Thursday, July 22, 2010

Direct Trade Coffee

Most of the coffee I buy is Fair Trade, which means it comes from cooperatives of small-scale farmers and meets the certification requirements of Transfair or TransfairUSA. I plan to continue buying most of my coffee this way, because of all I have heard, read, and seen about this model.

A number of people I have met in the industry -- including quite reputable buyers and some of the farmers themselves -- have criticized some of the certification requirements and the cost of the process. These criticisms are more common when -- as now -- arabica prices are relatively high.

I continue to support Fair Trade, but I have been very intrigued by the direct-trade model. One thing I have noticed is that every direct-trade program I have seen is internal to a single company. The purpose of this posting is to introduce readers to the direct-trade programs of two companies for which I have a great deal of respect: Counter Culture Coffee and sweet maria's. Each makes the case for direct trade in its own way. Interestingly, sweet maria's is the more critical of the two when it comes to the FT model, even though this company does still use it.

Some Fair Trade purists call of direct trade the "trust me" model, and there is some truth to it: it is fair to scrutinize companies that run their own direct trade programs and ask them tough questions. By the same token, a Transfair label alone does not put a company above reproach; some cooperatives are operated more democratically than others, and some buyers go further than others in ensuring the integrity of the transactions.

Eventually I hope to move beyond certifications, to a scenario in which we know farmers are being treated fairly, whether on large farms or small, whether labeled fair or not. But I'm afraid that is a distant future indeed.


  1. You know, there are a few farmer-owned operations here in the USA, including Pachamama Coffee Co-op which is owned entirely by farmers. Seems more efficient to buy from farmers when possible.

  2. Thanks, Leon. A very good model:

  3. And thanks again: I've just added this company to my roaster page, along with a bit of economic theory. I'll be sure to place an order with Pachamama soon.


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