From Social Work to Social Justice through Fair Trade, Organic Coffee: Interview with Green River Coffee


Developing a perfectly brewed cup of coffee was a personal passion that Tricia Richens turned into a business passion. Creating Green River Coffee allowed her to combine her desire to make a difference for impoverished communities while doing something she loved. It turned out to be the perfect recipe for this green entrepreneur!

Can you tell us how you got started in the organic, fair trade coffee business?

After 20 years in the social service field, working with women, poverty and food security, I decided to change my career. I considered returning to school but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.

At the same time, I happened to be learning about roasting coffee as a hobby at home. In addition to the importance of coffee being freshly roasted to achieve the flavours and taste experience that coffee can offer, I was learning that coffee was the number one contributor to poverty and environmental harm in the coffee growing countries. I was ‘wowing’ my friends and neighbours whenever I showed them the process and then the difference in taste that a true, fresh cup of coffee can offer.

One day I realized that perhaps I could mesh my desire to continue my work in relation to social justice with my new found hobby and create a conscientious coffee company.

In which regions do you operate and what is your customer base?

Part of my dream was to be THE local roaster serving my direct community: Georgina, Ontario. Considering the challenges associated with start-up businesses and finding/convincing/educating customers of the virtues of Green River Coffee, I have expanded to include a few communities within York Region. When people contact me from outside of my area, I am very firm about sending them to their local roaster. Some have tasted Green River Coffee while visiting a local farmers market and have asked me to mail it. Again, I refer to a roaster that is closer to their home.

Where do you get your beans? Have you traveled to that region to check out the growing operations?

Originally, I was proud to call my mentors, Merchants of Green Coffee in Toronto, my exclusive distributor. Due to challenges in the industry and obtaining a steady supply, I have since expanded to include a couple of other distributors. We carry Fair Trade and Organic beans from Ethiopia, Costa Rica and Indonesia, as well as a Swiss Water Process FTO from Peru. These offerings allow customers to explore a full range of taste profiles from mild with higher acidity coffees, medium coffees, to full bodied coffees.

I did visit a farm in Costa Rica just before I began my journey in the business. Unfortunately, I had not prepared enough and was unable to find a Fair Trade, Organic coffee farm but did stumble upon a farm that supplied one of the largest coffee companies. This provided me with some firsthand knowledge of some of the problems associated with the industry.

How do you ensure that as you scale up production that the coffee growers can maintain sustainable farming operations?

In all honesty, I rely on the labels. I only purchase fair trade and organic so I have to have faith that farmers, their families and their land are being taken care of based on these programs.

How does buying coffee from small farmers benefit them and their community?

Farmers often find themselves trapped in an industry that pays them too little to meet their basic needs. By purchasing only fair trade and organic coffee we are making a statement: farmers, their families and their countries deserve the right to a sustainable lifestyle and the ability to maintain their land’s biodiversity.

If distributors are able to visit small farms and purchase directly, they can often confirm that the coffee is grown using more traditional methods, i.e.  more natural growing conditions, hence, less need for chemicals. This can allow for an even higher premium paid directly to a farmer than that which has been certified.

However, this is not an option available to the majority so the certification of Fair Trade assures that the farmer is getting paid an amount that will cover costs and afford a sustainable lifestyle.

Other considerations can be given to the many other tasks involved in the processing of the coffee for market. Mass produced coffee companies are likely not utilizing the local community for the picking of the beans, production of the bags, washing/drying of the beans, etc. Small farms and co-operatives allow for jobs within the community.

A quote:

“The coffee bean is a form of information storage. Locked inside every bean is a story. A story of the weather, the land, the trees and the people’s efforts that produced it.”

Green River Coffee’s vision is to be ever mindful of the experience and realities within the societies of origin to the communities of the end consumer. We believe that exceptional taste is a natural by-product of these goals.

What kinds of things did you have to do to get your company up and running?

A lot of research! A couple of business courses. Writing a business plan. Seeking loans from banks and government bodies (not to fruition, however!). Sourcing products that were congruent with my mission/vision.

When did you first establish your business? And how has the down economy impacted your growth?

Green River was launched May 2008. Research shows that coffee consumption is flat, meaning that consumption does not readily fluctuate. What has fluctuated in recent years is what customers are willing to pay for their coffee. Add this to consumers’ ever-growing desire for a greener product, we have not seen any real decline in relation to the economy. Furthermore, we are still in the beginning stages, so we are still growing our customer base. All that said, things may change in the coming months due to the challenges in securing green beans due to harsh weather conditions and other factors in the coffee industry.

What kinds of methods do you use to market your coffee?

We have done some advertising in the local paper but our primary method is getting out in the community and having people taste the coffee. We attend our local home show, two farmers’ markets and try to participate in other local events whenever possible. We have also had good luck in attracting attention from local media and have had articles written and appeared on some local cable shows.

We stock a couple of local stores. This was not challenging as they are family owned and very accepting of other local business owners and products. There is no intention to expand in retail because we want the coffee to be fresh. We restock very easily on a weekly basis at our community locations.

Do you sell your coffee online? What challenges does that process pose?

We do not sell on-line. Of course, many have cited this as a major fault but we remain true to our commitment of local. If I can’t deliver it to you via bicycle or a short car ride, then there is bound to be a roaster closer than Green River Coffee.

We have two delivery days per week. Each focuses on a certain area. Coffee is roasted the day before. Our whole point is that coffee has to be ‘fresh’ which aligns well with the concept of supporting your local business/economy.

We also put a strong emphasis on our zero-waste strategy, which also influences the range we are able to supply. This is observed primarily through the packaging of our products and the brewing of our coffee. We encourage customers to purchase the beans in mason jars. They pay a $1.00 deposit that is returned when they bring the jar back. All jars are washed and sterilized for re-use. For customers that don’t like the jars, we offer the coffee beans in PLA lined, 100% biodegradable kraft paper bags. We brew our coffee using the French press method only. No filters to dispose of and grounds are placed in compost.

Are there any mistakes that you made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?

Prioritize fostering a mentoring relationship with an expert in the field.

What advice would you have for other aspiring green and social entrepreneurs?

You can never have too many Plan Bs!

Become involved in your community, i.e. green networking groups, Chamber of Commerce, town events.

Developing a perfectly brewed cup of coffee was a personal passion that Tricia Richens turned into a business passion. Creating Green River Coffee allowed her to combine her desire to make a different for impoverished communities while doing something she loved turned out the be the perfect recipe for this green entrepreneur.

Can you tell us how you got started in the organic, fair trade coffee business?

After 20 years in the social service field, working with women, poverty and food security, I decided to change my career. I considered returning to school but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.

At the same time, I happened to be learning about roasting coffee as a hobby at home. In addition to the importance of coffee being freshly roasted to achieve the flavours and taste experience that coffee can offer, I was learning that coffee was the number one contributor to poverty and environmental harm in the coffee growing countries. I was ‘wowing’ my friends and neighbours whenever I showed them the process and then the difference in taste that a true, fresh cup of coffee can offer.

One day I realized that perhaps I could mesh my desire to continue my work in relation to social justice with my new found hobby and create a conscientious coffee company.

In which regions do you operate and what is your customer base?

Part of my dream was to be THE local roaster serving my direct community: Georgina, Ontario. Considering the challenges associated with start-up businesses and finding/convincing/educating customers of the virtues of Green River Coffee, I have expanded to include a few communities within York Region. When people contact me from outside of my area, I am very firm about sending them to their local roaster. Some have tasted Green River Coffee while visiting a local farmers market and have asked me to mail it. Again, I refer to a roaster that is closer to their home.

From where do you get your beans? Have you traveled to that region to check out the growing operations?

Originally, I was proud to call my mentors, Merchants of Green Coffee in Toronto, my exclusive distributor. Due to challenges in the industry and obtaining a steady supply, I have since expanded to include a couple of other distributors. We carry Fair Trade and Organic beans from Ethiopia, Costa Rica and Indonesia, as well as a Swiss Water Process FTO from Peru. These offerings allow customers to explore a full range of taste profiles from mild with higher acidity coffees, medium coffees, to full bodied coffees.

I did visit a farm in Costa Rica just before I began my journey in the business. Unfortunately, I had not prepared enough and was unable to find a Fair Trade, Organic farm but did stumble upon a farm that supplied one of the largest coffee companies. This provided me with some firsthand knowledge of some of the problems associated with the industry.

How do you ensure that as you scale up production that the coffee growers can maintain sustainable farming operations?

In all honesty, I rely on the labels. I only purchase fair trade and organic so I have to have faith that farmers, their families and their land are being taken care of based on these programs.

How does buying coffee from small farmers benefit them and their community?

Farmers often find themselves trapped in an industry that pays them too little to meet their basic needs. By purchasing only fair trade and organic coffee we are making a statement: farmers, their families and their countries deserve the right to a sustainable lifestyle and the ability to maintain their land’s bio-diversity.

If distributors are able to visit small farms and purchase directly, they can often confirm that the coffee is grown using more traditional methods, i.e. more natural growing conditions, hence, less need for chemicals. This can allow for an even higher premium paid directly to a farmer than that which has been certified.

However, this is not an option available to the majority so the certification of Fair Trade assures that the farmer is getting paid an amount that will cover costs and afford a sustainable lifestyle.

Other considerations can be given to the many other tasks involved in the processing of the coffee for market. Mass produced coffee companies are likely not utilizing the local community for the picking of the beans, production of the bags, washing/drying of the beans, etc. Small farms and co-operatives allow for jobs within the community.

A quote:

“The coffee bean is a form of information storage. Locked inside every bean is a story. A story of the weather, the land, the trees and the people’s efforts that produced it.”

Green River Coffee’s vision is to be ever mindful of the experience and realities within the societies of origin to the communities of the end consumer. We believe that exceptional taste is a natural by-product of these goals.

What kinds of things did you have to do to get your company up and running?

A lot of research! A couple of business courses. Writing a business plan. Seeking loans from banks and government bodies (not to fruition, however!). Sourcing products that were congruent with my mission/vision.

When did you first establish your business? And how has the down economy impacted your growth?

Green River was launched May 2008. Research shows that coffee consumption is flat, meaning that consumption does not readily fluctuate. What has fluctuated in recent years is what customers are willing to pay for their coffee. Add this to consumers’ ever-growing desire for a greener product, we have not seen any real decline in relation to the economy. Furthermore, we are still in the beginning stages, so we are still growing our customer base. All that said, things may change in the coming months due to the challenges in securing green beans due to harsh weather conditions and other factors in the coffee industry.

What kinds of methods do you use to market your coffee?

We have done some advertising in the local paper but our primary method is getting out in the community and having people taste the coffee. We attend our local home show, two farmers’ markets and try to participate in other local events whenever possible. We have also had good luck in attracting attention from local media and have had articles written and appeared on some local cable shows.

We stock a couple of local stores. This was not challenging as they are family owned and very accepting of other local business owners and products. There is no intention to expand in retail because we want the coffee to be fresh. We restock very easily on a weekly basis at our community locations.

Do you sell your coffee online? What challenges does that process pose?

We do not sell on-line. Of course, many have cited this as a major fault but we remain true to our commitment of local. If I can’t deliver it to you via bicycle or a short car ride, then there is bound to be a roaster closer than Green River Coffee.

We have two delivery days per week. Each focuses on a certain area. Coffee is roasted the day before. Our whole point is that coffee has to be ‘fresh’ which aligns well with the concept of supporting your local business/economy.

We also put a strong emphasis on our zero-waste strategy, which also influences the range we are able to supply. This is observed primarily through the packaging of our products and the brewing of our coffee. We encourage customers to purchase the beans in mason jars. They pay $1.00 deposit that is returned when they bring the jar back. All jars are washed and sterilized for re-use. For customers that don’t like the jars, we offer the coffee beans in PLA lined, 100% biodegradable kraft paper bags. We brew our coffee using the French press method only. No filters to dispose of and grounds are placed in compost.

Are there any mistakes that you made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?

Prioritize fostering a mentoring relationship with an expert in the field.

What advice would you have for other aspiring green and social entrepreneurs?

You can never have too many Plan Bs!

Become involved in your community, i.e. green networking groups, Chamber of Commerce, town events.

This post was written by:

Maryruth Belsey Priebe

Maryruth has been seeking the keys to environmental justice - both at home and at work - for over a decade. Growing up adjacent to wild spaces, Maryruth developed a healthy respect (and whimsical appreciation) for things non-human, but her practical mind constantly draws her down to earth to ponder tangible solutions to complex eco-problems.

With interests that range from green living to green business, sustainable building designs to organic gardening practices, ecosystem restoration to environmental health, Maryruth has been exploring and writing about earth-matters for most of her life. Of special interest is the subject of ecopsychology and the role the natural world plays in the long-term health and well-being of humanity. You can learn more about Maryruth's work at www.JadeCreative.ca.


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