Q&A: It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee

Martin Richards is the Director of Blackstar Coffee Roasters, a business dedicated to reversing the environmental damage caused by land clearing and deforestation. Launched in November 2020, Brisbane-based Blackstar’s initiative Coffee For Trees sees three trees planted for every kilogram of coffee sold at its West End, CBD and online stores.

ISB: What was the motivation behind you setting up your business in the first place?

MR: We established Blackstar with the support of the Brisbane Social Enterprise Hub – an initiative of the Brisbane City Council, Price Waterhouse Coopers and Social Ventures Australia. Our motivation has always been to change the world through great coffee. Coffee For Trees is a more recent initiative but over the lifecycle of Blackstar we’ve been committed to many programs such as Fair Trade, fundraising for microfinance loans overseas, supporting local music and arts etc.

ISB: How did you go about establishing Blackstar in such a competitive environment?

MR: When we started back in 2007 specialty coffee wasn’t a thing. There were literally no small batch roasters other than Caffeine Espresso who landed in Brisbane a few months before us. The market back then was much smaller, with only a handful of old-school commercial style dark-roast style coffee brands. From the start we wanted to make every roast and every coffee matter. We invested all we had in the right equipment and aimed for cup quality over profit margins.

ISB: And what was the inspiration behind the Coffee for Trees initiative?

MR: In late 2019 we asked ourselves: what legacy do we want to leave as a business? and what impact do we want to make? As we looked closer, we noticed there was a really obvious global problem staring us in the face – the climate crisis. It was around the time of the Greta Thunberg speech. Mass student protests were being organised around the world and in Australia young people were leaving school classes (my kids included) to attend rallies calling for action to address the climate emergency. I felt we had to do something. When I heard on the radio that Queensland had the second-worst land-clearing rates in the world, I knew we had to address deforestation. Hence, Coffee For Trees.

ISB: How do you see a shift to sustainability benefiting the broader coffee industry?

MR: We need to look not so much at how sustainability can benefit the coffee industry, but how coffee can benefit sustainability – the climate crisis isn’t going away. And COVID19 has taught us that unpredictable global forces can interrupt our lives and economies very rapidly. With global warming rates increasing, extreme weather events such as fires, floods, cyclones and more on the rise; it’s time for us to act quickly. Maybe the biggest contribution the coffee industry can make is educating the public about the environment.

ISB: What is your vision for the development of the business in the next couple of years?

MR: Coffee is such a central part of our culture and a wonderful vehicle for promoting change. Our company vision is “to stimulate the transition to a sustainable economy” and our Coffee For Trees is a simple way to express this vision. Over the coming years we aim to get the word out about Coffee For Trees. We’re interested in partnering with as many like-minded individuals and businesses, to look at how we can make a difference through coffee. The more coffee we sell the more trees we can plant. Australians consume 112 million kilos of coffee per year and our current commitment is to plant three trees per kilo. So, there’s a lot of scope for reforestation via coffee.

ISB: And, finally, what is the number one lesson you’ve learnt on your business journey you’d share with others looking to start their own enterprise?

MR: Number one is to start with your purpose and, if it’s just to make money, then dig deeper. The world still has too many businesses that are driven by profit but lacking meaning and purpose. From my perspective profit alone isn’t enough of a reason to be in business any longer. This is a big reason why we have the environmental crisis in the first place. I would encourage anyone starting a venture to connect with how they want to contribute to others and to the planet. And, secondly, I recommend getting up early and planning well.