Outside the Bean

Jason E. Kaplan

Paul Evers pivoted from advertising craft beverages to making them. Earlier this year, one of his products was certified as the first carbon-neutral energy drink in the world. Is it more marketing — or is Riff the real deal?

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Paul Evers started out as a painter.

As a fine-arts student at California State University in Long Beach, Evers took inspiration from impressionists like Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh — who themselves were inspired by the natural world.

But like many young creative people, Evers found he needed steady work, so he went into advertising. After several years helping craft-beverage companies remake their images, he began making craft beverages himself.

And this year, his company’s drink was certified as carbon neutral — making it the first energy drink in history to achieve the benchmark.

Evers says bringing the world’s first carbon-neutral energy drink to market was a matter of ethics, not business.

“It wasn’t really a business decision. It was a moral and ethical obligation,” says Evers, the CEO and co-founder of Bend-based beverage company Riff.

According to a press release from Riff, the company’s signature drink, Energy+, was considered carbon neutral before it was officially certified as such, based on two studies the company sponsored in 2020: a life-cycle assessment from the University of Oregon and an environmental-impact study conducted by Oregon State University.

Such certifications are becoming more important to companies that want to mitigate their environmental impact — and earn trust with customers. Evers is hopeful that, because the process of getting certified involved a great deal of scientific rigor, it will mean more to customers than the words “natural,” “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” on the label might. But he — and several industry observers — also acknowledge that there is no set standard for carbon neutrality, making it difficult for consumers to make heads or tails of such claims.

A fifth-generation Southern Californian, Evers moved to Bend in 1990 to take a job as the art director of the ad agency Mandala Communications. In 1997 he and a group of friends formed TBD, an agency that worked with craft breweries on their branding strategy. That included a “restaging” of Deschutes Brewery’s brand in the early 2000s.

In 2011 Evers decided to co-found his own craft brewery, Crux Fermentation Project — a decision he says was motivated by a desire to shake up the craft-beverage status quo by catering to the evolving taste of the consumers.

“We were seeing customers trending toward more complex, barrel-aged beers, but when you went to the craft-beer aisle, all you saw were pilsners,” Evers says. “We wanted to introduce a whole new range of what was possible with beer to consumers. The beer aisle had to expand.” Crux’s beers include the popular Crux Pilz, as well as several pale ales and IPAs and even two nonalcoholic IPAs. (Evers left day-to-day operations at Crux in 2016 but still maintains part ownership and serves on the board to help with special projects.)

Evers founded Riff in 2017 with the goal of causing similar disruption in the coffee industry. Evers says he saw data that showed while coffee drinking was increasing overall, consumers were not buying as much hot coffee — and were getting more interested in cold brews. The first product launched by the company in 2018 was a cold-brew coffee, which is still available for sale on the company’s website.

In 2021 the company launched Energy+, a new line of energy drinks with a new active ingredient: cascara, the sweet pink fruit that surrounds the coffee bean. The result is a beverage that balances juicy and earthy flavors, similar to an IPA beer or yerba maté. The natural taste is a far cry from chemically sweetened energy drinks one might find at the convenience store, but the caffeine high just as intense.

Energy+ is not the only cascara drink on the market: Portland coffee giant Stumptown offers its own cascara soda, and California-based Blue Bottle also launched a Cascara Fizz in 2018.

“An estimated 70 billion pounds of this nutritionally rich fruit are needlessly and sadly thrown in the waste every year. We couldn’t just be a coffee company and do nothing about that, especially when climate change was quickly becoming known as the climate crisis,” says Evers.

Evers says purchasing a product that is typically discarded also opens up a second revenue stream for farmers, many of whom have seen reduced yields due to unseasonable weather patterns brought on by climate change — but Fair Trade certification, which he is interested in pursuing, will have to wait for now.

Evers also says the decision to found Riff, and to use cascara, was influenced by his personal commitment to sustainability and a lack of environmental leadership in the coffee sector.

Because of the high altitudes and cold temperature needed to grow coffee, the crop is generally grown in deforested rain forest land, and must then be shipped by freight all over the world. According to 2019 research by the Arbor Day Foundation, one pound of roasted coffee produces around 11 pounds of carbon. A person who drinks one cup of coffee each day produces 155 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions a year on average — roughly equivalent to driving a car 400 miles.

Evers says he tried to reach out to half a dozen coffee organizations for data to help create a more sustainable business model but received no response, which he found “disturbing.”

“We were making some soft claims about the magnitude of our carbon emissions reductions, but it didn’t feel right because we didn’t have any hard data,” says Evers, who speaks softly in interviews. “I reached out to coffee trade groups several times and they would say ‘I need to check in with our expert and get back to you.’ And I never got a call. That led me to the suspicion that this is a story I have to tell.”

Then a colleague who taught at the University of Oregon’s Center for Sustainable Business Practices invited Evers to speak to his class. After the lecture, two students approached Evers, wanting to do a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of Riff’s products for an assignment, tracking the product’s environmental impact from growth to packaging to shipping to end user.

“It wasn’t so much a formal study as it was a student project, but we had to give them lots of input and involvement with lots of members of the team providing data on the supply chain, freight and processing. So that delivered to us the first version of our LCA,” Evers says.

But getting Carbonfund.org’s Carbonfree Product Certification required a more formal evaluation. The New York-based nonprofit’s certification process requires applicants to conduct a third-party “cradle to the grave” life-cycle assessment of their products that shows all carbon emissions have been calculated, reviewed, certified, approved and offset — from the growing of raw materials to manufacturing, transportation, end user and end waste. 

Assessments must follow the nonprofit’s Carbonfree Product Certification Process, originally created in conjunction with the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management, and with additional input from international sustainability consultancy EarthShift and sustainable-business consultancy WAP Sustainability, and other program participants.   

Evers wanted to get certified because of what the Carbonfree classification would mean to Amazon. Carbonfund.org is an official partner of Amazon’s Climate Pledge Friendly initiative, which the e-commerce giant began in 2020. 

Amazon now partners with more than 30 certification agencies and nonprofits to provide special status to products on its website. Items certified by these organizations are granted a special green-winged checkmark, as well as a boost in Amazon’s search algorithm.

Carbonfund.org senior vice president of programs and partnerships Linda Kelly says the partnership with Amazon is now one of the primary ways companies hear about their product-certification program.

To complete the third-party evaluation, Evers connected with Christina Schlachter, a visiting faculty member at Oregon State University who also works as a climate consultant for the private sector, to perform a more thorough study. Dominique Bachelet, OSU’s senior climate-change scientist, oversaw Schlachter’s review of Riff’s work.

Schlachter’s study showed Riff was already close to becoming carbon neutral but did include some recommendations for how to further reduce its environmental impact. Those suggestions included reducing packaging materials and using recycled aluminum to can the beverage. 

The study also included a calculation of Riff’s carbon footprint, and the number of carbon offsets — which include land restorations, renewable energy or other modes of reducing carbon emissions — necessary to offset unavoidable emissions from activities such as product transportation. Evers purchased those offsets through Carbonfund.org.

The nonprofit let Evers choose what sort of forest-conservation project he wanted Riff to support, and he chose a project in Brazil, a coffee-growing region. The OSU study cost $5,000, and the certification process for Carbonfund cost $1,750, not including the carbon offsets purchased. Evers says the cost of this year’s offsets is $685; Carbonfund.org says the cost of the offsets will likely vary year to year.

“I was doing research on what would be the most affordable and quickest route to certification so we could become part of their Climate Pledge Friendly program. That was the reason why we decided to go ahead with the certification,” says Evers. “We were already making carbon-neutral claims on our package because we knew we could back it up with science. But as far as the certification, that’s what ultimately prompted it.”

While Evers says his decision to seek carbon-neutral certification was driven by his ethical standards alone, there’s evidence that such certifications can be good for business. Companies that participate in Amazon’s Climate Pledge Friendly program, for example, don’t just get a green emblem; their search results are also more visible on the platform.

And customers, especially younger ones, increasingly say they are willing to spend more for products they perceive as being made in an environmentally friendly way. A 2021 Lending Tree survey found 55% of Americans said they are willing to spend more money on green products, and that 40% of consumers were willing to boycott companies that do not engage in eco-friendly practices.

“That’s definitely the reason that you’re seeing companies get these certifications, because they have recognized that there is an expectation and a desire by consumers to see companies take more of an active role in reducing climate pollution,” says Nora Apter, climate program director of the Oregon Environmental Council. “I think you’re already seeing that kind of market-driven response.”

Apter is not quick to praise Amazon, or any company involved in a carbon-neutral pledge or certification.

“Right now it’s really on the consumer to do their own due diligence, looking into what practices the company is actually undertaking to claim this carbon neutrality,” Apter says. “Are they sourcing entirely from renewables or are they buying carbon offsets somewhere? Are those offsets actually reducing emissions or are those trees just going to be chopped down? That’s where I think having greater transparency but also a more unified label would be helpful. I think there’s a role for the government there.”

Experts also note that some companies’ public commitments to sustainability are ultimately unmasked as “greenwashing” — the phenomenon where companies put more effort into marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than into actually changing their practices.

A 2022 report by international climate-policy institute Carbon Market Watch analyzed the climate plans of 25 multinational companies with stated carbon-reduction goals. The study found that only three of these companies had taken steps necessary to meet their emissions-reduction goals, that “(climate) pledges are often ambiguous and emission reduction commitments are limited, and found many of them overestimated the extent to which their actions would reduce carbon emissions.”

“Businesses and industries have a huge role to play in our transition to a healthier climate future. And so the issue of companies misleading consumers is really problematic,” Apter says.

Evers hopes carbon-neutral certification will bolster his credibility in a world where polluters muddy the waters. He says the academic rigor involved in getting certified is what separates Riff’s certification from simple marketing.

But he also knows that for consumers, it can be hard to tell the difference.

“There are a lot of places making carbon-neutral claims, but there’s no central oversight or governing body,” Evers says. “All the terminology and claims have become really mucky. We’re all cynical, and from a marketing perspective, sustainability [claims] are an asset. There’s fake news out there and people don’t know what to believe.”

Evers adds that he, too, would like to see a governing body create standards and oversight for carbon neutrality.

But he also says creating an environmentally friendly beverage company is a reflection of who he was as an art student dazzled by the natural world.

“I’m the same person as I was back then, I’m only reapplying myself,” Evers says. “I do it because of my appreciation of nature and to celebrate the beauty of nature in a day and age when it’s being threatened.

“Monet and Van Gogh didn’t have to deal with these problems,” he adds. “I don’t know if they ever thought the natural beauty would become threatened and destroyed the way it has been. But here we are. It’s threatened every day.”

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