How would you like your coffee, Direct Trade or Fair Trade?

Most conscientious consumers already look for fair trade articles on the shelves: chocolate, tea, fruit, marmalade and coffee. When buying fair trade, you show solidarity with workers' rights worldwide and you ensure that the people who made the products get a fair deal and earn enough to make a living for themselves and their families.


Fairtrade is a large organization with a mission to support a sustainable and financially stable standard of living for the farmers (producers), importers, exporters and roasters (distributors). To be eligible for certification, producers must meet certain requirements, apply for the program and pay a fee to be licensed as a fair trade company. In return, they receive exposure to a large market of consumers, protection of workers’ rights and the environment, payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in their business or community projects.


But if we really want to make a difference in the developing world, isn't it time to go beyond fair trade and get involved with farmers directly?

Over the last ten years, artisan coffee roasters such as Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Theta Ridge and Counter Culture in the USA, and Pact and Union in the UK, have pioneered direct trade as an alternative trading model. What is the difference with fair trade? 


While it is difficult to discuss fair trade or direct trade in broad, general terms given the nuances and individual interpretations inherent to each model, a big difference is that direct trade is not run through an overarching organization and there are only two parties involved: farmers and roasters. Direct trade* roasters want to focus on the relationship between the roaster and the producer with an emphasis on price and quality. Because direct trade importers visit the plantations themselves, they have more control over quality, environmental concerns and labour conditions. An added benefit of working directly with farmers is the ability to spot the needs that arise within a community that would improve farming practices, and subsequently the quality of a crop. True, without a certification process there is no "regulation", or formal requirements from a sustainability perspective, but many of the farms are compliant at those levels regardless. The guiding principles are high quality, social responsibility, trust and pride in their work. 


And while fair trade products can also be sold on the shelf to consumers at a much higher prices than what importers pay for them (while the farmers don't see a proportional profit); with direct trade, to decide on a price, farmers and roasters come to an agreement about what the crop is worth and the farmer is paid a price linked to the quality of their crop. Intelligentsia, for instance, pays growers 25% over Fairtrade prices. The overall objective of direct trade is to eliminate the power imbalances that exist in traditional supply chains. Direct trade is an approach taken to build mutually beneficial and respectful relationships between businesses and producers, by fairly distributing benefits and involving producers in decision making processes. 


This direct trade principle is a step closer to what the Summer Foundation calls 'Associations': Round Table discussions between producers, traders and consumers who, through discussion, try to meet everyone's needs and fairly reward everyone’s share in the production process. These consultations are a precondition for achieving a healthy economy.


"So, I'll have my coffee direct trade please, black with one sugar." 


* The term direct trade is not exclusively used for coffee, but can also be seen in tea and cocoa trade. 


Elske van der Horst

November 2015


Sources: Huffington PostPeople & PlanetFairtrade, Slow Down CoffeeThe GuardianStone Cutters Café & Roastery


Image: Fairtrade New Zealand


Elske  |  2015 11 17  |  Permalink  |  Share


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