Meet the ‘ecopreneurs’ placing sustainability at the heart of business

Practices that have always made environmental sense are now making business sense

The roasting machine at Imbibe Coffee is swirling hot beans and a delicious smell down a lane in Dolphin’s Barn. So far, so familiar; another sunny morning in an artisan coffee roaster in Dublin’s hipster hood.

The difference here is that most of the beans won’t end up in plastic and foil-lined bags with plastic valves. Instead, they’ll be sealed in refillable metal buckets and delivered to coffee shops around Dublin, in a growing minimal waste wholesale coffee operation.

Gary Grant and his three colleagues in Imbibe are part of a new wave of ecopreneurs, small food and drink businesses doing things with a real focus on the environment. It’s “conscious capitalism”, his friend and business partner Vincent Cahill of Lilliput Trading Stores chimes in.

“When you look at how things are, I don’t see the point in having a business if you’re not going to try to do things differently,” Grant says.


Imbibe wears its heart on its sleeve. Most of the beans are organic and sourced from Cafe Femenino, a project promoting gender equality for women coffee growers. In addition, 1 per cent of total sales goes to Women’s Aid. And its packaging-free idea for wholesale coffee deliveries has gone gangbusters.

Sustainability has burst out of its hand-knitted niche in the last 12 months. Practices that have always made environmental sense suddenly now make business sense. Conscious consumerism is on the rise, and sustainability is the buzzword for everything from unbleached loo roll to meat-free menus and wine on tap.

At Imbibe, it took time to work out how to deliver coffee in reusable containers. The gases released by the roasted beans warped the sealed containers out of shape (the trick was to let the beans breathe for two days). Now, they can’t source the reusable containers quickly enough.

Thom Lawson knows he's not going to save the planet by refusing his customers paper receipts

“We’ve been amazed at the take-up. We started last May. By March we were at 49 per cent,” Grant says. Today, two-thirds of their wholesale deliveries go out in the reusable containers, and if that’s not 75 per cent by the end of the year they’ll eat their hats.

Thom Lawson knows he's not going to save the planet by refusing his customers paper receipts in his Asian restaurant Lucky Tortoise, on Dublin's Aungier Street. But he's sticking to his guns. The customer can see their receipt on a tablet and have it emailed. But not everyone has been happy.

Taking dairy and beef off the menu because of its carbon footprint earned Lawson some serious online outrage. But facing up to the impact you're having when you've arrived into a country to open a restaurant has been one of Lawson's starting points. The 28-year-old former architecture student (he never practised) fell in love with restaurants in London, and moved to Ireland three years ago with a plan to bring London-style casual dining to Dublin. "My girlfriend's an engineer. A lot of her work is based around sustainability and change. We talk about it all the time."

When you find yourself looking at 15 bags of rubbish “for a tiny little premises” you realise restaurants are some of the biggest producers of waste per square metre of any business, Lawson says. “I think restaurants are disgustingly wasteful . . . and destroying the environment is a ridiculous thing to consider okay in the pursuit of money.”

So all the drinks in Lucky Tortoise come on tap. “We have no cans, no bottles.” Wine by the glass from WineLab measures up to anything Lawson has tasted, he says. But the Tripadvisor feedback has been “how ghastly” and “where on earth has that come from?”

People judge a wine by what they’re familiar with, Lawson says, and they like the feel of a “bottle on the table”. Menus are written on the walls. Water is filtered and carbonated from the tap and served for free. Technology has also been used to eliminate paper from the operation. Kitchen dockets are on screen.

“I’m not claiming to be perfect or a shining light,” Lawson insists at the end of the interview. “I don’t want to preach. I don’t think the light is shining out of my backside. I’m just doing me, and hopefully that makes a small difference.”

Mark Cashen is “nowhere near where we want to be” in his new cafe As One on Dublin’s City Quay, but he’s also weighing the impact of his business at every stage. As One is a soup and sandwich (or broth and flatbreads, to use their description) operation based around cooking from scratch with plenty of Irish ingredients for gut health.

Cashen, like Lawson, is 28 and has had various careers, including “a bit of cheffing”, bar work, advertising and even banking, before he started the venture based on “real food, natural ingredients and no processed foods”. He believes businesses are stepping into the gap where regulations don’t exist yet. “There’s a push from us to say, this is where we’re at and this is what we’re doing.”

At the end of every week the bin is full. That's actually working

Cashen sourced recyclable stickers for their compostable boxes from a printing company in Baldoyle. They installed a compostable container bin in the premises for customers to bring back their takaway containers. “At the end of every week the bin is full. That’s actually working.”

Their coffee supplier Cloud Picker, which is located around the corner from them, also has a big focus on sustainability. The approach has meant working with "local small suppliers" and making a web of connections with like-minded businesses.

As an environmental economist, Clare Condon says she has been “interested in sustainability forever”. The 35-year-old worked in Kenya looking at the impacts of supply chains, and was working with the New Zealand environment ministry when she met her partner Kristin Makirere (Mak to his friends), a Cook Islander who grew up in New Zealand. “His parents grew all their own vegetables. They still do. They’re in their 80s.”

The Maori philosophy of mana tiaki means “guardianship of the environment for future generations”, Condon says. So there’s head and heart,  “the academic and the spiritual”, at the centre of the couple’s Good Day Deli, which opened in the grounds of Nano Nagle Place on Cork’s Douglas Street, in December 2017.

What are the practical challenges of calling yourself a sustainable food operation? “For us it means a number of different things,” Condon says. First there’s sourcing. “It’s really hard to be perfect but sourcing from local producers.” If it’s not local it will be organic, Condon says. There’s a social and education role, so front of house staff are able to tell customers that they get the flowers from a grower in Macroom who is growing without chemicals. And they’ve held a series of nature talks.

They’ve also learned from customers. “If we see a lot of food coming back on a plate we’ll adjust the portion size.” They used to serve a side of cream with every dessert that had to be thrown out if it wasn’t used. Now they ask if the customer wants one.

The Good Day Deli doesn’t serve meat, although it serves fish. At the moment it’s hake, because “we’ve been advised by fisherman Frank that it’s the most sustainable fish stock”. They use glass bottles instead of single use plastics, and Condon is researching a large composter which could compost their food waste for the 3-acre garden around them, “so you get a closed loop on site”.

How have her customers reacted? “Really well. I think the ethos is a really big driving factor.” There’s an older demographic who come during the week, but weekends bring a young brunch crowd and she believes they’re there because of how they do things. She would like to see some “real meaning behind the word sustainable” through a certification system.

There's a lot of small businesses coming together to get more organic and sustainable

Ethna McDermott of Stoneybatter’s vegan wine bar Beo is wary of “greenwashing” and the slew of stuff now sold as eco or sustainable. The reps who try to sell her Fiji Water, bottled in single use plastic and flown thousands of miles, don’t get much joy. “All anyone needs is a reverse osmosis filter system,” she says.

She sees a real opening for a micro industry connecting the new ecopreneurs. “There’s a lot of small businesses coming together to get more organic and sustainable.” She would love to see a distribution network for gardeners to sell their surplus produce or flowers to restaurants, a delivery service to collect produce from small farms and return food waste, and coffee grounds for compost.

One network is the brainchild of 40-year-old nurse and ecopreneur Roisin Baggott. As a child growing up in Birmingham she loved animals and wanted to be a vet. But she was made to feel it was not a career for someone who wasn’t already the son of a vet, so she trained as a nurse. “I love the element of caring about people but as a child I loved animals more.”

As a vegetarian, when she first came to Ireland she found the options were “shocking”. Ireland seemed 10 years behind England, especially Birmingham where large ethnic communities had strong traditions of great vegetarian cooking.

Her part-time job, outside of a four-day week as a nurse in a fertility clinic, is running the Vegicity card scheme. The €20 annual card gets members discounts in a growing number of sustainable food, clothing, beauty and fitness businesses in Dublin and Cork. "But it will be rolled out in Galway, Waterford, Belfast and beyond," she adds.

“The whole ethos of the card is to support people making positive changes for the greater good,” Baggott says. “As a nurse, I know that people don’t want to be schooled or parented when they’re grown adults. They appreciate education, being empowered and supported.

“I realised so many people would consider, at the very least adopting moderate changes if they knew where to start,” Baggott says. She hopes the card will grow into an app in the future. She describes it as “a steal at €20 for a year”, and it is, of course, completely biodegradable.