can do and especially if that action is counted. If every single sleeve cardboard is saved, what is the impact on trees? And what is the impact on carbon? Things like these can be done for many many other wasteful elements and they can be brought into cafes around the country. That’s what good design, good data can do.

Collective action is the only thing that can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has. And we create ripples with every choice. And every choice counts. We just proved that.

At the end of the day, it will all boil down to one thing: how do we want to be remembered and who do we want to be? The oil industry right now is coming under intense scrutiny for hiding climate science that they knew about in the 1970s and the 1980s. There’s nothing that they chose to do about it.

As the world reels with a silent trash epidemic that’s the question that we all ask in the coffee industry: who do we want to be? Like the folks in the vegan industry who are shaping a new narrative of the planet or people in the oil industry?

I think the answer here is very very very clear. Coffee is community and the community needs us right now. Especially in the current political environment where environmental, action climate action, is being regressed and reversed like never before. Ask the foremost thinkers in the specialty coffee industry. It’s up to us to be radical collaborators, inventors, and implementers that make things happen, that make change possible.

20:30 The coffee industry can be recognized by Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, like the MeToo movement, if we work together and achieve sustainability.

The Time Magazine cover of 2017 celebrated the silence breakers of the MeToo movement. Can we together build a future where the Time Magazine cover celebrates baristas, third-wave cafes, our favorite coffee shops because we unleashed a strain of sustainability that is actually practiced by everyday Americans? Because we brought that change in the hands of people. We made it real for them by leveraging beautiful design and by driving the power of coffee.

I mentioned earlier that the sleeve experiment changed everything for us. We started our redesign journey with that tiny piece of waste. And from two years ago, Clifford, and I now produce 90% less trash than we used to.

Even when we are on the road, which we are a lot, we created a transition plan because we made one simple switch possible. And now by designing those solutions at scale, they can be shared with everyone.

Guys, we can achieve so much together. For this Time Magazine cover to be a reality for us in the specialty coffee world, we can’t wait for 10 more years. That’s bureaucracy and not innovation. Let’s reinvent everything together. Let’s write the future together. This cannot wait. The time has come to make it happen. There’s a lot at stake. But all of us here are in positions of power to make those changes happen. Let’s do this. Let’s do this together. Thank you so much.

22:30 Outro

That was Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fronner at Re:co Symposium this past April.

Remember to check our show notes to find a link to the YouTube video of this talk and a link to the speaker bios on the Re:co website.

This has been the Re:co Podcast, brought to you by the members of the Specialty Coffee Association, and supported by Toddy.