Direct Trade coffee

What is Direct Trade coffee?

Direct trade is a term used by coffee roasters who buy straight from the growers, cutting out both the traditional middleman buyers and sellers and also the organizations that control certifications such as Fair Trade and Bird Friendly, for example. Direct trade proponents say their model is the best because they build mutually beneficial and respectful relationships with individual producers or cooperatives in the coffee-producing countries. Some roasters do it because they are dissatisfied with the third-party certification programs, while others want to have more control over aspects ranging from the quality of the coffee, to social issues, or environmental concerns.

Some roasters use "direct trade" in more specific ways. The Chicago-based company Intelligentsia, which roasts coffee and sells it by mail, in addition to operating coffee shops, has trademarked the term Intelligentsia Direct Trade to promote its direct business relationships with growers. Counter Culture Coffee, another roaster, established in 2008 what it calls Counter Culture Direct Trade Certification. Like Fair Trade, Counter Culture sets a minimum price it pays, but it also establishes a quality standard. Also, unlike the Fair Trade certification, Counter Culture does not require growers to be part of a cooperative, a requirement that rankles some independent-minded, successful growers.

What are the environmental standards?

Intelligentsia says it examines farms to ensure that "healthy environmental practices" are followed. Inspections address such issues as use of herbicides and pesticides, disposal of wastewater, and maintenance of forest cover.

Other approaches

Numerous companies and organizations take a variety of approaches to direct trade. There is no way to list them all here, but below are a few examples.

Cooperative Coffees is a cooperative of 16 roasters around the United States (plus a handful in Canada) that buys green beans directly from growers in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Each roaster operates independently. Some tout the Fair Trade logo, others emphasize selling organic coffee.

Then there are others, like Dean's Beans, a Massachusetts roaster whose founder is not reticent to tell you he's a former environmental lawyer. Actually, he's not reticent at all. Dean's Beans is quite assertive about promoting itself as going beyond Fair Trade standards and selling only organic coffee and only "fair trade" coffee as Dean's Beans defines fair trade. Dean's says its standards are even better for producers than other certifications.

The company is also not afraid to take shots at the big guys who buy a Fair Trade certified coffee as a small percentage of their total purchases but make much of their social responsibility in their marketing efforts.

On the opposite U.S. coast is a family-owned roaster, the Rogers Family Company in California, that roasts more than 30 million pounds of coffee a year and spends $1 million a year on projects to improve the living conditions of workers on the coffee farms it buys from. But it has also gone a step beyond this kind of direct-trade involvement and actually owns farms in Central America, giving the company total control over environmental and labor conditions there. Rogers has also undertaken efforts to become carbon-neutral.

With that flexibility also comes fuzziness. While other standards may spell out exact requirements for buffer zones and percentage of forest cover, Intelligentsia specifically says its standards are "not dogmatic" and recognize the need for different standards in different growing environments. As a result, some Intelligentsia Direct Trade coffees may be organic, but others are not.

In the case of Counter Culture Coffee Direct Trade Certification, environmental standards are not among the four criteria outlined in the program.

What are the labor standards?

Intelligentsia pays growers 25 percent above the Fair Trade price. Beyond that, it takes a flexible approach to labor issues, as it does with environmental issues. The guideline is economic sustainability. Are all parties benefiting from the coffee trade?

Counter Culture currently pays a minimum price of $1.60 per pound as part of its direct trade certification. Labor standards are not addressed.

What's the downside?

Whether in the case of Intelligentsia's Direct Trade label specifically, or other coffee roasters and vendors in general, the consumer must believe in the company. If you trust the company to stick to its own standards, without third-party certification (and if you agree with their standards), then all's well.

But there's no outside enforcement, so standards could be changed or weakened at any time.

Counter Culture has tried to address this fundamental weakness by hiring a U.S.D.A.-certified firm, Quality Certification Services (QCS), to partner with Counter Culture and run the program. This gives the customer at least some level of reassurance that the standards are truly being met.

How does the coffee I buy get a direct trade certification?

Intelligentsia sends its coffee buyers to visit each grower or cooperative at least once each year for an inspection. Counter Culture certifies suppliers in its direct trade program once a year and Counter Culture staff visit each grower at least once every two years, but the program requires "personal and direct communication" with the farmers on a more frequent basis.

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