Green Bean Cafe: Meet the Sunderland mum helping to create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly Sunderland

Medical scientist turned environmental conservationist Emma Sarhani has been describing the “light-bulb moment” which led to her leaving her well paid job in biomedical research to “make a difference” in the local environment and inspire people to live more sustainably.

Emma, 41, now runs the Green Bean Cafe in Southwick with husband Sofian, from which she also runs the Community Interest Company, Seeds of Change Sunderland, but after graduating from the University of Sunderland with a degree in Biomedical Science, she spent 15 years working for the NHS in pathology.

She said: “I was involved in examining why people may have died as well as carrying out research into different diseases. However, I always felt like there was something missing.

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"I initially went to Edinburgh University to study Biological Sciences but I ended up coming home for personal reasons and enrolling on a different degree. However, I knew inside that it was the natural world rather than the human side of science which really interested me.

"I grew up in Roker, by the sea, and have always had a passion for the environment. Deep down I wished I had continued my biology degree rather than changing to the medical side of things."

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It was during a litter pick in 2018 that Emma decided it was “time for a change of direction” which would see her move away from investigating human health to promoting the planet’s health.

She added: “I went litter picking with Friends of Fulwell at Seaburn Dene. In one day we collected 30 bags of rubbish. I was actually quite shocked and emotional about the volume of rubbish we found that day and it got me thinking that if we could find that amount of rubbish in such a tiny part of the planet and this was multiplied across locations around the country and world, just how much damage are we doing to our planet?

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Seeds of Change Sunderland founder Emma Sarhani outside the Green Bean Cafe.

"I was actually quite overwhelmed by this thought and I knew I needed to do my bit to bring about change. I was very environmentally aware that a lot needed fixing. At that point, I was part of the problem and I wanted to do what I could to bring about change.

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“I set up a Facebook group promoting how we can be more sustainable and things just spiralled from there.”

Emma, along with husband Sofian and children Anis, 15, and Jenna, nine, now practice sustainable living at their Fulwell home which includes reducing their food waste, re-purposing packaging and using her science knowledge to make her own environmentally friendly cleaning products from coconut oil and bicarbonate soda.

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The family have also re-wilded parts of their garden to provide wildlife corridors and natural habitat for birds and insects as well as growing their own fruit and veg and using egg shells as a slug repellent.

Emma Sarhani with some Fare Share oranges and tomatoes.
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After setting up the Green Bean Cafe in 2020, it is these very same principles and practices of sustainability which now underpins her business.

Emma said: “We opened in March 2020 and within a day we had to close for the Covid pandemic. However things are now running well and many of the sustainable practices we use at home we now use at the cafe.

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"We have our own allotment where we are growing our fruit and veg, we buy our products from local organic providers such as Acorn Dairies in Durham, which is better for both the animals and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

"We don’t have any single use plastics and we also keep any food waste to a minimum and so we cook skin on chips and any waste produce can be used as fertiliser at the allotment.”

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Emma Sarhani hopes to help educate people on how they can live more sustainably.
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After purchasing the cafe, Emma and Sofian also improved their own environmental surroundings on Southwick Green by planting flowers and shrubs as well as installing bird boxes which last spring provided a home for a family of blue tits.

Emma added: “We were awarded the Silver Gilt award by Northumbria in Bloom for the garden we created around the cafe. I’m hoping what we have done sets an example and acts as a catalyst for other businesses in the area to improve their own environments.”

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In her quest to “make a difference”, in May 2022 Emma established the Community Interest Company Seeds of Change Sunderland which operates out of the cafe.

The initiative has paired up with the charity Fare Share which delivers surplus food stock from supermarkets to the cafe which customers can take home with a “what you can afford donation”.

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Every Tuesday and Saturday evening from 5pm to 7pm Emma also runs a cooking on a budget class.

She said: “I find that living sustainably is also living financially prudently as it is about reducing waste and getting the most out of things. With the current situation with the cost of living, I find promoting the financial side of things is also a good way of engaging people environmentally.

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"A lot the products delivered by Fare Share are of real good quality and would only be destined for landfill.”

Emma realises it is “impossible to change the world on your own” but hopes she can influence change at a local level which can then “have a snowball effect” in promoting a more sustainable city.

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She said: “I’m not going to change the world, but hopefully I can help bring about environmental change locally. One of my key messages is ‘nobody can do everything but we can all do something’.”

If you would like to become involved in any of the Seeds of Change Sunderland projects then email Emma at [email protected]