Last December, the two-masted schooner Avontuur loaded 22 tons of organically farmed Colombian coffee from the port of Santa Marta. With a crew of 16, it crossed the Atlantic over the course of two months to reach the port of Bordeaux.
The journey by sail saved more than three tonnes of CO2, according to Belgian specialty roaster, Javry, which acquired the order last month.
Now, Javry is one of an increasing number of roasters offering their customers carbon-free coffee.
“When we decided to embark on the adventure of imported coffee by sail, we did not even look at the price. Ecology is part of our company’s DNA,” Pierre-Yves Orban, co-founder and CTO of Javry, told TRT World. “When we had the opportunity to have decarbonised transport, we did not hesitate.”
Javry currently imports around 50 tons of coffee annually and it expects that figure to reach over 100 tons by 2025. Orban says the objective is to import at least 50 tons of coffee by sailboat by 2025.
The goal, Orban argues, is to show that alternative transportation exists and can work. “We want to raise awareness among end consumers but also among other brands and manufacturers who could follow suit.”
French sailing freight transport company, TransOceanic Wind Transport (TOWT), was responsible for chartering the shipment of Javry’s green coffee along with four other roasters who agreed to buy the 22 tons of Colombian fair-trade beans.
Founded in 2011, TOWT’s mission is to decarbonise the shipping industry by restoring transportation of goods by sail. It aims to develop cargo sailboats to become as competitive as traditional fuel-powered freight.
“We want to demonstrate that ecological sail transport can be credible and economically viable,” Yael Soubeyran, TOWT’s Development & Public Relations Officer, told TRT World.
For now, TOWT has been transporting with 17 different old rigs, including Avontuur, a 100-year-old Dutch commercial vessel equipped with solar panels and wind turbines, with a capacity of 114 tons.
The firm expects its future sailing cargo ships to reduce CO2 emissions by over 90 percent on standard trans-Atlantic routes compared to the same journey for the same volume of cargo in the conventional, thermally-propelled sector.
So far, TOWT has generated over €1 million ($1.05 million) of revenue. By 2025, it guarantees that 9,600 tonnes of CO2 will be saved annually from and to the port of Le Havre, while 72,000 tonnes per year of goods will be switched to low-carbon transport.
Soubeyran said TOWT benefits from €150 million ($158 million) of intended business tied up with a number of major French brands. One of them, Belco, is a sustainable coffee importer that serves around 1,000 specialty roasters all over Europe like Javry.
Using a sailboat, a 5,225 nautical miles journey from Brazil to the port of Le Havre transporting Belco’s coffee beans would take 21 days and have a carbon footprint close to zero. A traditional shipping container, meanwhile, would have emitted close to two tons of carbon.
Belco has received enough positive feedback to the point they are now planning to import about 4,000 tons – around half of their total coffee beans – by sail by 2025.
But to do so, they will need a bigger boat – and TOWT is aiming to deliver just that. By the summer of 2023, TOWT plans to launch the first of its own fleet of cargo vessels, which will be able to hold up to 1,100 tons. Four more will follow by 2026.
In a first for the industry, TOWT also uses a label called ANEMOS: a certificate that guarantees customers a decarbonised transit of their products. A QR code is provided which includes a decarbonisation report, testimonies of the crew and stopovers on the journey. So far, the company has sold over 1 million ANEMOS labelled products.
Across the Atlantic, Costa Rican-based logistics agency SAILCARGO is planning to build its own flagship sustainable vessel by 2023. Called the Ceiba, it is billed to be the largest clean ocean-faring freighter in the world, built using regenerative wood that can carry 250 tons.
One of SAILCARGO’s partners is Canadian roaster Café William, which has invested in the Ceiba to transport coffee beans from South America to its roasting plant in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
“We want to leave a legacy, to do something that is bigger than us,” Jean-Philippe Marcoux, Café William’s Marketing Director, told TRT World. “We decided that shipping coffee in a greener way was a worthwhile goal.”
The largest Canadian-owned roaster focused on production of organic and fair-trade coffees for the retail market, Café William sees itself at the forefront of rethinking the future of coffee production.
Marcoux mentioned that emissions-free maritime transport is just one piece of the green coffee puzzle. The company has invested over $10 million in a new eco-friendly roasting plant and is looking to purchase electric trucks as well, all in an effort “to provide green coffee at every stage of the supply chain,” he said.
While the volume of vessels on offer remains limited, the growing interest in carbon-neutral alternatives to traditional fossil-fuel-powered tankers and planes is likely to push companies in the industry to consider new supply-chain practices and shipping ventures.
Beyond lowering the carbon footprint, many in the sector are looking to shorten the supply chain to allow more transparency for customers and fairer prices.
For Soubeyran, while prices are a challenge at the moment, they will change as the industry evolves. “Yes, the prices for sail are marginally higher,” he said. “Maritime transport is so cheap, and we are still in an economy where people are used to finding the cheapest options.”
“But I think that’s changing as more consumers look for ethical options, and we are promoting a transport that is less polluting that can be leveraged in terms of marketing, too.”
Not to mention, there is the added advantage of not being dependent on volatile oil prices, Soubeyran added. Large sailboats have motors to use whenever necessary, otherwise are driven solely by wind.
For Javry, sail costs almost 20 times more than traditional transport. To keep the coffee affordable, Orban said Javry reduces its margin and assumes part of the extra cost. “At the end of the day, the package costs the consumer only a few more euros than it regularly would,” he said.
“Consumers are getting conscious about what they buy and how they buy,” said Marcoux, adding that consumers have become more willing to pay extra for greener coffee and roasters are rising to the challenge to provide it to them.
“We also think about this long-term and from a B2B [business-to-business] perspective, and we expect soon there will be more coffee suppliers going in the same direction.”