Coffee Trade: Fair vs Direct

October 25, 2011

Here’s a question for you:

Everything I know about Fair Trade I learned from

  1. Kindergarten
  2. Third world farmer
  3. Seattle coffee company that changed coffee culture while burning the beans
  4. Fair trade USA website

In case you didn’t select choice #5, here’s yet another article on the subject, with a comparison to direct trade included. Because, according to Jesse Hirsch in today’s article for Oakland area readers, many consumers still don’t understand the differences.

Hirsch points out a few. Fair trade has been around longer than direct trade and it is credited with bettering the lives of countless farmers from third world nations. It sets standard minimum prices that are considered to be fair to all farmers, and for many crops in addition to coffee. It also helps whole communities due to the surcharge, or about twenty cents a pound, that goes to the community for projects selected by the farmers. These can be anything that improves the community life, be it plumbing projects, schools, roads etc. There’s also a thirty cents per pound charge which goes to promote organic farming practices. So any higher price you pay for Fair-trade goes to the farmer and his entire community while supporting organic farming. To qualify for the perks, the farmers must meet set standards in their ecological and labor practices.

Direct trade, which many roasters prefer to call “relationship coffee”, eliminates the middleman. While Fair-trade still buys through buyers or co-ops, Direct trade coffee is purchased directly by the roaster. He or she might make several trips yearly to the farms, to make sure higher farming standards are followed and to provide input. This in a way results in roaster custom-grown coffee; the roaster acts as consultant to the farmer. One says, “Working directly with the grower ensures the coffee is actually grown sustainably, and the working conditions aren’t subpar. Our prices aren’t cheap, but we can sleep with a clear conscience.” This clear conscience comes with a high price, as roasters have to absorb the travel costs to visit the farms – or pass it on to the consumer.

Basically the difference seems to come down to a matter of who you want to trust and who you want to benefit from your coffee dollars. While Direct trade benefits the farmers, it does nothing for the community as a whole. And either way, the consumer is either trusting the fair-trade certifier or the roaster himself to determine the farming and labor standards. At present, with Fair-trade being the oldest and more widely followed of the two venues, Fair-trade certified is the easiest to find.

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