A little over a decade ago, if you wanted to drink coconut water, you probably had to buy a freshly harvested coconut. But in 2004, the first packaged coconut water hit U.S. shelves. The coconut water industry now sells around $1 billion of drinks a year.
The industry isn’t without controversy. Most coconut farmers live in extreme poverty, and haven’t profited from the boom in sales. And coconuts are often grown on single-crop farms, with pesticides and fertilizers that can harm the local health and the environment.
Harmless Harvest, a startup behind the first fair-trade, organic, raw coconut water, is trying to change the way things are done.
“We looked at the products that were out there and the industry as a whole, and saw a real disconnect between the industry promise, the theory behind coconut water, and the product delivery,” says Douglas Riboud, who co-founded the company with Justin Guilbert in 2009.
The company works only with a single species of coconut grown in Thailand. It’s more expensive, since it’s harder to grow and yields less coconut water than other varieties. But the founders say that it was the best-tasting coconut they could find.
“The most important thing for us is taste,” Riboud says. “And the best we can do, the hardest job you can do as a manufacturer who works in food, is not screw up the ingredient you had in the first place.”
Rather than using heat to pasteurize the water–the typical process, which Harmless Harvest claims destroys some of the value of the drink–the company uses a high-pressure treatment instead. (That’s the same process that feeds the cold-pressed juice craze). Their main product is served raw, with nothing added.
Their biggest challenge was making the drink organic. A few of the farms they found were organic by default–either because they were wild, or because the farmers simply couldn’t afford pesticide–but other Thai farmers didn’t understand why they should make the change. It was a slow process.
“We try to go deep in our relationships rather than wide,” Riboud says. “That’s allowed us to have the results we wanted on organic. Now that we have a proven track record, we can point farmers to that and say see, it worked.”
The company has also gone through an exhaustive process to become Fair Trade certified by Fair for Life, meaning all of its working conditions–from suppliers to their factory in Thailand, to their offices in San Francisco–have been carefully vetted. When we spoke, Riboud was about to board a plane to Thailand to meet with a community to plan health and education initiatives.
Now, they’re starting to see some of their ideas slowly spread in the industry–there are other raw and organic options, for example. “We’re a proof of concept,” Riboud says. “If we can prove to the industry and ourselves that it’s possible to do things this way, hopefully others take notice and do the same, or actually do better. That way we’ll have collectively moved the industry a little bit, which is the goal.”
But some bigger questions remain. Does it really make sense, for example, to ship a product that is almost entirely water thousands of miles to the U.S.? Some other companies, like Coco Hydro, have experimented with selling dehydrated coconut that can be mixed with water when it gets to a consumer. For Harmless Harvest, which wants to provide the product in its natural state, this wouldn’t work. But do we need to be drinking coconut water at all?
Some argue that the health benefits of the drink are over-hyped. Yes, coconut water has electrolytes like potassium, and it seems pretty likely that it’s healthier than drinking a bright-blue sports drink. But it’s arguable that most of us could be just as healthy drinking water from a local tap (experts already say there’s no reason to choose Gatorade over water). If those of us outside of the tropics have survived without coconut water for most of history, we probably can survive now.
There’s also the question of scale. Harmless Harvest is growing quickly–in 2010, it had two employees, and now there are around 300–but the company is dwarfed by competitors like Vita Coco. Because Harmless Harvest uses a single species of low-yield coconut, and invests so much into its relationship with farmers, how much can this model work for a giant company?
The company founders believe that the industry can change if consumers provide pressure. When asked if coconut farming could keep up with skyrocketing demand, they said yes (though not all crazes last).
“Yes, there will be enough coconuts for our new-found and growing appetite in the USA,” says Guilbert. “Will these be sourced, preserving or promoting improvement of the social, cultural and environmental fabric of the community? In the vast majority, no. Unless, we, as consumers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers commit to offering and purchasing products that adhere to ethical standards such as organic and fair trade. Choice is ours. With each purchase we decide the fate of others.”