​​​Sustainability at its core: Union Hand-Roasted Coffee

Union Hand-Roasted Coffee has been shortlisted as SME of the Year in the High Potential Business Awardswith reason. Steven Macatonia speaks to GrowthBusiness on the ethically sourced coffee company's business journey.

What is the state of the ethically sourced F&B market in the UK?

In the twenty years or so that we’ve been operating, we’ve seen huge strides forward and people are now more switched on than ever to the provenance of what they eat and drink. There’s still a long way to go, but progress is certainly being made.

How do you stand out in this increasingly crowded market?

From the very beginning, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee has been based on the idea that developing close partnerships with coffee farmers is mutually beneficial. We are able to pay higher prices (at least 25% over the Fairtrade minimum), offer transparency, and provide a trusted route to market in the UK – not to mention the support and guidance that helps the co-operatives we work with to build for the future. In return, we receive some of the best coffee in the world, with quality increasing all the time. We call this system Union Direct Trade and it is not only our business model, it is our heart and soul. Any effort to become more sustainable should be applauded but I think people are naturally quite sceptical when it comes to the sustainable credentials of larger organisations. Corporate social responsibility programmes are all very well, but true sustainable development is about much more than gestures. The question any company – large or small – must ask itself is: are we doing this for the sake of it, or are we doing it to make a genuine positive impact on the world?

We view Union as an “Inclusive business”, so our approach to coffee sourcing is not corporate philanthropy or corporate social responsibility, which have inherent limitations of scope, impact and budget. Through Union Direct Trade we are creating a sustainable business model that “does well by doing good” and is reflected in all of our core business activities.

What was your best business decision?

Our best but hardest decision was probably to jump ship from our previous professions – Jeremy was an optician and I was a Research Immunologist – and to follow our passion for coffee. At the time, speciality coffee hadn’t even emerged in the UK, and we wanted to change that. Since then, the coffee scene has exploded and our company has gone from strength to strength.

What is the most useful lesson you have learned so far?

Stick to your principles. Our first coffee company was acquired by Starbucks in 1998. We quite quickly realised that the corporate life was not for us and decided to walk away and subsequently launched Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. It was a daunting decision, but most certainly the right one. Today, we’re proud of what we have achieved – not just in a commercial sense, but in how Union positive impacts the lives of thousands around the world through Union Direct Trade.

How do you plan to remain true to your ideals while scaling up?

I think our growth to date has demonstrated that it is possible to expand and grow while retaining integrity – it’s our business model. It is simply a case of not being afraid to ask difficult questions about how growth will affect our business and planning accordingly. Ultimately 15 years ago we decided to put sustainable development at the heart of our business, and we keep this principle front of mind at all times.

While the prices may be a little higher on so-called “ethically sourced” products, I would argue they can offer great value for money. Take our coffee for example. Because of Union Direct Trade, our customers know that they are not only getting coffee that has been sustainably sourced, but that it will taste fantastic. It is the high quality and pleasurable experience that our coffee provides which enables us to achieve true sustainability, because our customers come back to us again and again.

What are your plans for future growth?

The plan is to keep on growing and to double the size of the business by 2018. Last year we launched an online subscription service called CoffeeClub and we’re very focussed on growing this side of our business, as well as on the food service and retail side.

What’s your “origin story”?

I originally trained as an Immunologist and my partner Jeremy as an Optician. In the early 1990s we were living in San Francisco and at first we were entranced by the flavours and tastes of exciting food scene in the California Bay Area. This led us to discover the speciality coffee scene there and we gradually hatched a plan to bring high-quality coffee to the UK and set up our first coffee roasting business in 1997.

After this company was bought out by Starbucks, we decided to once again strike out on our own, founding Union in 2001 – and the rest is history.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.