The word ‘sustainability’ is bandied about a lot at the moment, with varying definitions of what it actually means in practice. These days, a company can define itself as a ‘sustainable business’ simply and solely by implementing an effective waste management plan or by investing in a programme to reduce carbon emissions. And while these surface practices are certainly to be encouraged, there is much to be said for making sustainability the very foundation of your business, not just an afterthought.
The benefits of adopting sustainable thinking and integrating this into day-to-day operations are extensive. As the concept continues to grow, particularly in less obvious sectors, there lies the opportunity to take a step ahead of the competition and boost your reputation at the same time. Sustainable credentials can bring a new dimension to your brand story, which will resonate not only with customers but also with staff as well. Providing new and existing team members with a work culture that they can see the wider benefits of is a sure fire way of motivating and retaining internal talent.
At my coffee company, our aim has always been to realise responsible growth in the long term by directly supporting and benefitting the lives of the people who grow our coffee beans. Inspired by the great work larger companies such as The Body Shop and Ben & Jerry’s were doing in their respective industries, we knew we wanted to build a business philosophy that focused heavily on the simple concept of ‘doing good.’ Having a positive influence on the people we were working with at every level was an incredible motivator for us both; the coffee industry affects the lives of millions of people all over the world and so we set out to make a change that would reflect that.
Sustainability not just for specific industries
It’s important to stress however, that sustainability is not just the preserve of the food and drink market – although in certain areas it plays a much more significant role. In a general sense, if a business’ processes and output outbalance the resources it is using, then it is not operating sustainably. The definition of resource too, is broad, and can encompass a range of different economic and social factors as well as the more obvious environmental ones.
So many industries are short sighted in the pursuit of their commodity, that sourcing material becomes so much more important than trying to regenerate the base of what is being consumed. Our millennial society is defined by speed, yet taking what can be produced today and ignoring how it might be sourced tomorrow is a foolhardy approach, to say the least.
That said, more and more consumers in the UK are becoming increasingly conscientious with broader awareness and appeal of locally-sourced goods bought for a fair price over recent years. These consumers are open to learning more about the origin of their purchase – and the more people who buy into your values, the more motivated they will be to share their experience with others. In some industries, these consumers can catapult brands to success.
In our business, the communication of Union Direct Trade to customers has been instrumental to our growth, as it demonstrates the true value of what we’re trying to achieve through sustainable practice. Union Direct Trade is a business model which sees farm gate prices negotiated directly with producers, and was designed to eradicate the imbalance of power that characterised the coffee supply chain by creating transparency at every stage of trade.
In a nutshell, we pay higher prices compared to the commodity market, in order to assure a superior quality coffee for our customers. We invest in our suppliers to build long-term relationships, which we see as a win-win situation. And while our retail prices might be higher and our profit margins lower as a result, the improvements that have been made to the livelihoods of our farmers are intrinsically worth it.
But this of course sounds much simpler written down than it looks in practice. For other businesses looking to implement sustainable processes – it’s crucially important to be realistic with your objectives.
Top tips for walking the path to sustainability
1. 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 as it stands today 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.
2. It’s important to 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.
3. Being a good listener is crucial in order to successfully implement the above. Listen to your customers, your staff, and authoritative industry bodies in order to understand how to communicate your values to different stakeholders. As more businesses jump on the sustainable bandwagon, keeping your company’s voice heard can be difficult. Don’t be afraid of keeping with tradition, establishing great values that truly mean something to you and your customers and sticking steadfastly by those is a sure-fire way of differentiating yourselves from the pack.
Above all, making sustainability part of a business’ DNA and keeping it front of mind across all departments will make it authentic, as opposed to the ‘nice to have’ add-on that many companies veer towards. At our company, we never make a claim that we cannot substantiate. This is a brand value that demands an overwhelming amount of personal commitment, but one that we feel defines all we do from a sustainable perspective, and one we’re proud to have achieved.
Steven Macatonia is co-founder of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.
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