Our coffee bags and the New Denim Project

Most people know that green coffee is shipped from origin in jute or hessian bags, and it’s not uncommon to see the bags being upcycled and reused for various projects after the roasteries have emptied them. We’ve been giving away our left over bags since the beginning here at Square Mile, with most going to London Zoo, which uses them as bedding and toys for their animals.

This year, however, we’ve been able to take part in an exciting new project around up-cycling, reuse and sustainability that started in one of our producing countries. In Guatemala, Iris textiles is a textile group started by the Engelberg family that has operated since 1956. The company started out dyeing cotton, then spinning it, weaving it and now also have a cut and sow department. In 2013, Arianne Engelberg, a third generation textile producer, launched the New Denim Project, that seeks to address some of the problems around textile waste and resource management that the textile industry faces. Arianne and her father Jaime set a goal to produce a zero waste system, taking denim scraps from local denim factories and turning it into new cloth.

Guatemala is the third largest denim producer in Central and South America, which means there are a lot of scraps going around. 10-15% of all cloth is discarded in the process of making clothing, and the local denim factories used to sell the scraps to companies that would turn them into insulation and filler materials. However, the market for this has been slowing, leaving factories increasingly left with a lot of waste and no outlet for it.

Since the 80’s Guatemala’s own cotton growing industry has been in steep decline, with denim producers forced to switching to importing cotton from Texas. Out of necessity, and the increasing price of cotton, Iris Textiles were experimenting with new techniques to create cloth from short fibres and ”˜dirty’ (waste) cotton from other spinning mills. Jaime and Arianne started receiving calls from denim factories asking if they’d be interested in buying their scraps, and after some trial and error, they managed to develop a process that could turn the short fibres of the used denim into new, useful threads.

By mixing the short fibre scrap denim with 20-30% new virgin cotton with longer fibres they were able to spin new, high-quality yarn without the use of dye or chemicals while saving a lot of water. It takes 8,500 litres of water to produce one pair of jeans, and 2,600 to make a t-shirt.

Reducing the environmental impact and amount of waste produced has been a key motivation behind the New Denim Project. They are able to save up to 20,000 litres of water per kg of up cycled material, eliminate the use of chemicals and significantly reducing the amount of energy needed while using virgin cotton far more efficiently than before. The whole process is more eco-friendly and beneficial for the local economy, and through connections in coffee (another large Guatemalan export), they have found more innovative ways of closing the loop and moving towards zero waste.

One of Arianne’s friends is Giorgio of Finca San Jeronimo, which just so happens to be a coffee farm that we’re very excited to be buying from for the first time this year. When Giorgio heard of the denim that was being made, he wanted to use it to ship his coffee, instead of the traditional jute bags. Arianne was already developing a denim of upholstery quality that would suit perfectly, so last year San Geronimo started exporting in beautiful denim bags. Together they have even found a way to use the small amount of waste, ”˜dirty’ cotton and cotton seeds that the upcycling process invariably does leave behind, by sending it to Giorgio’s farm where he uses it in compost and fertiliser for his coffee trees.

Says Arianne: “The company’s main objective has been to unite technology and ecology in the production of textiles in order to maintain our commitment to quality and remain environmentally responsible and competitive in the market.”

Walking the factory with Arianne and Chata the dog to see the process was really fascinating. I’ve worked with textiles for many years and could probably still spin my own wool yarn, but I had no real concept of how cotton thread is made on an industrial scale. Starting from the beginning with huge mounds of scraps and both clean and dirty cotton and watching it be transformed into thread by giant machines was super exciting for someone a bit nerdy like me.

Seeing the denim being shredded, mixed with the virgin cotton, transformed into card sliver (a sort of fluffy rope), stretched and combed and spun into thread, strengthened with starch, and cloth woven was really impressive. The various coloured thread from natural white to deep blue gets turned into cloths of different patterns and shades of blue, and huge rolls of beautiful fabrics everywhere had me wondering just how much denim would be too much denim in my wardrobe as well as my house.

You can read more about The New Denim Project here.

Together with Marta Dalton of Coffee Bird, one of our partners for Guatemalan coffee who works closely with both Arianne and Giorgio, I decided to ship not just the San Jeronimo but all our Guatemalan coffee this year in the new denim bags. We’re also happy to report that the bags recently won the 2017 Specialty Coffee Association ‘Best New Packaging Award’, so we’re hoping that this encourages the rest of the industry to look into new ways of thinking about packaging.

And as part of the cycle of this cotton, we, of course, want the bags to have another life after we are done with them, so we’re happy to be able to offer a limited number of the bags to our customers!

I chose two different fabrics that I thought would be flexible for various uses. When thinking about what they could be turned into, the first thing that sprung to mind for me was aprons. We came up with a custom print that we have never done before, outlining a pattern on the bags that we could follow to cut. The idea is of course that you can turn the bags into whatever you’d like, such as cushions, pillows, wallets, handbags, clothing, curtains, artwork, pet beds, upholstery, tablecloths, pin cushions, dog toys, washcloths, tea cosies, coffee cup sleeves, electronics cases, bedding, shoes, chihuahua coats, Christmas stockings, oven mitts, tortilla warmers, buttons, bread baskets, stuffed toys – the opportunities are endless!

Whatever you make, we’d love for you to send us a photo of your work on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. We’ll be sure to repost as many shots as we can, with a couple of bags of coffee up for grabs for the best creations!

Some notes to consider when you are thinking about what to make:

We printed a rough outline of an apron shape on one side of most of the bags, which you could use as a guide to create your own apron. Note that the bags are all hand printed, however, so the lines are not always straight and angles not always perfect, so please use the pattern as a guide only. Additionally, some bags arrived without this apron shape stencilled onto them so you may need to mark out your own guide lines onto the bag if that’s what you want to make.

The inside of the bags are blank so you can use the fabric on the reverse and have only clean denim to create your project with.

Depending on what you’re making, you may want to wash the bags before use as they will have become dusty during transit from the farm to the roastery. The bags will shrink by about 15-20% when you do this, and the ink washes off a little too, leaving only faint marks. If you wish to create something from the bags that will at some point require washing, we recommend you wash the bags a couple of times before you make your items. If you wish to keep the print on your item, choose to make something that will not be washed in the future.

If unwashed the weave of the fabric is quite loose and can fray easily, but it becomes denser and feels thicker once washed and shrunk.

In the process of getting the coffee out of the bags we have to make some cuts, a few punctures and cause some fraying around the seams (see example photo above) but we try to keep them close to edges and existing seams and not in the middle of the cloth so that there is as much undisturbed fabric as possible for your project.

If you’re still interested in getting a bag you can pick one up on our webshop right now. We’re charging just £6 per bag which just helps us cover postage, packaging and handling. Stock of the bags is limited, so get in quick if you’d like one. More stock will become available as we empty more bags of coffee of course, so if we’re out, try again soon.


Denim Coffee Bag


tasting notes


Anette Moldvaer

Anette Moldvaer is the co-founder and green coffee buyer of Square Mile Coffee Roasters. Since starting as a barista in Norway 18 years ago she has worked in imports, education, training, cupping and roasting. She is a World Cup Tasting Champion, an international coffee judge and the author of "Coffee Obsession”.

Anette Moldvaer

Anette Moldvaer is the co-founder and green coffee buyer of Square Mile Coffee Roasters. Since starting as a barista in Norway 18 years ago she has worked in imports, education, training, cupping and roasting. She is a World Cup Tasting Champion, an international coffee judge and the author of "Coffee Obsession”.