The word ‘sustainability’ is bandied about a lot at the moment, with varying definitions of what it actually means in practice.
Some businesses are happy to do just enough to be able to claim they are sustainable, but there is much to be said for making sustainability the very foundation of your business, not just an afterthought. No longer should a sustainability programme be seen as the preserve of multinationals with CSR targets to hit and if anything, it’s much easier for agile SMEs to make widespread changes.
The business benefits of adopting sustainable thinking and integrating this into day-to-day operations are extensive. Consumers and other businesses are growing more and more discerning when it comes to choosing providers that operate sustainably, and tapping into this can help to generate long-term loyalty and new business opportunities. Staff too are often invigorated by working for a sustainable company, by the sense of well-being that comes with working for a company that positively impacts the world, not just lining owners or shareholders pockets.
At Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, sustainability sits at the very core of our business; essentially it is our business model. Inspired by sustainable business owners such as Anita Roddick (The Body Shop) and Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s), my partner Jeremy and I made a conscious decision to take an ethical approach to source our coffee, pioneering a more formal trading mechanism called Union Direct Trade. In practice, this means we agree to pay coffee farmers a price that not only covers their cost of production, but also enables their farming practices to be commercially viable and improve the livelihood of their families.
This strategy has evolved over several years; we learnt from initial risky partnerships that in order to develop and shape better producer relationships, it is important to personally visit farmers, stay in their homes and get to know exactly how they live. These regular trips allow us to teach farmers how to effectively grow better coffee and how to evaluate the quality of their crop by teaching the farmers “cupping” (the coffee-tasting process).
Because Jeremy and I are the people making the decisions on how the business is run, we aren’t tied to delivering shareholder value – unlike many larger companies. For smaller businesses like ours, it’s all about taking it one step at a time when it comes to financing certain processes. Some tasks only involve the cost of the time invested, such as introducing a new recycling or zero-waste policy. Others, such as reassessing suppliers based on sustainable credentials may lead to higher running costs, but simultaneously increase customer loyalty. Just remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
My top tips for implementing sustainable processes:
- Don’t claim to put the world to rights immediately, it’s always a work in progress that needs to be tested, refined and tested again. Union Direct Trade is the result of 15 years of careful craft and development, informed and enhanced every day by what we learn from getting out into the field.
- Build your approach to sustainability as if it were a growing toolbox of ideas and strategies – each tailored to different communities and different markets in order to take advantage of every opportunity. The one-size-fits-all approach just won’t work, people need to understand why your company has chosen to adopt a specific strategy or method in particular.
- Being a good listener is crucial. Listen to your customers, your staff, and authoritative industry bodies in order to understand how to communicate your values to different stakeholders.
By Steven Macatonia, co-founder of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee