Last week, we went to speak to the people behind Halo Coffee. We arrived at their co-working space in London Bridge, provided by Sustainable Ventures — a company that has created a fully sustainable building for sustainable businesses. You can imagine then that we were already impressed before even speaking to the brand about their cutting edge product.

Then we met Sarah Lim, Halo’s Business Development Director, and James Procter-Blain, Halo’s Head of Marketing, whose collective determination and passion for sustainability totally blew us away. They also taught us a lot about some issues we had not thought about before, like the energy-intensive nature of recycling, the complexity of brands’ recycling claims and what home compostable truly means.

“We are not a coffee company that makes an eco product. We are an environmental company that makes a coffee product.”

So what’s the whole fuss about Halo Coffee then? Let’s take a look.

What is the guiding principle or ethos behind Halo Coffee?

James (J): That’s a good question. I think doing the right thing for the environment is probably, I mean it sounds a bit corny, but it is that. The way that I’ve talked about this, in other discussions, is that we’re not a coffee company that makes an eco product. We’re an environmental company that makes a coffee product. And I guess the best way of demonstrating that, because it sounds like its just wording, is if we had the opportunity to sell a different type of coffee that would make us some money but that wasn’t good for the environment, would we do it? No, because that’s not what we’re about. If there was an opportunity to sell a product that was good for the environment but had nothing to do with coffee, whether it was chocolate or industrial equipment, or something like that, would we do it? Yeah, because that’s what’s most important to us. And the three founders when they set up the business, I think the frustration that drove them was looking at all the coffee capsules that are out there. 60 billion were made last year, of which 99% are plastic or aluminium that are going to end up in landfill, in the majority of cases, and they wanted to do something about it. So that’s where we came from.

How does Halo contribute to a sustainable future in coffee and packaging?

Sarah (S): In packaging that’s easy, all of our packaging, everything associated with the Halo capsule is home compostable. And we believe that this is the best way forward, because for the next 10 to 15 years industrial composting facilities will not be up to scratch to deal with bioplastics. So it’s easy in that sense. Our packaging is as eco as it can be.

J: Yeah exactly that, and I think the work that went into that, although I wasn’t around for that stage of the company, was fairly intense. So when we say everything is home compostable, that’s the capsule, the box, the delivery box, the invoice, the ink, it comes in a film wrap which a lot of people go, “Is this plastic?” No, it’s compostable film wrap. Every single part of the packaging, you can throw it in your flower bed, in your compost bin, and it will decompose. So there’s no ifs and buts or “yeah but not this bit” or “not that bit”, it’s the whole thing.

S: And the way that the coffee itself is sustainable is the fact that it’s portioned. The amount of water that gets used, boiled, and poured into your cup is very precise. Whereas if you were doing a filter or any other form of coffee preparation, often you would make too much, or you’d boil too much water. There’s a lot of energy wasted in that process. Whereas with a capsule, you get exactly how much you need.

How does specialty grade coffee protect the environment and the livelihoods of coffee farmers?

S: We like to have more of a relationship with our farmers. So in the way that we source it, we ensure that there is care taken to look after the farmers, in their specific situation. The reason we don’t go for Fairtrade, or organic, is because we don’t think that kind of overarching criteria will benefit everyone in every situation. We think it’s more important to consider each individual scenario and figure out what’s best then.

What’s the biggest sustainability challenge your brand is facing right now that’s really difficult to achieve?

S: I feel like for me, it is the confusion that consumers are faced with. There are so many terms and so many people saying different things. The term biodegradable is being thrown around, but what does it actually mean? Everyone thinks, “oh it’s biodegradable, that’s good for the environment,” when in reality, this chair is biodegradable, your phone is biodegradable.

J: I think you’re right, it’s exactly that. It actually makes me quite angry seeing some of the stuff that people say. Because they all know full well that they are misrepresenting the facts. So when you get other brands saying “oh we’re compostable” — and you go oh well but it’s bioplastic, and they know, they must know, that the infrastructure doesn’t exist in the UK, and that half of those capsules, or more even of those capsules, if they get chucked in the recycling bin, will end up in landfill. And you’re thinking, well why are you still saying these things if you know it’s misleading? As Sarah says, if you’re thinking of it from the consumer point of view, they’re not to blame for not knowing, because they’re barraged with all kinds of companies making all kinds of claims. You know, you’ve got Nespresso saying aluminium capsules are recyclable, and well they are, but only 30% of their capsules get recycled, the other 70% end up in landfill. So, again, you can say recyclable and that’s true but is that the whole story?

S: And there’s the energy aspect as well with the recycling. Especially with the Nespresso because there are so many different materials on the capsule itself, to strip each material out, [which] happens in a different plant, in a different country, requires a lot of energy, [and] transport.

Home composting is obviously better than industrial, but how about your customers that are unable to compost at home?

J: Well you can throw it anywhere. If it were to end up in landfills, that would be fine.

S: It would take probably a couple of years. A banana peel, for instance, takes two years.

J: It’s equivalent to that, but if you chuck it in your compost bin, or in your garden then within weeks it’s just gone.

S: Because of the acidity of the coffee, it breaks down at quite a fast rate.

J: And that for me was the real lightbulb moment when I jumped in. You know occasionally you get something and you just go, oh my god that’s so cool. And it’s the coffee itself. Whereas in other systems and with other brands, people are scraping the coffee out so they can recycle the capsule, which is fine, we get that. But with ours if you chuck it in the compost bin, as Sarah says, the pod itself breaks down, it’s effectively like paper, so in a few weeks, it’s gone. Then, the coffee grounds are full of nitrate so they end up in your soil and they’re adding nutrients to your soil, and it’s just like, oh god yes, that’s how it should be.

Halo Coffee

Wherefrom is building a community of conscious consumers, what’s something you do, as an individual, to lead by example in the realm of sustainable consumption?

J: Oh that’s a difficult one

S: My favourite new thing is produce bags — I didn’t know that they existed until this year, and they are a godsend. I feel so good whenever I use them in the supermarket, no waste, no plastic. You can put loose produce in them.

J: I think for me, it’s been a gradual shift actually, I didn’t always use to be an eco-warrior type, but I’ve really started thinking about the amount of stuff that I have in my life, and trying to buy less stuff. And that goes for Christmas, it goes for my food shop, it helps I’m broke and can’t afford stuff, but just yeah as consumers we’re buying all kinds of stuff. Even stuff like Black Friday, we thought long and hard in the office actually about whether we should be part of this, driving excess consumption on Black Friday. We decided yes because it’s an eco, sustainable option that we’re pushing, so yeah why not? But it’s that mindset of, “do I need this thing?” More and more consumers are getting there, so hopefully, we’re pushing in the right direction.

wherefrom: Yeah we really think you are!!!