Equator Coffee was founded in a garage in Marin County, California, in 1995 when the first ripples of the third wave were starting on the west coast. Part of that wave included a passion for sustainability and increased transparency around sourcing and ethical business practices. Equator’s “big idea” was to make people’s lives better through coffee. Brook McDonnel and Helen Russell took that idea and grew it into a national brand named National Small Business of the Year in 2016 by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Devorah Freudiger is the Director of Coffee Culture at Equator. We connected on a call to discuss their journey into the B Corp certification and how it provided clarity to their good intentions.
Jake Leonti (JL): Why did Equator choose to become B Corp certified?
Devorah Freudiger (DF): Equator has always been a very founder-driven, founder lead company. We are run by women; we’re run by queer women, and Helen and Brook started this company to do good in business. Maureen, who is our EVP now, was their first employee. It was just the three of them in ninety-five wanting to make a business that was a little different. For a good ten-plus years, they could make all of the decisions. And they made all the decisions that felt right to them. So, it’s a little squishy. “Hey, everyone who works for us should have health care because it’s the right thing to do.” Or, “We should pay more for Organic Coffee and really invest in the Fair-Trade system because that’s the right thing to do.” But the company grew. We had great success. But as the company grew and they weren’t able to be involved in every decision becoming a B Corp was a really nice framework for making these decisions. So, now everyone who is a decision-maker is the next generation of decision-makers. So now, people making retail decisions or sourcing decisions can make that decision by looking at the triple bottom line.
It’s a way to quantify that feeling of a good decision but with the why. We can measure this.
JL: The triple bottom line, of course, refers to the three P’s – People, Planet and Prosperity. What do you feel are the most important aspect of the certification?
DF: I like that the certification challenges us to hold ourselves accountable. I like that the framework focuses on for-profit businesses. We are a business that should be making money to reinvest in our future projects and the people working with us. But that aspect is not weighted more than our environmental or social impact, which is what I like about it.
The certification has intensified as we’ve continued to be a part of the community. It is great to see it evolving. There is more to measure and look at as the business has become more complex. I like that it shifts how we look at things.
JL: I have heard that they certification intensifies every audit you go through. So, every point becomes hard-earned, and Equator has been at it for a while now. It is your fourth certification at this point. I noticed that there had been some fluctuations in your scores over the years. What do you attribute to the dips and then the rebounds?
DF: I think a lot of the change in our scores comes from growth, who we’re employing, and how we’re employing people. So, that is a place where we did lose some points. Looking at our current workforce assets are primarily in the cafes. So, more folks are making a tip-dependent barista wage. This changes the proportion of high income to low income. Also, the amount of waste we generate and electricity we consume goes way up when you have multiple cafes. They are also measuring more now (since 2011). We didn’t have a carbon tracking system before. We are putting one in place now to work towards being a carbon-neutral company.
We continue to grow with these constant challenges. For instance, we bought one of the first Loring’s made because we felt it was what we should be doing, but then we must determine how to measure how much carbon we are using and still find ways to offset that. We use energy-saving light bulbs and eco-mode on our espresso machines; however, we need to measure those items, and we hadn’t been. In our next audit, we will be focusing on measuring everything. Carbon is a huge focus right now and should be for everything.
JL: Despite the required challenge and work, B Corp seems to be gaining traction and becoming more highly sought. Why do you think that is?
DF: People are looking for something different. America is a capitalist country. That is how we are employed and live in this country. We see that it isn’t working for everyone. I think the disparity is becoming more and more apparent between those who have a lot and those who don’t. Consumers are becoming more aware, and some business owners are becoming more aware that the purpose of business should not be exclusively to extract as many profits as possible. B Corp is something that you can trust. Folks are becoming more conscious about greenwashing, and people are looking for more accountability from brands. Consumers like certification because they can trust it.
I think coffee lends itself to very thoughtful people. I don’t think you can work in coffee without seeing the inequalities because they are glaring. Any one of these products with a legacy of colonialism carries a choice, you can either continue to take advantage of this situation or maybe you can try and do some good. We’re working with a product people want; they will buy it anyway. Let’s give them an alternative to purchasing a product that genuinely does harm. You can have a cup of coffee that tastes good. That coffee can either do harm in the world or do good in the world. Hopefully, people are choosing to do good.
by Jake Leonti