TT with HD: Jeremy Lopatin
[Ed. note: If you want to buy tea, ArborTeas can fill your order. They'll put it in a canister custom-designed from the ground up to be environmentally friendly. If you live in Ann Arbor, they'll deliver it to your door for free.]
HD: Shall we teeter totter up and down?
HD: See, you got some ...
JL: ... do I need to be up farther?
HD: You need to scoot forward, this way, maybe like 6 inches.
JL: All right.
HD: Is that going to work? Just so that it's fair.
JL: Right. [laugh] I've got a little bit on you.
HD: So, are you ready for [The World Tea Expo in] Vegas?
JL: You know, I can't say that I am, yet. We haven't had the official conference call with the person moderating our panel discussion, yet.
HD: So there will be a conference call?
JL: There is, and I just got an e-mail this morning to that effect, but that hasn't happened yet. And a month ago when I knew that I was going to be on this panel, I put a call out to our customers through our blog and said, Hey, I'm going to get to be a voice within our industry on this small scale, for these issues! Like the organic industry is already well-established in the tea industry. The fair trade movement has taken root and is growing. What was interesting to me, and what I asked customers--and I didn't get a heck of a lot of feedback on--was what's the next frontier as far as making our industry more sustainable. Which I'm sure parallels a gazillion other industries--is it sustainability in our methodology and packaging? Or is it taking the fair trade thing to a new level? Because there are people that have issues with the fair trade movement ...
HD: ... with how that is defined?
JL: Absolutely. Or is it somehow getting more involved and active on the local level and on a community-by-community basis? I mean, those are all things that I could envision. I thought it was unusual that a company of our size--we have two employees, me and my wife--would be invited to speak in front of about 10,000 attendees at the World Tea Expo ...
HD: ... now when you said two employees, and you also said you and your wife, do you mean in addition to your two employees, or those are the two employees?
JL: No, we are the two employees. We are a company of two! And have been from the beginning. And so I was thinking, I know we are doing a lot of things right in how we are running our business. I just didn't know if what we are doing really justifies getting attention on that large of a scale within our industry.
HD: So what are some of the things that you're doing right? For example, somebody orders some tea from your website--and they can do this from anywhere in the country, right. So step-by-step what happens then? They hit the button, Check Out Now, or whatever ...
JL: ... before they even hit the Check Out Now button, they have the option of choosing from a variety of shipping options, one of which we have included, we have billed as our 'earth friendlier parcel post' shipping. Parcel post through the Postal Service is not most people's favorite methodology, but actually one of our customers years ago works for the postal system in their administration out on the west coast, and he brought to our attention that, Hey, you guys should really offer parcel post, because there is no jet travel whatsoever. Consequently that's why it takes longer, but the carbon footprint and just overall the environmental footprint is far-reduced over Priority Mail or any of their other options.
HD: So they put that stuff on trains and trucks?
JL: It's all trains and trucks. I don't know if it's ever seen a train. It's probably in this day and age mostly trucks. When we rolled out our new website in October, that was a change that we made. That's one thing. Another thing, there's a lot of debate over how people feel about carbon offsets, but we decided to pro-actively carbon offset all of our internal operations--which are really pretty minimal, because we're a small operation--but also to carbon offset all of the transportation from origin through our importer to us, and onto our customers. So that entire trip plus all of the activity within our facility is ...
HD: ... so you calculate that yourself?
JL: We calculated it with the help of Carbonfund dot org. They are who we buy our carbon-offset RECS from, or whatever you want to call it.
HD: So you do that calculation, and then you basically pay per whatever the unit of currency is?
JL: We make a guesstimate at the beginning of year, and pay that, and then check back at the end of the year and see how it stacked up.
HD: Ballpark idea, how many dollars are we talking about?
JL: For the carbon offset?
HD: Yeah, like thousands and thousands or a few hundred?
JL: I think this year it's going to be in the neighborhood of like $500. See, that's an interesting thing to me because I was a little bit surprised at how affordable really it was to offset all of that transportation. A big part of it is, most of our tea coming from origin to either the east coast or the west coast is coming by boat. I guess you're externalizing any potential direct inputs into the water from the boats--but from an environmental perspective, that's probably one of the softer-impact transportation modes. So that's actually kind of nominal.
HD: Or round up?
JL: Yeah, to offset.
HD: So this company that you buy your carbon credits through, what do they do with the money?
JL: You as a partner with them can specify one of three avenues for them to invest in, or you can say, Distribute it across all of your projects! So it's reforestation efforts, it's renewable energy development efforts--they've actually gone out and created wind farms or biomass generation in different areas of the country. They've actually taken that money and invested in people who are trying get these things off the ground. Or projects to increase energy efficiency of existing systems.
HD: So there's checkout issues that can be sculpted for the cause, say. But then an order comes in, I guess it shows up as what you get an e-mail ...
JL: ... actually, let me back up though, because what I was getting at is that these companies are charging either $.25 or $.50 or whatever to carbon offset your order and the reality is, it might be $.04 or $.05. It might be really, on an order-by-order basis, a really nominal amount of money. And I often wonder, are we helping or hurting the cause by doing it like that--instead of just making it an invisible part of that company's commitment to doing business in a certain way.
HD: ... so it's not the $.25 versus $.03 issue, it's the idea of putting it as an extra at all creates the impression that, Gosh, we can't do this unless you make this donation--that's what you're talking about?
JL: Correct, yeah. There's that. And the sense that if I want to be environementally friendly, then I've got to add more money to my shopping cart. It's both of those issues. So in any event, somebody hits the checkout button, we get an e-mail saying we've got an order. We let the orders stack up over the course of the day, and we get down to packing them, which basically entails taking the large bags ...
HD: ... so it comes in bags?
JL: It comes in mostly bags. Sometimes now that we're into buying larger and larger quantities, it comes in boxes.
HD: Like wooden boxes? Wooden crates?
JL: No, no. Just cardboard boxes that are lined with like--unfortunately, most the time it's plastic, but we're not to the level of volume, yet. The traditional and conventional way for tea to be moved around across the world is in sort of special little wood-sided crates, they're called 'chests'.
HD: Right, there are the kind of thing we are familiar with from elementary school, you know, the Boston Tea Party!
JL: Absolutely! They look exotic. Yeah, totally.
HD: That's my conception of tea.
JL: And actually it stayed like that for a really long time. And it's only now that the level of technology at origin is starting to improve that you're starting to see products shipped from origin in other types of packaging. Sometimes they aren't actually like nitrogen-flushed and vacuum-sealed at origin ...
HD: ... holy crap.
JL: Like that. So that oxygen doesn't touch it until either the retailer or the customer does one way or the other. Which is, I would say the optimal, but that's kind of pretty heavy-duty for a developing country.
HD: So you got a big pile of tea in a bag or whatever, and you've got to fill an order. So you've got scoops and scales, or?
JL: Yes, scoops and scales and we're metering it out. And part of it is ...
HD: ... you have to like the smell of tea, I assume.
JL: Absolutely. Actually one of the things when people come by, that's one of the things that everybody almost universally comments on. They walk into that room, Oh wow! This really smells really great! This is so pleasant! And Aubrey and I are, I think, kind of numb to it. It's just the way ArborTeas smells.
HD: You don't notice it anymore?
JL: I can remember having that same sensation, you know, the room smells completely like this product! I used to get really paranoid about being able to smell anything. It was really important to me that I kept everything absolutely hermetically sealed to keep it fresh. So to me, feeling like I could smell anything outside the packaging would get me concerned.
HD: So, when you say the 'packaging', you're talking about where you're storing it?
JL: The packaging that it came to us in. It's often like mylar bags. For the better importers that we work with, they will package it in a glassine-lined paper bag so that it is at least biodegradable. Those are the type of bags that we use for our bulk orders--in lieu of a bag that is lined with poly, some sort of synthetic polymer, or foil.
HD: So what do you put the stuff in, when you're filling an order? You're filling a different, smaller container?
JL: We are transferring it to one of two things generally. We have these canisters specially designed working actually with students from the School of Natural Resources right here.
HD: Are you kidding me?
JL: Well, because I'm an alum, from here. And I still have friends and colleagues who have a relationship with SNRE. One of my friends was gracious enough to get me in touch with a professor that teaches the industrial ecology class to graduate students here every--I think he does it every winter. He put us in touch.
HD: ... it needs to be air-tight, I assume? Air- and light-tight?
JL: Air and light. It's very important for tea to be protected from air, moisture, and UV. Because it's extremely receptive to smells. That's part of what makes tea a really great thing to flavor and scent. It absorbs jasmine blossom fragrance really nicely. Or it takes Earl Grey flavoring really well.
HD: What is Earl Grey flavoring?
JL: Earl Grey, the flavor, is actually the oil from the bergamot fruit, which is an Asian citrus fruit. Not a lot of people even realize that Earl Grey is a flavored type of tea. They just take it as, That is black tea. And honestly when I first really got into tea, that was one of the first things that I realized as well, there are a lot of things that I just thought were natural flavors of tea, but no, it's not.
HD: Something that was surprising to me--I mean in preparation I hit the Wikipedia article on tea. I figured I could at least do that. I didn't realize that the standard varieties of tea--black, oolong, and green ...
JL: ... they all come from the same plant.
HD: Yeah, my assumption was that these were different plants. That when people spoke of those different varieties of teas that they were talking about a different species--not a species, I don't know what I'm talking about here--but a different plant at least. And no, it's basically just the method of preparation as best I can tell, huh?
JL: It's the method of manufacture. The easiest way to explain it is, if you think of during the manufacturing process, there's a point at which you can either allow the tea to sit and oxidize and get darker or not. And if you allow it to oxidize a 100 percent ...
HD: ... that's black tea?
JL: That's black, it turns black. If you heat it immediately and prevent that enzymatic process of oxidation from ever occurring, then it stays green. And then oolongs are anything in between, the whole spectrum between zero oxidation and 100 percent oxidation. And that's why I think a lot of really passionate tea lovers gravitate towards oolongs, because they draw from both ends of the spectrum ...
HD: .... maybe not as predictable?
JL: Yeah absolutely. Or just the way they borrow from both categories of black and green. It's maybe more interesting than either of the two kinds by themselves.
HD: So these paperboard cylinders then, is that something that is proprietary now that you own? Or that SNRE owns?
JL: No. SNRE, all of the work that we did with their students was done vaguely under the auspices of the Center for Sustainable Systems. That's the Center that the professor is involved in running, and they do studies for Stony Field Farms and for much larger corporations to look at the question of sustainability. But it was sort of with like the caveat that this hasn't been peer-reviewed, you have to take it with a grain of salt. But it was pretty basic questions. I feel reasonably comfortable that the students were able to share all of the information sources and their methodology. I mean, I'm not a lifecycle analysis expert, but I feel pretty comfortable with it.
HD: Because you've got the canister.
JL: Yeah, because that canister through its entire lifecycle from manufacturing through delivery to the customer is estimated to reduce at least the carbon footprint by 83% or so--over a tinplated steel canister, which is what we used to use and what predominate in the tea industry ...
HD: ... the industry standard?
HD: So is it a local manufacturing concern that makes the cardboard ... ?
JL: ... we were actually fortunate to find a company in Cleveland that will manufacture it.
HD: That's still the Midwest!
JL: Absolutely. Well, previously we were getting our canisters, from Texas. And so that becomes a consideration of where you are sourcing your stuff from an environmental perspective. But also from the support-of-your-local-community perspective as well. So we have all these inquiries from bigger--I mean, companies that could probably eat us alive, if they wanted to--and smaller companies, asking us, Hey, could you share?
HD: That's actually something I wanted to explore with you in the context of the panel that you're going to be on, this tea industry panel in Las Vegas. Your business model as I understand it, even though the name is ArborTeas, you could do this business model wherever.
JL: Totally. Oh yeah.
HD: So it in a sense on this panel, sharing your secrets, your insights, sharing how you do stuff--aside from the actual physical canister, you know, can we get the magic canister!--that there could be issues about, Do I really want to basically say, Here's how you can make this happen! when anybody anywhere is a potential competitor?
JL: Totally. Absolutely. And it might be our undoing! But in the final analysis, for us, the conclusion we came to was, Look, we embarked on crafting a business along the social and environmental ideals that we value. And so we've taken all these steps in this case to be a little lighter on the environment, now that we've gone to the effort of having somebody with greater knowledge than us help us make some of these decisions--to withhold that information from somebody else who wants to try to do something good as well, we couldn't justify it, we couldn't sleep at night realizing that. Even though we know that it might take the steam or the wind out of our sails ...
HD: ... [laugh] what if everybody's got the magic canister now? ...
JL: ... well, you know the reality is that not everybody is going to do it. Not everybody is going to do it in the same incarnation as us, not everybody is going to be able to pull it off or have the energy. Because there is a lot of inertia with businesses. So a lot of these businesses that are banging out tin canister after tin canister of tea or whatever other product, it takes a lot of effort to switch gears and make that change. That was true for us, and we were a little tiny company when we did that change. So yeah these bigger companies they're like slower-moving sort of juggernauts. And it might be a year or two before they have, like you say, the 'magic canister'.
HD: And if they do ...
JL: ... then there are a lot more people who are getting their tea in a smaller-carbon-footprint, in a more environmentally-sensitive package.
HD: And then you guys can move onto the next thing--beyond a canister.
JL: Absolutely. At the end of the day, it would be great if everybody just bought their tea from us! But that's not going to happen. So if some of these other competitors start thinking along the same lines and a greater proportion of the market can get can start getting their product more sustainably, then we are indirectly achieving our mission, not just through the direct action of running our business, but by helping others. And that's kind of how I look at the panel discussion.
HD: Really! So they have packing peanuts that you can just go in and ...
JL: ... you have to be pretty selective. Like we sort of pre-screen, you know. So that it's sanitary and whatnot. Which is very important, obviously.
HD: And so they sell the stuff, or you just go grab it?
JL: No, they have a big sign up that says, No Scavenging Allowed. But even the employees are happy to help you out with that, because I think everybody recognizes that it's better, because you can't recycle the Styrofoam peanuts or anything so it's better to give them a second life before they get landfilled, rather than landfill those and used some virgin material for your packing.
HD: What you said just there, 'to give them a second life', reminded me of this--I'm trying to remember the name of the book, and the name of the guy--um, Cradle to Cradle.
HD: So his whole point is essentially if you're engaged in an enterprise that is simply giving something another life, but still winds up in the landfill anyway, then it's not--there's a term it's not recycling it's ...
JL: ... downcycling.
HD: Downcycling, right. So the point is that we need to get to a point where we are actually using stuff over forever ...
JL: ... the waste equals food, that whole thing.
HD: So is there any room in the tea industry and your particular business even, for for that?
JL: It is interesting that you mention that book, because reading that book was a big shot in the arm for Aubrey and I. We actually bought extra copies to give to our friends, we read it ourselves, and then we passed them along.
HD: Yeah, this plastic book, right?
JL: Totally. That was a great demonstration of the possibilities.
HD: Actually when you say that, 'a demonstration', one of the things that frustrates me are these 'demonstrations'.
JL: It's different from implementation.
HD: Yeah, and since the 70's people have been doing demonstrations of solar power, of pedal-powered electricity, of all these things that I remember from my youth.
JL: But it's never gotten taken up by mainstream society.
HD: And now you have a whole another generation of kids doing the same science fair projects--and you know it's better than a sharp stick in the eye, there's nothing wrong with it--but at some point you have to get to saying, It's not a demonstration, it is, in fact, a way of life. It's not a science fair project, it's just what I do. My question is, are you going to use that photovoltaic panel to run something in your life from now on, or is it going to be junked in a closet somewhere?
JL: I couldn't agree more. In order to make some of those big shifts, where--well, for example we being our size can't affect the way large-scale communitywide recycling takes place
JL: But we did, with that whole Cradle to Cradle thing in mind, when we were designing our canister, for instance, insisted that they have a cellulose-based lining so that it could be recycled or bio-degraded, instead of a poly or foil lining. Because in that book he talks about the biological and technical streams of materials. And that once they sort of overlap or cross paths, you can't divorce them again and use both paths.
HD: So like even the paint on steel for automobiles, that that is an issue ...
JL: ... absolutely. How you take it off to either reuse the paint or reuse the metal independently ...
HD: ... right, because if you don't take it off the steel, it's still steel, but you can't use it for really high-strength applications like tall buildings or whatever.
JL: Absolutely. It's degraded, of lesser quality. So on a small level we took those considerations into account, and so we insisted that instead of a poly or foil lining, we insisted on parchment. A lot of these paperboard canister companies really like kind of push you towards having a seamed-on metal bottom, you know like a frozen orange juice canister--which yes, maybe that metal bottom is recyclable, and maybe the canister portion is recyclable, ...
HD: ..., but you've created a product as a whole that is fundamentally not recyclable.
JL: Right. Because I have certainly spent lots of time trying to pry out paper bits from the bottom of the orange juice tube. And we didn't want to create the same sort of thing. So we went to extra lengths to create a package that had a fully paperboard body. The whole thing, you can just take it and put it in your recycling bin. And at least it can be recycled. Now, say what you might want to about recycling, and how recycling works, and maybe there are certain types of recycling that aren't very useful to society ...
HD: ... but you can like bury it in a hole in your yard and it would be okay, right?
JL: I mean, theoretically. Yeah, and we were very careful to use soy-based inks, low VOC inks, and the whole bit. And all of the promotional printing, we do like that as well. So I guess theoretically you can bury it in your backyard. It is not billed as 'backyard compostable'. When we talk about like giving away all of our secrets and like other people might take over these ideas, Aubrey and I are always fantasizing about what the next thing is, and the packaging has been a really interesting one for us. So I kind of look at our packaging as a work in progress. Definitely there are things that I would improve over it. But fundamentally, I would love to get to a material that was made entirely of waste material and was backyard compostable.
HD: That would be like the gold standard?
JL: That would be the ultimate. And there are materials finally becoming available from different sources and companies dealing in these materials that in the next handful of years, maybe could become a thing that is practical. The problem that we had is we were really limited to best-available technology--instead of innovating new technology. We just don't have the resources to do that. But as we grow, our capacity to commission things might improve.
HD: Any thought at all about trying to--I mentioned demonstration efforts before--to demonstrate the growing of tea here in Ann Arbor? Because one of the alums of the teeter totter works right there in the Dana Building, Shannon Brines, who's got that hoop house thing ...
JL: ... sure, absolutely.
HD: And from what I've read, they actually grow tea in the UK somewhere in Cornwall?
JL: Yeah, and there is actually a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, that is growing it as a demonstration.
HD: Michigan, I think, would be definitely a challenge, but I wonder if it might be possible?
JL: I think anything is possible. To make it approaching--even not commercially viable, but like worth the effort to even cultivate the plants--because to make really good tea you need high altitude, generally speaking, and moisture ...
HD: ... well, if we build more tall buildings in downtown ...
JL: [laugh] Yeah, right. No, but it's a subtropical like evergreen plant that really benefits from that climate of moist, not really getting terribly cold in the winter. So in some growing regions the plants go dormant, in some growing regions they kind of are growing constantly--like in Sri Lanka in certain settings, it's so hot there most of the year.
HD: So when tea is harvested, is it a matter of picking the leaves off and letting the plant continue to grow, or do you just basically take the plant?
JL: No, with the finer teas there's this whole thing in the tea industry called 'two leaves and a bud'. The top two leaves and the bud is the newest, youngest growth on the tea plant.
HD: So that's what you want?
JL: That's what you want in what's called the orthodox method of tea manufacturing, which is the very human-involved, hand-crafted sort of artisanal approach. That's the starting point, is that plucking the two leaves and the bud. Or in some cases just the buds, or in some cases maybe just the bud and just the first leaf, if not the second leaf. The younger, newer growth is a little bit more delicate, it might have a lot of range of flavor, maybe brighter flavors than the older leaves down farther down the stem are more course and ...
HD: ... so really it would be kind of a flight of fancy to to do that here?
JL: I think so. They are just releasing like the first commercial batch of tea from that plantation. The Bigelow Company bought that plantation, and they're doing their first sort of release of tea from there. I'd be curious to try it. I'm sure it's not bad. But I'm sure it probably pales in comparison to really high quality teas from the traditional places of origin. Tea is also starting to be grown in Hawaii.
JL: And I have unfortunately not yet had the opportunity to try any from Hawaii, but I'm interested. Basically tea can grow almost anywhere that coffee can. Sri Lanka, for instance, back in the 1870's, maybe the 1860's, the entire island was planted in coffee. And some weird fungus came along and took out the entire production of coffee in Sri Lanka. For a couple of years they were totally floundering, and then somebody discovered that, Hey, tea could grow here just as well! And the next thing you know, Sri Lanka is the largest exporter of black tea in the world.
HD: You know, as far as--if anywhere that one will grow the other will ...
JL: ... I don't know that that is 100 percent. There is a correlation.
HD: I wonder which one per acre throws off more cash for the local grower. Or maybe there's botanical reasons why you would want to rotate through and not just do one. Like funguses that attack one or the other and whatnot.
JL: That's really interesting. The methodology is similar. I mean it's like you're growing a plant that is not an annual, it's a perennial, or a woody plant that is persistent, and you have laborers that remove either the coffee cherries or the tea leaves at certain specific times, and and then you process them in various ways. You know I don't know. My suspicion is--I don't know, that's a really interesting question!
HD: Somebody should look that up.
JL: I think so, I think so. [laugh]
HD: So is there anything else you wanted to make sure we covered topic-wise on the teeter totter?
JL: No. I would be interested in trying to make another attempt at a call to action. Anybody who reads Teeter talk, I would encourage them to get in touch with me with any ideas they have on like in terms of social and environmental responsibility, what are the next steps ...
HD: ... for the tea industry specifically?
JL: For the tea industry specifically, because that's where I'm going to be talking. But again, there is I think our industry on a lot of levels parallels many many other industries. I think there are some transportable ideas between those. So if you have a great idea, let me know! We actually have a promotion on the back of our little thank-you cards--we talk about the litany of environmental efforts that we have undertaken, and then at the end we ask our customers for suggestions, so they can e-mail to help us green up our company. They can e-mail greenup at arborteas dot com. For example, using parcel post as a shipping option, that was a customer's idea.
HD: So parcel post is a US Post Office type affair.
JL: Yeah, exactly. And as far as anything else I would just encourage ...
HD: ... well, here's an idea. I'll give you an idea of my own. But let me ask first. How much volume of tea are you taking to the Post Office every day?
JL: Volume of packages, or volume of ...?
HD: ... well, yeah, how big a load is it?
JL: It varies. This time of year, it might be like 15 or 20 parcels. Peak season it might be many more times that ...
HD: ... so more than what you could carry in your bicycle panniers?
JL: Yeah, I've got those sweet baskets on my bike. It's more than I can fit on there reasonably. And I could try to gerryrig it to get my bungees really in action, but I would probably be worried about them dumping off on the way, so.
HD: But you see if you had a cool cargo trailer like I've got ...
JL: ... totally, absolutely! The problem that I struggle with--maybe this is something that we just need to address in another way--we offer all sorts of shipping carriers, so it ends up being a sort of circuit. You go to FedEx, you go to UPS, you go to the Post Office, whatever. Fortunately they are all sort of in a row on Stadium [Blvd.], so. People should know--this is a shameless sort of plug--but people in the Ann Arbor area should know that we deliver free anywhere in town. So you can choose that as the shipping option and it will show up at your door.
HD: You said free shipping?
JL: Free. Free delivery anywhere in the city of Ann Arbor.
HD: That's pretty good. Do you also have like--John Roos has this 24-hour Coffee Vendor, like it's a lockbox ...
JL: ... the coffee box!
HD: Yeah if you know the secret combination then you can get at it. Do you have like a 24-hour Tea Vendor?
JL: There isn't, but maybe we could hook up and make it a one stop shop! I think that would be pretty sweet. I didn't realize the first time I used John Roos's coffee box ...
HD: ... oh, so you've used it!
JL: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I have, totally. I didn't realize you had to have a combination. I thought it was more of an honor system thing.
HD: So you're over there trying to pry it open or what??
JL: [laugh] I felt like I was a monkey with some puzzle trying, you know, How do I get this thing open??! I saw the padlock there, but I thought that was maybe just locking the place where you put your money or something. I had to call up and say, John is there something more to this?
HD: Yeah, there's something more, the combination to the lock!
JL: So now I've got it!
HD: Well, listen, thanks for riding!
HD: This is just a gorgeous day, perfect tottering weather.
JL: It brings back all sorts of very fond memories of loafing around in the Diag when I was a student.
HD: Loafing around, well! Listen, thanks a bunch. Let's dismount very carefully.