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Building a purpose-led drinks brand: The Union Coffee story – PODCAST

Clarasys meets Pascale Schuit, Head of Ethical Sourcing at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee to discuss the value of being purpose-led.

simply sustainability podcast

Privately owned British coffee roasting business Union Hand-Roasted Coffee's Head of Ethical Sourcing, Pascale Schuit, chats to Clarasys' Sam Maguire about Union Coffee's commitment to being a purpose-led and a sustainable coffee provider.

In the seventh episode of 'Clarasys presents: Simply Sustainability', Sam asks Pascale for some tips and advice about what the value of being purposeful is and how others might be able to take themselves on a journey to being more purpose-led.

Listen here or read on for an edited transcript.

 

Sam Maguire: Welcome to our Simply sustainability podcast presented by Clarasys. In this series, we look at what can sometimes be the intimidating topic of sustainability and break it down into digestible, bite-size chunks to help you on your way to a more sustainable future. 

In today's podcast, I'm absolutely delighted to be talking to Pascale Schuit, the Head of Ethical Sourcing from Union Coffee, the speciality coffee producers who want to make coffee better for everyone. Pascale, it's great to have you, do you wanna just start us off by telling us who you are and what you do at Union Coffee? 

Pascale Schuit: Hi, I'm Pascale, thank you for having me over Sam. This is my first podcast and I'm super delighted. I love to talk about coffee. As a Head of Ethical Sourcing for Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, I'm responsible for the relationships that we have with the farms and the farmers that we source from. I nurture existing relationships and find new ones. And it's really exciting. 

Sam Maguire: Oh, that's amazing. And I do have to admit upfront that myself, I'm not a coffee drinker, but I told all my friends that I was speaking with you guys at union coffee today and they've all told me it's really good stuff. So I'm very excited to hear a bit more about you guys and what you do. 

And in this podcast, we're gonna be talking about Union Coffee's commitment to being a purposeful and sustainable coffee provider. What we're gonna do is provide some tips and advice from your brain Pascale about kind of what is the value in being purposeful and how others might be able to take themselves on a journey to being a bit more purpose-led.

So I wanted to just start us off by getting you to talk to us a little bit about union coffee's mission and purpose and what it is that you're trying to achieve as an organization. Is that okay? 

What is Union Hand-Roasted Coffee's mission and purpose?

Pascale Schuit: Yeah, so Union's mission is to make the world discover the joy of speciality coffee from farmers to coffee lovers. We want to enrich people's lives to focus on great quality, sustainable sourcing and sharing the culture of delicious coffee. So in practice, that means that we source from 14 countries and over 40 producer partners, we source sustainably. We call that union direct trade. This means fair prices, prices that cover the cost of sustainable production, long-term relationships, and encouraging not just stop-gap sustainability solutions, but also long-term investments. And I think for me personally, as I'm privileged to travel to all these countries, I find it my mission to share the story as much as possible. 

Sam Maguire: So that's amazing kind of that focus on being the speciality coffee brand that wants to deliver the coffee in sustainable ways. Can you tell us where that purpose came from? What was the origin story of union coffee? 

What was the origin story of purpose-led Union Coffee?

Pascale Schuit: Union is owned by Steven and Jeremy. They're the co-founders. And they had spent some years in the United States where they were working and it was there that they decided that they wanted to create beautiful coffees and bring these to London. And then Jeremy went on a trip to Guatemala in the early two-thousands. That was during the times of the coffee crisis when the coffee price hit rock bottom. And, he saw a farmer actually abandoning his coffee plantation. He was actually burning down his coffee plantation. He was like, what why? And the farmer said, well, it's not profitable for me and my family to run this plantation.

And it was that paradox of seeing one part of the world where coffee is being even freshly roasted in coffee shops, people sitting down drinking coffee, enjoying it. Being willing to pay for a good coffee. And the other side of the world where farmers are abandoning their coffee plantations, burning them down because it's not profitable for them and that's where they realize that farmers never had been part of the story. And that they wanted to do things differently. They wanted to shorten the supply chain source directly from farmers, be able to pay them a fair price and have this equitable value distribution along the chain. And that's how Union started and that's also what the name stands for Union because we're a union of farmers, coffee, lovers, and consumers. 

Sam Maguire: I love that. And I think it's quite an inspiring story, but that hopefully becomes the norm for all coffee producers. What I wanted to ask you about was there must have been some challenges in terms of being this purpose-led organization, in terms of trying to do things differently than the norm and to do things in a more of a united communal way. Could you talk to me a little bit about what those might have been? 

What challenges has Union Coffee faced on its way to becoming a purpose-led organisation?

Pascale Schuit: Yeah. So, 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed every year and in the UK, uh, two cups a day on average. And I think most people when they think about coffee think about it being too weak, too strong, too sweet, too bitter, too cheap or too expensive. And not many people know that coffee is grown mostly by smallholder farmers on small plantations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the area that we also call the global south and they're 12.5 million farmers and many more people that depend on coffee for their livelihood. And speciality coffee, the quality that Union sources is very different from commercial coffee. These farmers grow cultivars that are often more susceptible to disease. They have lower yields, but they're sweeter. They have complex acidity. They're like super juicy and tasty and coffee is a fruit. We often refer to it as a cherry and it's the two beans in it that is actually what's roasted what we grind and what we drink. And each of these fruits is hand-picked in a tropical climate with steep mountain hills - hills on which I can barely walk. And there are people there carrying these heavy bags of coffee, in good weather in bad weather. And it takes like eight kilos of coffee cherries to get to one kilo of roasted beans, roughly. And a lot of people don't see that journey, the journey that coffee makes, so that can make it challenging to make your mission or your purpose relatable. 

Sam Maguire: That makes a lot of sense. And that kind of challenge that there is in terms of production means that if you want to be a purpose-led organization, you need to make sure that those involved with producing that coffee in that challenging way are looked after.

And what are the main ways that you guys make sure that those who are involved in producing the coffee are treated well, are safe, have fair living and working conditions. How do you kind of go about that? 

How does Union Coffee ensure that its producers are looked after?

Pascale Schuit: So, except when it was, uh, COVID 19, obviously we travel to origin. We visit the people we work with on a regular basis. And I think the best thing you can do is just ask people, what do you need? What are your challenges? Where do you see opportunities and how can we as a company contribute to your opportunities and how can we as a company, make sure that we are having a positive impact on you as a business, by the way, how we buy. 

Sam Maguire: Fantastic. Now, the behaviours that you're describing and this kind of focus on a more ethical way must really speak to the change in consumer base who are more interested and who care more about kind of buying ethically and I wanted to ask, are there particular customers that Union have found really resonate with the messages that you talk about, about being purpose-led? 

Do customers resonate with Union being a purpose-led organisation?

Pascale Schuit: Yeah. And it's really exciting to see, especially our online customers, people who buy directly from us, they're very engaged. We do some customer research and 90% of our customers said that "I know that my money goes to improving the lives of farmer partners" and almost "80% said that union is the most ethical coffee brand I know". And what I love about our customers is that we introduced recyclable packaging, so more sustainable packaging and that was quite a long journey, and people would write us and say, "Hey, you said your sustainable packaging was coming. When is it coming?", "Hey, I read about this". People are actively asking questions and it's really great to see that there's so much interest from consumers in how we are performing as a business. 

Sam Maguire: Yeah. And that's super important. And that gives you that kind of push to make sure you're always continuously improving. Cause you've got that kind of buy-in from customers that they want you to be the best that you can. Now, one of the things that we've kind of seen for those organizations who do want to kind of be known as purpose-led is that they have to be very, very careful not to purpose wash and say that they've made this purpose unless they're actually doing it. No one's perfect, it's all a journey, but what do you do to make sure that you are credible and that you're actively able to claim to be ethical?

How can you be credibly ethical?

Pascale Schuit: Be authentic I would say. So union was created with a strong social mission at the core of its business. It's the story of Union - Union was founded because they wanted to make coffee better. And I think that move for purpose needs to be driven by the management. It's not a marketing exercise and if it's a marketing exercise, you better stop doing it now. When I started at Union, it was the stories from Steven and Jeremy that inspired me. There were so many stories on what they had been doing for the business in terms of investing in the communities that they sourced from.

The actions that they had taken - Union was the first coffee roasted through London, speciality coffee in retail. And I mean, setting up a speciality coffee value chain in a country recovering from civil word really shows commitment. And then later on when our managing director, Violeta Stevens was appointed, she came from a social enterprise. And for me as an employee that also gave me a lot of confidence that what Union was doing, that they wanted to continue to do that. 

Sam Maguire: Yeah, absolutely. And I guess that that's gonna be one of the challenges as the organization scales and gets bigger, how do you continue to retain that everyone knows Jeremy's stories, how do you make sure that that focus is kind of maintained even as you grow larger. Have there been any conversations around that and how that's going to be retained?

Pascale Schuit: I think we are a purpose-led business and it's beyond the mission of our product. It goes beyond coffee. Having clarity on your mission of course is a first step I mean, people that come to work for us go to a week of induction. It's not just like, "This is where the bathroom is, this is how the computer works". It's also really much about this is who we are as Union, and this is what we stand for. And these are the values that we live up to. So Union is a B Corp, a benefit corporation and part of that movement is that, you know, as a business, you want to be a force for good. And it looks across five categories, community, environment, customers, workers, and governments. So even if within the business, how you are not working with coffee on a daily basis, although we almost all are, there is always an area of sustainability that touches upon the work that you do.

Sam Maguire: Absolutely. How have you found the B Corp both label in terms of communicating your purpose-led kind of focused customers, but also as something that employees could rally around? 

Pascale Schuit: Yeah, I think it's, it's very important for businesses to look at their commitments in the context of the entire operations. And that's where B Corp comes in as a useful tool with their B Corp impact assessment, as well as verification.

So, yeah, Union is a living wage employer. We have sound environmental management systems in place. We all set our scope one and two carbon emissions. We try to do the right thing across the board. We publish an annual impact report where people can read about our stories of impact, but not everybody has the time to look into all of that.

So then having something as B Corp - sort of a label that people know 'oh, that is covered', that very helpful. 

Sam Maguire: Amazing. What advice would you give to others who want to run a purpose-led organisation? 

Advice for others who want to run a purpose-led organisation

Pascale Schuit: Yeah, be authentic and be clear on your mission, but also that it's, again, that it's very important for you as a business, to look at your commitments in the context of the entire operations.

There's no point in pursuing one area. When others are doing that huge amount of damage. I always say like, there's no offsetting in sustainability. You can't do a mass balance. If we take the coffee business, it would be absurd to pay farmers an extremely low price for coffee, and then start a food security project because my purpose is food security in the world. You need to be looking at what you're doing across the board. 

Sam Maguire: Needs to be central to your business model how you're kind of making money and how your operations are run. I think that's absolutely spot on. I wanna talk a little bit more about coffee if that's okay. I'm a completely naive person around coffee, so you're gonna educate me.

So what we're gonna talk about is Union is focused on the purposeful provision of coffee. What are the biggest impacts that the climate and the wider environmental crisis might have on the production and supply of coffee? 

What are the biggest impacts on the production and supply of coffee?

Pascale Schuit: Yeah, most of us take our daily cup of coffee for granted. And I suppose there's some bad news, uh, around that. Actually, quite a lot of research has confirmed that by 2050, less than 50% of the land that's available now, that's where it's suitable for coffee to grow won't be available anymore. I always say coffee is like a diva plant. I dunno if you know, Calathea's house plants, they're like really complicated and if, you know, coffee's the same - too much water, too little water, too hot, too dry. And she starts dropping her leaves or yielding less coffee. And, and that is what's gonna happen and demand will increase more and more people are populating the world and supply is gonna come down. So our morning cup of coffee isn't going to be that, well, might not even be there anymore. And then on the other side of the story, it's all these farmers that depend on coffee for their livelihoods. Sure. And their livings. 

Sam Maguire: So that's obviously quite, um, a scary picture, particularly for those who are reliant on that morning cup of coffee, but also obviously also from a, a human aspect and an environmental aspect. Very scary. What is Union's response to that? How are you guys kind of working to become a long-term business that can cope with those kinds of challenges around areas that you will be able to grow in? 

Pascale Schuit: Yeah, again, I think it's very important for us to stay close to the people we work with. So climate change is a thing, but obviously, the impact of climate change is gonna be different within continents, within countries and even within countries within regions. So we talk to the farmers and ask them like, how are you gonna be impacted? What are you doing about it and then support them in that, because in the end, it's the farmers who can change the way, how they're farming, because they are doing it on a, on a daily basis?

Sam Maguire: Got it. And then you support them with investment in new methods or different kind of ways of producing the bean or any of the pieces they need to do to be able to adapt the crop. Is that right? 

Pascale Schuit: Exactly. And I think it's very important for us to understand that sustainably produced coffee has a different cost attached to it, different cost of production for the farmer.

If you, for example, take a plantation, which is shade-grown everywhere, where there is a shade tree, which is good for the coffee, good for biodiversity, good for carbon sequestration. There is no coffee plant, right? So your yield per definition is going to be lower compared to a fully sun-grown coffee. That's what we call when the plants do not have shade at all. If a farmer chooses to opt for more environmentally friendly practices, that's often is more manual, labour, more work. So there is a different cost attached and, and it's, I think, as a buyer, it's important that you recognize that that cost is there.

Sam Maguire: Absolutely. And on the getting buyers or consumers to choose better, more sustainable forms of coffee, what advice would you give to myself, my friends, and everyone else out there about what they should be thinking about when they are choosing coffee?

What should consumers be thinking when choosing coffee?

Pascale Schuit: I think when you choose coffee, it's important to purchase from, well, roasters like us, obviously but what I mean with that is, is go to coffee roasters also that like explain what they do and how they do it. That provides information, that has, you know, shared their impact report or their impact strategy, that have credentials. And as a consumer, there are also so many things that you can do. The biggest impact that you as a consumer can have is boiling the right amount of water when you make your cup of coffee or tea, if you boil twice the amount of water, your carbon footprint per cup of coffee increases by three. 

Sam Maguire: Because of the amount of energy used to boil that water?

Pascale Schuit: Yeah. If you add milk by 10 now I know not everybody likes black coffee, but try it or try a milk alternative and what you, you can, I mean, live up to the reduce, reuse, recycle values.

There are lots of amazing stuff you can do with the coffee grounds there. Make great compost for the garden. You don't need to add or do a lot of extra things with it. You can make scrubs for your skin. So there are lots of things you can do as a consumer to mitigate the impact of climate change here. So that farmers there won't suffer that much. 

Sam Maguire: Fantastic. And it is, it's such a difficult balance, right? Because there's the provision of income for those farmers. But we have to obviously be mindful over here of the impact of the transportation, the drinking, et cetera. And we need to get that balance right.

Finally, I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about what it's like for you working for a purpose-led organization. How does that make you feel and kind of what's the impact that's had on you? 

What is it like as an employee of a purpose-led organisation?

Pascale Schuit: So for me personally, it's very important to work for an organization that has similar values as I have. It's a very inspiring environment. And I think a company with a purpose attracts people with passion like like-minded people. So I have an amazing team of colleagues who are all love, coffee and are super enthusiastic. And I mean, you spend a good time of your life working. I'm 35. So I've already been 10 years with Union, I probably have to do another 30 years of working right? So you better be working in an environment that you enjoy and where your work has an impact, and it feels good to, you know, through your work, be able to make a positive change in the world. 

Sam Maguire: Absolutely. And have you found at Union Coffee that the purpose-led nature has enabled you to attract better talent, people who are kind of bright, passionate, and enthusiastic because of the purpose-led kind of nature of the organization?

Pascale Schuit: Yeah, I think so. My colleagues are amazing and very smart and they wanna make a change in the world and they believe in what we do. So, yes, I think definitely helps. 

Sam Maguire: Fantastic. You should get some money off all of them after this for, uh, for, for bigging them up. Brilliant. Well, Pascale, thank you so much for talking to me today about union coffee and about the purpose-led journey that you guys are on. I really, really appreciate it. 

Do you have anything in terms of if people want to get in touch or learn more, where they can about union coffee's journey? 

Pascale Schuit: Yeah. Please go to our website. That's unionroasted.com. If you wanna see more about us, I think our Instagram hashtag is the same @unionroasted.

So yeah, there you can learn more about the amazing farmers that we work with, but also, uh, the amazing team that we have here. 

Sam Maguire: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Pascale. Hope you have a great rest of your day and we'll speak to you soon.

Pascale Schuit: Thank you so much, Sam, for inviting me. 

Sam Maguire: No problem. 

Thank you for listening to our Simply sustainability podcast, we hope you enjoyed it. For more information, please contact us at sustainability@ clarasys.com.

To find out how our sustainability consulting can help you, get in touch. To find out more about Union Hand-Roasted Coffee check out their website or follow them on LinkedInFacebook or Twitter. Or reach out to Pascale directly on LinkedIn.

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