Any other business

How one SME is working for real sustainability – and what it can teach others

7 min read

28 October 2015

Ever since it entered the corporate lexicon a few years ago, “sustainability,” is something that almost every large company has aspired to. But shortly after this appearance another phrase developed along side it.

“Greenwash,” sceptical consumers shouted, when they saw what they felt was corporate hypocrisy around sustainability.

Genuine sustainability has obvious benefits but how can an SME really act sustainably?

It’s something that Steven Macatonia of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, an award-winning artisan coffee producer and roaster based in East London, wrestled with when he and his business partner set up the company in 2001.

As one of the world’s foremost experts in the sourcing and production of high-quality coffee, Macatonia travels extensively in remote regions visiting farmers to understand their needs, so they can produce exceptional coffee for Union.

A trained social auditor, he’s a juror for Cup of Excellence and spent four years on the board of directors of World Coffee Research.

He believes that far from being an additional burden for a business, sustainability can bring advantages. “The business benefits of adopting sustainable thinking and integrating this into day-to-day operations are extensive,” he said.

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 wellbeing that comes with working for a company that positively impacts on the world, not just lining owners or shareholders pockets,” he explained.

Macatonia and co-founder Jeremy Torz pioneered a concept called Union Direct Trade, making their company the first UK roaster to introduce a “charity-free” way of linking sustainability with exceptional quality coffee.

All of Union’s coffee is Q-graded as 84 and above – the industry standard for high-quality coffee – and the company is currently aiming to change perceptions about the way coffee is sourced, crafted and enjoyed.

“At Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, sustainability sits at the very core of our business,” he revealed. “Essentially it’s our business model. Inspired by sustainable business owners such as Anita Roddick of the Body Shop and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s, Jeremy and I made a conscious decision to take an ethical approach to sourcing our coffee.”

Union Direct Trade means that, in practice, the company agrees 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.

Read more on sustainability:

Torz and Macatonia have developed this strategy over several years and taken risks during that time. They’ve managed these supply chain risks by, for instance, visiting farmers themselves and even staying in their homes and to get to know exactly how they live.

“These regular trips, allow us to teach farmers ‘cupping,’ the coffee-tasting process, so they can effectively evaluate the quality of their crop, as well as providing training in agronomy and harvesting techniques,” said Macatonia.

Union Direct Trade has helped to benefit more than 4,000 farmers in Rwanda directly, extending to around 20,000 family members. Traditionally, Rwandan coffee was traded at very low prices as cheap “filler” coffee on the international commodity markets.

“We showed one small cooperative in the South West what was possible if they targeted the high value speciality market through working together and improving their farming methods. Sweeping changes have since been made, with 47 other co-operatives now pursuing speciality grade production,” he revealed.

Sustainability is often seen as a costly process, but the reality is that while it can increase costs in the short-term, it can also offer big savings in the long-run, he and Torz have found.

“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,” he reasoned.

“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, Macatonia and Torz have found. 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,” said Macatonia. “Of course, ours is just one of many sustainable SME stories, and the ways in which we introduced our approach to the industry sound much simpler written down than they look in practice.”

For small businesses sustainability is a work in process that needs to be tested and refined, he said.

“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.”

He also advised that SME owners learn to be good listeners.

“Listen to your customers, your staff, and authoritative industry bodies in order to understand how to communicate your values to different stakeholders,” he offered. Other smaller companies are well placed to take the sustainability agenda forward too, according to Macatonia.

“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.”