You’ve probably never heard of it, but Alterra Coffee is a well loved Milwaukee coffee roaster that has been growing steadily for years as one of the area’s most respected brands. It’s also had a very strong commitment to sustainability: It’s 100% wind powered, has gone to great expense to revitalize interesting historic buildings anchoring entire neighborhoods, has an experimental artificial wetland to treat parking lot runoff at one of its stores, and has made a solid commitment to fair trade practices. It even works with urban farming legend Will Allen’s Growing Power organization on a vermiculture project.
The company scored a big victory this week by teaming up with Mars corporation on a global brand distribution plan which will make Alterra a household name internationally and offer huge new revenue potential. Mars will distribute Alterra coffee as part of its Flavia line of single serve coffee makers. That’s great news for a small home-grown company, and something that likely resonates with readers of this site, many of whom are entrepreneurs with big ideas.
But what about Alterra’s sustainability commitment?
Nothing against Mars, per se, but the Flavia single serve coffee product is the ketchup packet of the coffee world: A wasteful, barely recyclable sachet that symbolizes the lazy, wasteful consumer society that is at the heart of the wrong side of the sustainability puzzle. In its defense, Flavia’s sustainability website discusses various energy saving features of the Flavia machine as well as a project with TerraCycle to recycle packets – how many of them actually get recycled isn’t discussed. Beyond that, Flavia’s reputation (whether deserved or not) is one of general cheapness, not quality.
So, Alterra wins financially but risks cheapening its brand and compromising its commitment to sustainability. On one hand, this is a classic problem that may affect any small company, regardless of its susty cred. On the other, hand, perhaps I’m over-reacting and this is a chance for some of Alterra’s green leadership to find its way into a larger corporation that may not be a well known leader in sustainability, but is clearly working on it.
What would you do if you were the owner of a brand such as Alterra?