by Kaylee Hultgren | October 01, 2008

coffee opener2 
The Long Beach, Calif.-based Specialty Coffee Association of America is serious about sustainability. For its 2007 and 2008 annual conferences, the group offset all carbon emissions produced by the events (which drew approximately 8,000 attendees each) while working actively with host convention centers to create sustainable programs. But what sets this association apart from other green-meaning groups is this year's unlikely source of funding: the attendees themselves.

At the 2008 conference, held in Minneapolis in May, the SCAA collected $28,000 -- about 80 percent of the total cost of offsets for the event -- from conventioneers alone, by establishing a mandatory but modest carbon-offsetting charge. Instead of asking for voluntary contributions, as the group had done the year prior, attendees were required to tack on $7.

There was more involved than simply mandating the extra fee, however, and the SCAA's efforts can serve as a blueprint for other groups that wish to improve their record on environmental impact.

Choosing a partner

The first step for the SCAA entailed selecting a company to work with that specialized in carbon offsetting and whose method -- whether tree planting, investing in renewable energy or promoting energy efficient projects -- was a good fit for the association. SCAA executive director Ric Rhinehart and the group's sustainability committee researched various organizations and ultimately decided to go with Trees for the Future, based in Silver Spring, Md.

The nonprofit TFF, a reforestry company, "has an agroforestry background, so they know what kinds of trees to plant together, and what plants will do more damage than good," notes Jason Long, SCAA sustainability committee member and a longtime advocate of carbon-neutral initiatives. For the communities benefiting from the replanting, he adds, "it's less about going carbon neutral and more about people needing trees."

Choosing tree planting as a carbon offsetting method made sense for the SCAA, says Rhinehart, "quite simply because coffee grows on trees. Coffee is grown under very specific conditions, so climate change is a huge concern for us. We are hyperaware of its effects."

Crunching the numbers

To estimate the total emissions expected to be produced by the con­ference, including activities such as attendees flying or driving to the event, staying in hotels, using public transportation, etc., TFF executive director Dave Deppner performed a "carbon count." By his calculations, charging an additional $4.85 per person would raise the funds needed to offset the group's carbon damage. This would be listed as a separate charge on top of the basic registration fee of $385 for members and $585 for nonmembers.