Music mogul Paul Birch earned his place in music history in 1979, when he founded indie label Revolver Records, which has more than 3,500 albums in its back catalogue and notched up a series of famous signings, including Manchester legends the Stone Roses.
Now, its co-operatively run sister company has a fast-growing range of Fairtrade coffee, clothing and other ethically-produced products. Here, he speaks with Co-operative News about his move to the Fairtrade business model and his hopes for the future of the sector.
The Revolver Co-operative was set up in 2011 with support from the Co-operative Group, Co-operatives UK and financial help from the Co-operative Loan Fund. Based in Wolverhampton, it runs in tandem with Revolver Records, which continues to operate as a limited company.
Mr Birch, the director of the venture, admits the decision to focus on Fairtrade products and set up a co-op was a radical departure. Now 59, he recalls: “I was brought up in Croydon in the 1960s and in those days the music industry was an exciting way out of the suburbs.
“I was a DJ on the Northern Soul circuit for a bit then I had the opportunity to do promotion as a ‘plugger’ for different labels and artists. One of my first acts was The Goodies… Then I worked with bands such as ELO, Genesis and Eurythmics before setting up my own label.
“We did a lot of wild punk stuff – they were exciting days.”
At one time, Revolver Records had 40 staff and representatives in 35 countries, including Japan, the US and Canada. Paul studied for a business degree funded by Sony and undertook a training programme in New York. But with the advent of the internet and digital technology, he realised times were changing.
“The problem with the record industry is that it did not change and adapt like other creative media,” he says. “We could see the writing on the wall with the prospect of things fizzling out completely within 10 to 20 years.
“Six years ago, we became progressively more interested in the Fairtrade movement and the concept of fairly traded goods and services. Our first foray was into the successful marketing of Fairtrade T-shirts but we soon decided to widen our product range to include coffee sourced directly from co-operatives in Columbia, Tanzania and Uganda.”
Last year, the co-operative held its first AGM. It has five directors, 23 members and maintains links with 11 coffee producers in countries including Colombia, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Costa Rica. Turnover is still modest at around £100,000 a year but Paul and the team have ambitious plans for the future – including a Fairtrade version of the Nespresso pods recently promoted by George Clooney.
Some 25% of profits are already reinvested into the producers’ communities to improve the lives of women and children through better health and education.
In the UK, the co-operative works with charities including Action Aid. It raised £60,000 for MENCAP in 2012 through the sale of a single released by its sister company on iTunes, featuring former Co-operative Group chief executive Peter Marks on drums.
Paul, who lives in Wolverhampton with his wife and three children, is a practising Christian and the product range also includes Christian Aid merchandise.
Cathedral Coffee is sold by the Diocese of Lichfield with 50p from every sale going to its sister diocese in South Africa, where a community project is helping to transform lives devastated by HIV/AIDs.
Revolver World coffee is currently sold in around 200 retail outlets run by Midcounties and Heart of England co-operatives, plus 50 other shops in Wiltshire and Shropshire. It was the ‘official’ brew at cafes during Co-operative Congress 2011 and the ICA Conference held in Manchester in 2012 as part of the International Year of the Co-operative.
In the future, Paul Birch would like to see co-operative alternatives giving high street competitors such as Starbucks a run for their money with Fairtrade coffee shops.
“People should have a real alternative to Costa and Starbucks, so we are looking at opportunities to use the Revolver brand and offer it as a free licence to roll out to coffee shops in co-op retail outlets with help and support from us.”
He adds: “The world of coffee is still a bit like wine used to be in the 1970s, when we just had a choice of red or white. There is huge potential for teaching people about different coffees and the different taste of coffee grown in places like Colombia and Ethiopia.”
Since its launch a couple of years ago, Revolver has forged strong links with a co-operative of 800 farmers in Tarrazu, Costa Rica, where producers offer housing and food to their workers along with a minimum wage.
Paul says. “Our long-term goal is to fund the construction of a school, hospital or other community building in an African nation through our social justice programme, so we are working towards that with funds ring-fenced for that specific purpose.
“Fairtrade has gone a long way towards putting right some of the wrongs in developing countries – but obviously not far enough and there is still a lot of work to do.”
Find out more about Revolver coffee at www.revolverworld.com.
FIND OUT MORE: View the full Fairtrade collection
In this article
- Cathedral Coffee
- Christian Aid
- Co-operative Loan Fund
- Costa Rica
- ethically-produced products
- Fair trade
- Fairtrade certification
- George Clooney
- Midcounties Co-operative
- Paul Birch
- Peter Marks
- Revolver Co-operative
- South Africa