Kara Greenblott has been living and working in Africa, Central America and Southeast Asia for the good part of two decades, primarily concerning herself with food security, nutrition and public health projects. She’s also in the fashion industry.
Earlier this year, Greenblott made the first shipment of her CB Sacks, designer tote bags made in part from upcycled coffee sacks. It is a for-profit venture, but CB Sacks clearly reflects its founder’s lifelong commitment to humanitarian work. Five percent of all sales goes directly to Food 4 Farmers, the nonprofit working to fight seasonal hunger in Latin American coffee communities. Not only is the Food 4 Farmers tie a natural fit for Greenblott — she’s a member of the group’s board of directors — it also connects CB Sacks and its customers to important issues at origin.
We asked Greenblott, who sources her coffee sacks from five roasters near her current Vermont home, what drew her into the accessories game and how she uses CB Sacks to tell stories about some of the more harsh realities of coffee production.
When did CB Sacks start coming together?
I started working on the concept and exploring production options in early 2013. I finally got the seamstresses and leather worker in place in early 2014 — it took much longer than I thought — and we did our first production run of 180 totes and 150 clutches in June and July, 2014.
Of all things, why bags?
I’ve always loved bags — usually rustic ones with natural fiber — and I’ve always loved leather. I actually collect baskets from Africa, where I worked for 11 years, and enjoy the story behind who the weavers are, what it takes to make the baskets, and most importantly, how they support their livelihoods.
Similarly, the coffee sacks have incredible stories behind them, which is really what drew me to them.
What kinds of stories are we talking about here?
One of my favorite sacks is the Cafe Alta Gracia sack that I get from Vermont Coffee, one of the roasters that supplies my sacks. Cafe Alta Gracia is a coffee farm in the Dominican Republic owned by the famous Dominican fiction writer Julia Alvarez and her husband. They are committed to growing organic coffee and paying their farmers a good and fair price. Unforuntately, the Roya leaf rust fungus epidemic has devastated their farm, so they may not be able to continue growing coffee. I use this bag, and its story, to talk to customers about the Roya epidemic and the situation of chronic food insecurity due to diminished coffee harvests all over Latin America.
Another example is the East Timor sack. I lived in East Timor for 3 years, working on public health projects just after they won their independence from Indonesian military occupation in 1999. I use the Timor sack to talk to customers here about how the people of Timor suffered at the hand of the Indonesian dictatorship for 25 yrs, how they won their political independence in 1999, and how now coffee is now helping them to win their financial independence from chronic reliance on foreign aid.
I also talk about the food security projects of Food 4 Farmers when I show customers the Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Colombia bags. I talk about how F4F trains on bee-keeping, and promotes diversified livelihoods to ease reliance on a single, volatile crop: coffee.