Coffee Lovers, Do You Know the Difference Between Direct Trade and Fair Trade?

CC BY 2.0. star1152

This infographic, created by Chuck Patton of Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, hopes to clear up any mysteries between the two styles of coffee trading.

It’s a wonderful thing that shoppers are becoming more conscientious about what they buy, asking where and how products are made, but it has also led to a confusing array of terms, labels, and certifications. These range from organic, natural, eco, and green, to bird-friendly, reef-safe, and cruelty-free, with additional certifications from the Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade International, Fair Trade USA, FSC, MSC, etc. The list goes on. It’s hard to know what to look for and what to believe.

Chuck Patton, who owns a coffee company called Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in La Jolla, California, hopes to eliminate some of the confusion between two specific coffee-related terms: direct trade vs. fair trade. As a staunch believer in the power of direct trade to transform the lives of coffee-growers in Central America while providing the highest quality coffee for buyers in North America, Patton has created the following infographic to explain how direct trade differs from fair trade.

While direct trade may conjure up mental images of coffee roasters heading south with suitcases full of money to be swapped out for green coffee beans, that is not the case. As Patton describes in this 17-minute video, direct trade still requires a complex chain of support, including contractors that connect buyers with farmers, quality controllers, exporters, freight forwarders, and customs navigators. Despite this, direct trade offers more of a collaborative relationship with independent farmers than with fair trade does, which typically works through cooperatives.

fair trade vs direct trade infographic

© Bird Rock Coffee Roasters (used with permission)

Patton’s infographic is interesting and helpful, but I’m not convinced that direct trade needs to be pitted against fair trade in this way. Each represents an effort to create the best and fairest trade relationships possible. I also doubt that direct trade would work as well among smallholder farmers in rural Africa as it does in Central America. It's my understanding that African coffee growers depend heavily on cooperatives to pool their harvests and guarantee a secure income each year. (Watch the excellent documentary 'Black Gold' for more on African coffee growers.)

Why can't the direct and fair trade models can’t work together? Level Ground Trading Company, based in British Columbia, promotes their coffee as being “direct fair trade,” which means that they have a personal relationship with farmers while simultaneously guaranteeing a minimum fair price for coffee and investing in community development. That seems ideal to me.