Reinventing the Coffee Business Around Ethics and Sustainability: Dean Cycon

Completely organic and fair-trade coffee at supermarket prices…locally-directed sustainability projects in coffee-producing villages…and the integrity to turn down the wrong kind of customer, even if it means giving up millions of dollars–Dean Cycon runs a very different kind of coffee company.

Can you run this kind of company and make money? You betcha.


 Dean Cycon, CEO of Dean’s Beans and award-winning author of Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee
uses only organic fair-trade coffee and cocoa, typically pays farmers
well above the fair-trade minimum while still keeping consumer prices
very affordable, and reinvests substantial profits into locally
governed sustainability/economic development projects in the
communities that supply his coffee. He’s also perhaps the business
person with the highest integrity that I’ve ever encountered.

Not surprisingly, his revenues and profits have grown every year, despite the recession.

In a speech to small business owners in Massachusetts,
Cycon described how he had decided not to invest thousands of dollars
in a more eco-friendly liner for disposable coffee cups, that in a year
would keep about a basketball’s worth of plastic out of the landfill on
a year’s volume of 100,000 cups. It didn’t make either economic or
environmental sense, he said.


On the flip side, Cycon was asked
to be the organic coffee supplier when Keurig introduced its wildly
popular single-serve coffee makers. He looked at the machine, was
disturbed by the large amount of plastic that would be consumed, and
suggested to the engineers that they redesign it more sustainably,
replacing the disposable plastic containers with biodegradable ones
made of the same thick paper used to make egg cartons. When the company
declined, he refused to supply the coffee, a decision that cost him
millions of dollars, but which still feels like the right decision to
him. He’s actually looking to develop a competing model that would be
more eco-friendly.

Cycon has also been an agent of change within
the coffee industry, challenging companies like Starbucks and Green
Mountain to up their percentage of fair-trade sources, and to make much
larger donations to village sustainability programs in the coffee
lands: $10 million to his $10,000, in one case.

On the fair trade
issue, he points out that if a large coffee roaster sources four
percent from fair-trade co-ops, that could mean 96 out of every 100
farmers are not making a living wage.


His challenge to business
in general? Bring CSR and sustainability “deeply into your business” as
an integral part of decision-making, and don’t just tack it on at the
end. With that attitude, Cycon believes companies can influence their
vendors, their customers, and other stakeholders to take many more
sustainability steps: from convincing UPS to use biodiesel trucks in
the fleet to biodegradable paper from their label supplier.

Award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First
and seven other books, Shel Horowitz writes and speaks on driving
success through environmental sustainability, business ethics,
cooperation (even with competitors), attitude, and extreme service. He
is the founder of the international Business Ethics Pledge.