Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Frontier Co-op - A Leader In Sustainability

Today's post is the second post inspired by my visit to Mariposa Food Co-op in West Philadelphia. In the first post, I wrote about the tea bag selection in the co-op. This post focuses the company that provides the loose-leaf teas and bulk herbs in the same store: Frontier Co-op:

This station doubles as a showcase or display for the herbs and tea, and a self-serve station where people can fill their own bags of herbs. Although the jars are glass jars, which are not ideal because they allow for some break-down of the herbs with light, the display was located in a dark back corner of the store, minimizing the negative effects of the light.

Pictured here are the implements for filling bags, which include scoops and funnels:

Self-serve setups like this are relatively common in natural food stores and co-ops across the country. There is a lot that I like about these sort of self-serve displays. In particular:

  • These displays can offer a large selection of herbs and/or tea while taking up minimal space. The space taken up by the display is smaller than that taken up by many supermarkets' packaged tea bag selections.
  • The small size of the jars allows for high turnover of the jars' contents, ensuring freshness.
  • The self-service station keeps costs down, enabling customers to purchase tea and herbs for a reasonable price, while the store can still make a comfortable profit, without needing to expend employee time for measuring and serving herbs.
  • Allowing people to measure out their own herbs and tea enables people to buy the exact quantity they want. This is convenient both for very small sizes (such as for sampling loose-leaf tea, or buying infrequently-used spices) or very large sizes (such as for someone like me, who goes through ground coriander faster than most households use salt or sugar). Most supermarkets offer only fixed sizes of herbs and spices, which are often either too small or too large for people's needs.

What I like about Frontier Co-Op:

First, before I go into depth about what I like about Co-op, I want to point out that the company not only sells loose-leaf tea and bulk herbs in stores, but also through their website:

Some of the things I like most about Frontier Co-op:

  • Frontier is organized as a cooperative, wholly owned by its wholesale customers, many of which are in turn cooperatives, like Mariposa co-op, owned by individual people. The co-op model has a number of compelling advantages over other models of ownership; the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) has a website that explains this model of business ownership in depth.
  • Through its displays in retail stores, Frontier makes a wide selection of herbs available that are not widely available in stores in the U.S., and it also sells loose-leaf orthodox teas of decent quality, which, unfortunately do not tend to be widely available in the U.S. either.
  • Frontier Co-op is strongly committed to sustainability, and is a definitive leader in this area, going above and beyond even what many of the more environmentally- and ethically-conscious tea companies are doing. There is so much that this organization is doing to promote sustainability that it is not possible to cover it all here; if you want to read more, I'd invite you to read the sustainability section on Frontier's site. Frontier publishes an annual sustainability report, and has a tangible pathway towards achieving certain goals, with measurable milestones. They also have a great deal more transparency than is the norm in the tea industry. Perhaps some other tea companies can get some good ideas and inspiration in here!
  • The quality of the bulk herbs is top-notch, and the teas are not bad. Although Frontier unfortunately does not sell what I would consider to be true artisan tea (single-harvest, single-estate teas), they sell a number of single-region orthodox teas of reasonable quality. And their prices are much lower than the prices on similar teas. The low prices, including on products that are both organic and fair trade certified, sold from a company that has gone above and beyond in the area of sustainability, provide proof that tea companies can deliver sustainably-sourced products at low cost. I have tried a few of Frontier's teas, and while they did not wow me as being otherworldly, they were solidly good. You can find reviews of the few teas I've sampled on RateTea's page on Frontier.

I hope that individuals reading this post can have the opportunity to try out Frontier Co-op's herbs, spices, and teas, if they have not already done so. And I hope that people working within the tea industry can look into the various things Frontier is doing to promote sustainability, and can get some good ideas and inspiration. I am hopeful that relatively soon, many of the practices that Frontier is spearheading will become the norm.

What do you think?

Have you tried the teas from Frontier Co-op? How about their herbs and spices? And what do you think about what they are doing to promote sustainability? What do you think of the co-operative model in general? And, for those who work within the tea industry, do you have any plans to implement any of the practices that Frontier has been engaging in in terms of sustainable sourcing, operations, or transparency?


  1. Talking about tea and sustainability is an interesting choice. The overall sentiment is a good one, and it's nice to see an in-general movement from bags to leaf and into fresher and fresher teas, but it's important to note that true teas are beyond a locavore diet and even the most ecologically sound teas would have to be shipped in at considerable energy expenditures from Asia. C. Sinensis DOES grow in temperate envirionments and one day could even be grown over wide swaths of North America and Europe which would certainly be an interesting development in much the same way that moving wine production into the new world was something of a revolution in its own right. There's definitely something to be said for buying in bulk being better than buying prepackaged in any respect, though, so you're right on the money on that one.

    Also, note the glass (or is it clear plastic) containers? Light in the UV and near UV is one of the enemies of tea, both in terms of the flavour and the components that provide its benefits. Opaque containers would be better.

    1. I like to support local production of tea, but I don't think it's an issue of environmental urgency.

      I think it is important to prioritize environmental issues. Lots of goods are shipped globally. Tea is extremely light-weight relative to its price and value. Tea is also much less resource-intensive in its production than coffee. Even some of the cheapest tea retails for $5 a pound and up, and specialty teas sell for hundreds per pound. By contrast, very heavy items with low costs per weight are regularly shipped, such as bulk commodities, fuels, and even construction materials.

      In tea production, I think that shipping and the issue of local production is insignificant, relative to other issues, such as the environmental impacts of packaging, the human and environmental impacts of pesticide and fertilizer use, and the like.

      Sustainability is also about much more than the environment, and I think this is where Frontier is also a leader. They have gone quite far about transparency and traceability, and they seem to have more knowledge about their whole supply chain and the communities producing their goods than most other companies.

      And yes, glass (it is glass) containers are not ideal--I mention that issue above in the post.

  2. I've used Frontier for about20 years, both by mail and in health food or cooperative whole food stores etc. I think their tea selection is good and I've never had any stale ones. It's pretty basic, but good stuff. Their herb selection is huge, on line, which affords a broader selection, naturally. I've had excellent herbs and anything else I've ordered from them. Thankfully, you don't have to buy a whole pound of oregano anymore - roughly the size of a queen size pillowcase - Oregano Forever!

    1. Wow...what would one do with that much oregano? My parents grow oregano, and it would grow so vigorously, we'd always have so much that we didn't know what to do with it. We'd occasionally put it on pizza and in pasta sauces but more often it was just one of those fuzzy plants that smells nice that sits there in our herb garden.

  3. In terms of co-operatives, I've had good and bad experiences. One person can wind up running things by simply never giving in to the majority rule. I've been in hours long meetings because no decision can be made. My father and grandfather were some of the organizers of the Dairymen's League Co-operative and that was more positive, but there was a central committee that was elected to do the day to day stuff.

    1. Was this organization run by consensus? I've seen organizations like this get gridlocked.

      Have you seen the rules and process of communication we have come up with in Why This Way? Sylvia (the graphic designer for RateTea) and I are among the co-founders of this group. One of our goals in the group (besides building a religion by consensus, an ambitious ordeal) is to create a consensus process that can be less prone to these sorts of problems.

      In particular, one thing that we want to avoid is meetings where some people present have to sit and wait while other people talk who they don't want to listen to. We want to create an environment where people listen the first time, and the people speaking are heard and do not need to repeat themselves. We also studied a lot of the things that go wrong in interpersonal communications, and we look at various consensus processes, from Wikipedia to Quakers, and also took some ideas from cognitive behavioral therapy, and various religious traditions, and we came up with a set of rules that we hope that if people follow them, they will prevent this sort of gridlock.

      The rules turn out to be very tough to follow, because they place quite a few restrictions on speech that prohibit people from making statements that are quite common in everyday speech in the U.S. And following these rules forces people, in most cases, to think before talking, and reshapes how they think in ways that make them less likely to fall into the sorts of thought patterns that lead to conflict (i.e. seeing someone as an "opponent" rather than someone working together with you to solve a problem or reach a goal).

      I'm curious to go back and participate in another consensus-run organization. I also wonder if there is any way that we could take our system and use it to help out other organizations that are struggling. We haven't had any problems with gridlock yet, and we've managed to come up with a name, symbol, and create quite a body of writings representing our beliefs and practices in a variety of different aspects of life. On the other hand, we haven't been managing any money yet or making any operational decisions, so that may also make it easier for us. But, given how hard it can be for people to agree on religious beliefs, I think we're on to something!