20 years ‒ what a journey it’s been. As part of this year’s celebrations, we've taken a good look back and reflected on what we’ve achieved as a business and within the coffee world over the past two decades.
Across the world, we’ve seen incredible changes within coffee farming communities we work with through our sourcing model, Union Direct Trade, alongside identifying and targeting coffee specific issues. As a company, we’ve continued to develop, growing in size and sharing the joys of speciality coffee but retaining the highest quality of coffee, sourcing and roasting.
From the get-go, we challenged the norm ‒ breaking out against commodity coffee trading, and putting coffee farmers and high-quality coffee at the centre. As we draw a close to our 20th Anniversary celebrations, we’re not drawing a close to the work we do and the boundaries we push. In fact, you could say the first 20 years was just the beginning!
There’s more work to do and new questions to tackle in the industry, and we’re ready. We sat down with our founders, Jeremy and Steven; Managing Director, Violeta; and Sustainable Sourcing Manager, Pascale, and discussed the next 20 years (and beyond), and everything in between.
What's next for Union?
“It’s not one step and the next, it’s a continuous journey which we’re on,” says Jeremy. Union was founded with a sense of purpose, to create greater sustainability for coffee producers through high-quality coffee and this has always been at the centre of what we do. So far, we’ve seen the positive impact and major developments through the work we’ve done and as we look to the future, we’re going to build on what we’ve achieved already.
“We already have a great relationship with our customers” Violeta explains “We are looking to further deepen our connection with the Union consumer. Invite them to join our journey, be involved, inspired and connected.”
Jeremy continues “We’re here to listen to our customers and our producer partners and use this to build actions within the company.” We’re called Union, a reference to the union of everyone from farmers to coffee drinkers at home. As we navigate a bright future for the business, listening to the needs and desires of everyone within the union will help us build a strong business that functions as successfully and sustainably as possible not just for us, but for all players.
Great quality coffee will continue to flow and sustainability will remain a high priority, but in even more ways than before. “Sustainability has always been at the core of what we do,” says Pascale “In recent years, we've seen a growing group of conscious, ethical aware consumers who want to know what conditions their coffee has been grown under. We want to celebrate what we do and have always done. Keep an eye out for some exciting sustainability news to come!”
As we discuss how to create a sustainable future for coffee within producer communities, Steven highlights our continual work to scale speciality coffee “Through scaling speciality coffee, we can work with a wider number of smallholder farmers ‒ the more sustainable form of coffee farming. The more smallholder producers we can work with, the greater positive impact and benefit we can make – both to the producers themselves and within the coffee industry.”
Our eyes and ears are open, we’re here to listen and continue to create a company our customers are proud to use. We’ll continue to work to the high standards we always have done but take the next big steps for sustainability and the entire Union journey.
How will Union continue to pioneer within the coffee world?
In 2001, shocked at the nature of the coffee industry and its effects on producers, Jeremy and Steven sought to shake up the system and do something different. This challenging of norms is what the company was built on and is essential in life, helping to balance old fashioned structures which are unfavourably weighted against those at the far end of the chain and who are in fact the least resilient.
So, how are we going to continue pioneering? We’d love to take on every issue within coffee, but this is something the industry must tackle together. Using our expertise, we’ve pinpointed where we can make the biggest impact. “Across the company we have a wealth of expertise from coffee sourcing to coffee brewing," says Violeta "Through innovation and technology, we will continue to create value and support a more sustainable future for all.”
Jeremy explains “We see the key challenges across the coffee world: for producers, there are still hurdles to accessing information and market. For roasters, there remain issues of transparency in the supply.”
Pascale points out the importance of climate change and its effects on the future of speciality coffee which is now an incredibly hot topic. We always keep our finger on the pulse so we’ve already started work to tackle the effects of rising temperatures and the future of coffee forests such as the wild Arabica preservation project in Yayu, Ethiopia and our involvement in the recent study of the stenophylla coffee variety.
Our work on climate change is far from over and we’ll continue to be involved in the forward thinking projects. Alongside this, we’re identifying key issues and weaving them into our everyday operations. Pascale highlights one of the issues around climate change affecting the space suitable for growing coffee: “Current predictions are saying that area for coffee growing could reduce by 50% by 2050”.
Continuing to source from a diverse range of coffee-growing countries is essential in helping to tackle this particular issue. Violeta highlights “We believe origin diversity in speciality coffee is important and we will continue to support all producer partners we work with so together we can tackle the challenges we may face in the future.”
Jeremy explains “When we first started roasting, there was no email, mobile phones, internet – today the world has moved on which produces a lot more opportunity. Increasing technology and access to remote communities is something we’re interested in and starting to work on.”
Recent developments in technology can potentially open more doors to tackling problems faced by farmers and roasters within the industry and this is something which we’re exploring. We’re excited to say that we’re in the initial stages of a project using a blockchain-based solution to provide greater traceability with our producer partners in Rwanda.
The world we live in today is drastically different to the one 20 years ago but we plan to keep up with the world’s fast pace and using it to our advantage to create a more positive impact. We’ll continue to push boundaries, not only in the work we do but in what we present to our customers.
What exciting things are there to look forward to in the upcoming year?
It’s what we do and we’re always going to have something exciting in the pipeline. “We work with some of the most amazing and innovative coffee producers in the world and we have some really exciting coffees on the horizon,” says Pascale. “Not only are they delicious and unique coffees but they’re sourced from producers who care about their workers, use the best agricultural practices and who are committed to sustainable growing”.
As we’ve said before, sustainability is at the core of Union. This year, we’ve taken steps to share our efforts and future plans through B-Corp. Violeta says “I believe we’ve behaved as a B-Corp for years. Obtaining the B Corp certification will be a great recognition for our work and approach to business.”
Alongside what we’ve already been doing, Pascale is excited for what B-Corp means for Union in tackling new areas of the business: “We’re having a broader look at what we do, extending our focus on our producer partners wider – to our local community and our team.”
Our assessment is coming up and we’ll be sharing this journey with you so keep your eyes peeled!
We know that our packaging is one of our next big hurdles, especially as it’s an important factor for our customers in choosing a coffee brand.
Steven explains the next stage of our packaging journey: “We’re committed to taking the next steps with making our packaging more sustainable and it’s a high priority for us. The solution isn’t easy or straightforward, but we’ve taken the time to research and get it right ‒ identifying the inherent problems with different packaging – from start of life to end of life.”
So, what can you look out for? Jeremy tells us “In the next few months we’re looking to trial recyclable paper packaging for our online customers”.
If you’re one of our online customers, keep an eye out on the packaging in the next few months ‒ we’re rolling out something new.