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The Carmelite Café: Sustainability on our doorstep

Submitted by Education on Thu, 11/04/2013 - 00:00

We’ve mentioned the Carmelite Café in this blog before, but we thought we’d say a little more about how Michael Needham, Carmelite’s proprietor, has created a small beacon of sustainability through his approach to running the café.

When I sat down to talk to Michael about what it meant to him last week, it quickly became apparent that sustainability permeated many aspects of his life, but almost unwittingly. In addition, the lines between his identity both as an artist and café proprietor are blurred and these play a huge role in informing how he has approached setting up and running the Carmelite café and his good sustainable practices.

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As we posit on our webpage, sustainability presents itself in many different guises. Careful management of resources is key to this; we live in a paradoxical age where resources are becoming scarcer and yet cheap goods with short shelf lives and quick-fix solutions are readily available to us. Artists are often characterised by their resourcefulness, which can be driven by an economic imperative, but also the vision to see the potential in things that others have discarded as useless or obsolete. There are parallels with how an individual setting up a new business must also demonstrate good business sense and thriftiness to ensure its future.

So instead of opting for purchasing expensive (or cheap) new goods, Michael has sought and found opportunities to give existing things a new lease of life through the Carmelite. The café itself is based in a former convent – a beautiful old building which houses our Nunnery Gallery – curating exhibitions which link world class contemporary art with local heritage and community. He has kitted out the café with second-hand furniture and crockery and re-used textiles to make cushion covers and a large curtain for the doorway. He’s also looking into giving away his old coffee grounds which can be used for a myriad of things including fertilising your plants, scrubbing your hands clean and even making new furniture.

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Recycled chair installation

The notion of ‘giving back’ to the community as part of your business model has also been cited as an important part of sustainability. Interacting with his surroundings and developing relationships is something that comes naturally to Michael as a visual artist with a socially engaged practice and is obviously an important characteristic of a café owner. As well as building up a strong customer base, he nurtures other kinds of relationships with those around him; local women bake the cakes he sells and the (for-sale) plants which brighten up the alley are provided by Core Landscapes of Core Arts, a Hackney-based charity which helps people who experience mental health issues to fulfil their creative potential. He’s provided a platform for Bow Arts studio artists to sell work. He seeks artists from the locality to display work in the café, and in the latest exhibition, Strike, Alistair Gordon uses locally reclaimed wood from the old Bryant & May Match Factory as a canvas.

Michael also has a strong commitment to sourcing high quality products from local and independent suppliers like himself, from his Nude Espresso coffee and Pie Cart pies to the design work he commissions – reducing the need for emission-producing travel (he and his croissant supplier, Little Pedlar, meet on bikes at 7.15am in Shoreditch to exchange the goods!) and supporting small and growing businesses.

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Once he’d told me about all of the above, Michael sat back and concluded that, though he hadn’t really thought about it before, he supposed he was living sustainably. Which is even more inspiring – sustainability really can come naturally, and in this case its practices contribute to creating an inviting and unique space for people to gather, which many have contributed to and which also seeks to give back.

You can visit the Carmelite café, say hello to Michael and potentially pick up some coffee grounds between 10am and 5pm, Tuesdays to Sundays. Follow @beanbeard on Twitter