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Breaking with Tradition to Improve Sustainability

Lesbia and a volunteer bagging the coffee for export into the new upcycled textile sacks

Lesbia and a volunteer bagging the coffee for export into the new upcycled textile sacks

It is tradition within the coffee industry for green coffee to be shipped to roasters in the classic burlap sack. Traditions can change though, and sometimes it is for the better. For example, changing the traditional system of buying coffee through large importers to a  direct trade model results in farmers getting a better price for their crop, more knowledge sharing, and a chance for buyers and producers to build mutually beneficial long term relationships. This year De La Gente is changing up the bags in which we export our coffee by partnering with the New Denim Project to purchase coffee sacks made out of 100% recycled jean fabric. By breaking with tradition we are reducing our environmental impact and supporting a local social enterprise that shares many of our values.

The New Denim Project is based at Iris Textiles in Guatemala City.  They are committed to fair labor practices and sustainable environmental practices. Iris Textiles ensures a healthy and secure work environment for their employees and produce a wide variety of textiles that serve as raw material inputs for the fashion industry as well as finished products for many large fashion companies. They have a zero tolerance policy towards child labor, forced labor, and any kind of workplace harassment or abuse. They also work hard to conserve as much electricity and water as possible.

The Cut and Sew team at Iris Textiles that makes New Denim Project products

The Cut and Sew team at Iris Textiles that makes New Denim Project products

Coffee shipped in burlap sacks has become almost iconic, and while it’s better than using plastic bags or even cotton it still has it’s drawbacks from a sustainability standpoint. Burlap comes from the jute plant, most commonly grown and produced in India and Bangladesh. Jute is the second most traded natural fiber in the world after cotton. The jute industry began to grow in the mid 1800’s when the British started to use jute on a commercial level. The knowledge and usefulness of this natural fiber spreading to other countries increased growth of the industry even further. In the 1960’s the jute industry began to decline because plastic was gaining more popularity. Plastic is cheaper than burlap, but as we all know plastic is not environmentally friendly.  While burlap may be less harmful to the environment than plastic, there are other social and environmental factors to consider in the production of burlap coffee sacks.  Being an educated consumer requires a little more background research and consideration of other factors like the labor force that processes the jute, or the environmental pollution that occurs from the processing and shipping.

Denim waste that has been turned back into fiber

Denim waste that has been turned back into fiber

In recent years Bangladesh has received negative media attention for poor treatment and working conditions of textile industry workers. The collapse of a garment factory in 2013 that killed 1,100 people brought attention to the conditions in Bangladesh and prompted improvements. However, conditions and treatment of workers are still far from fair. Within the jute industry there is a similar history of poor treatment of workers and extremely low wages. Workers' strikes have often led to violence and intimidation in order to force worker cooperation. Even though burlap has a reputation for being an eco-friendly material, if the conditions of workers producing the burlap are questionable there are other options for textiles that are produced with fair labor.

Part of the weaving process at the New Denim Project

Part of the weaving process at the New Denim Project

Not only is the reputation of worker pay and conditions questionable, the textile industry is harmful to the environment too, after the oil industry the textile industry is the second largest polluter. 13 million tons of textile scraps are thrown away every year, and out of that number only 15% are recycled. Unsustainable water use is another big issue. According to the New Denim Project, it takes 8,500 liters of  water to make just one pair of jeans. Not only do factories deplete local water sources, the dyeing process causes a great amount of pollution. In Indonesia, the Citarum River is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world. This is a consequence of nearby textile factories not having proper waste systems in place, so water that contains toxic chemicals from the dye is dumped into the Citarum River. The pollution issue of the textile industry is gaining more attention, and the New Denim Project is taking preventative action. Their process of upcycling textile scraps is chemical and dye free, and saves up to 20,00 liters of water per kilogram of upcycled material.

An additional sustainability issue related to using burlap is that it must be shipped from India or Bangladesh all the way to Guatemala. The shipping industry makes up 3% of greenhouse gas emissions. Comparatively, the entire country of Japan contributes to 4% of greenhouse emissions, India contributes 7% and 28 countries in the EU contribute just 9%. Just one ship emits the same amount of sulphur dioxide that 50 million cars emit. This year De La Gente is doing our part to reduce our sulphur dioxide footprint by sourcing our coffee sacks from the New Denim Project, whose factory is only 42.5  kilometers away in Guatemala City.   

Fredy and his son sewing the bags shut, the final step in the bagging process

Fredy and his son sewing the bags shut, the final step in the bagging process

The entire supply chain of the textile industry is very complex and has many different components from farmers growing cotton or jute, to the workers on the ships that export these goods. So understanding the whole process and then altering one’s consumption of these goods can have a positive impact. De La Gente operates our coffee business with the same mindset through our direct trade model. Our goal is to create a more equitable and inclusive coffee industry that benefits both the producers and the buyers. Selling specialty coffee to roasters, coffee shops, and individuals ensuring farmers are getting a fair price for their yield. This is what motivates  DLG to collaborate with local social enterprises who can help us increase our social impact while decreasing our negative environmental footprint. Choosing to source our export sacks locally allows us to reduce our environmental impact as well as create more economic opportunity in Guatemala.


Our new coffee sacks will be available for purchase soon in our online shop so you can continue to give new life to these recycled textiles, great for DIY projects, tote bags, pillows etc.