Direct Trade Coffee Part II: Union Hand-Roasted Coffee

Take a look inside the heart of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee! Lee Hall, an Account Manager for the company, graciously took the time to thoroughly answer Label’s questions on Direct Trade and Union’s ethos.

(Photo: Ethiopian coffee cherries. Photographer: Alan Schaller, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.) 

Q. How did Union Coffee get started and was it the first coffee company to engage in Direct Trade practices? 

A. Our owners, Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia, started Union Hand-Roasted Coffee in 2001 after witnessing the impact of volatile markets on the lives of coffee farmers and seeing how communities suffered from having to accept low prices that did not cover the cost of coffee production. Seventeen years later, we work with more than 20,000 farmers across 14 countries to improve the economic, social and environmental conditions of their coffee production. 

Union weren’t the first to engage in directly traded coffee, but we were certainly pioneers within the UK. During the last decade, specialty roasters wanted to show provenance and traceability of their coffee, and the importers supplying these roasters responded by creating alternative trading initiatives frequently referred to as “Direct Trade”. However there is no commonly agreed definition, and the term covers many different practices with varying degrees of price transparency and farmer participation. Union Direct Trade is a very different approach. We have a Code of Conduct, and a Sustainability Sourcing Manager who undertakes regular Social Audits on the farms, reviewing labour and environment conditions and identifying any weaknesses in procedures or processes where we can help with specific support. Contractual terms of purchase are agreed directly with farmers ensuring 100% transparency and traceability with a minimum price which is always above the Fairtrade minimum price. We work with many types of farm structures; from family-owned estates who employ workers, to formally-organised smallholder cooperatives. We create long-term relationships which give financial security and allow farmers to plan for their future.

Q. What is the 'Union Code of Conduct'?

A. It defines a set of standards for behaviour and working practices that guarantee safe and healthy working conditions. We monitor and evaluate the working lives of farmers and their workers, and also look at sustainable practices on the farms. We undertake social audits to ensure the Code of Conduct is adhered to, and we track progress from year to year. Code of Conduct Compliance is also directly linked to our procurement practices: price premiums, purchase guarantees, access to pre-finance or a combination of these act as a positive incentive and reward for working within the framework.

Q. What do Union Direct Trade social audits involve? 

A. We work with third party certification and in-house auditors to identify issues. We make sure we visit on a regular basis – in 2017 we made 24 visits to producers. Visits include farmworker interviews – including with the most vulnerable, such as migrant and seasonal workers – to identify potential human rights abuses. As an example, recent audits in Finca La Candelaria, Guatemala, found that working conditions for seasonal workers should be improved. New showers and lavatories were built, and covered resting places for lunching were provided. In other instances we take the time to look through a cooperative’s financial records. Understanding the cost structure of cooperatives is needed before we can discuss prices, costs and efficiency improvements - and to ensure the cooperative and its members receive a fair price for their coffee.

Q. What do you do in your role as Account Manager?

A. No two days are the same, but my primary role is to provide support for our wholesale coffee partners, in whatever form that takes. It can be an on-site barista training session for staff members; helping to set up and calibrate coffee machinery for a new café opening; or holding coffee tasting sessions with cafe owners to help them find the right coffee from the twenty or so blends and single-origins that we have to offer. I also coordinate engineer support in the event of machine breakdowns; attend events to promote Union Hand Roasted; and stay abreast of current developments in the industry and local areas to be able to keep my customers informed and up to date.

Photo: Rwandan landscape. Photographer: Alan Schaller, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.

Photo: Rwandan landscape. Photographer: Alan Schaller, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.

Q. On Union Hand-Roasted Coffee's website, it says that the company provides "regular practical support" to coffee farmers; what does this mean exactly?

A. There is no fixed approach to the support we provide, as each community faces its own set of challenges in producing specialty grade coffee! One method is through participatory workshops and farmer-to-farmer training: for example, coffee pickers often get paid by weight and an unripe cherry weighs much less than a ripe one. By demonstrating this, a picker can see that it directly benefits them to only selectively pick the ripe ones (more time-consuming) rather than having to pick nearly twice the number of unripe cherries to reach the same weight. Separate training can focus on environmental issues such as reducing agrochemicals, and waste water treatment. We also provide training in financial management and capacity building, so that farmers can better understand their cost of production and plan investments.

The resulting economic benefits to producers have been profound. When we first started working in Rwanda they didn’t produce any specialty grade coffee. Teaching farmers how to improve quality meant we became the first roasters in the world to source speciality coffee from Rwanda: in 2002 we purchased 50 sacks of coffee (a sack weighs 68kg) from the Maraba Cooperative. Having maintained this relationship for over 15 years we now purchase 600-1200 sacks of coffee every year. 

Q. What do 'ethical sourcing' and 'ethical trade' mean to Union Hand-Roasted Coffee? 

A. It’s what Union is built on! Quality of coffee. Quality of life. Quality of business. These are what underpin Union Direct Trade. Ethical sourcing and trade brings sustainable livelihoods for farmers, and better quality coffee for us to enjoy. We believe in this approach because it is the right thing to do.

Q. Is there anything else you believe it is important for consumers to know about Union Coffee and Direct Trade?

A. Union Direct Trade is about ‘trade, not aid.’ Receiving sustainable prices for their coffee lets farmers build viable livelihoods and have control over investments. Crucially, this is all linked to the quality of coffee, producing a high quality cup of coffee for the consumer.