Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Relationship Coffee and Facebook Friends

For the past three weeks I have had this issue eating away at me.  I keep pushing it aside, but then something happens and makes my wheels start turning again.  As I normally do, let me start with a little background/history.
About three weeks ago, a journalist did a short story about Cuvee Coffee and a couple other roasters here in Austin.  The story was all about Fair Trade, Direct Trade…you know, the usual buzzwords.  The message was completely diluted and inaccurate, but not because she is a bad writer.  It is because she needed sound bites in order to take a very complex subject and simplify it into a few sentences.  No big deal.  These things happen and I moved on.
Last week I attended Barista Nation in Dallas, TX.  One of the tracks was about “Relationship Coffee & Direct Trade.”  The talk was good and the farmer (that the presenter is buying from) was there (which was really great because I have know & been cupping coffee with Ernesto for the past 6 years).  Then a question from the audience about “Direct Trade.”  That is when things got derailed.  I listened to the speaker say that he did not think it was that important to make personal visits. Then came all of the things I have heard over and over like, “my business is small” or “I have a family” – all of the why I can’t travel excuses.
Lastly was an article I read online about a new shop opening up in Dallas.  The article was very well written and the message was wonderful.  Problem one is that the roaster the shop is using started talking about “going beyond Fair Trade” and “Direct Trade.”  Problem two is that I know for a fact there is no substance behind it.
As the buzzwords “direct” and “relationship” permeate the specialty coffee industry, a lot of people grab those terms in order to use them as marketing and they end up meaning nothing.  The word relationship becomes…well… meaningless.  I compare this with Facebook “friends.”  It’s like, oh man, I went to grade school with this person and even though I have not talked to them in 30 years…click “friend.”  Personally, I have hundreds of Facebook friends, but only 4 are true friends.  The rest are acquaintances.
In closing here are a few points:
1.       You can still have great coffee even if it is not Direct Trade
2.       Meeting a farmer at an SCAA event or Roasters Guild Origin Trip, does not qualify as a relationship
3.       Just because an importer has a direct relationship with a farm and gives you all of the vital information, that does not equal a relationship.  This is not the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
4.       If you have to use caveats or explain how it sort of is a direct relationship, but not exactly, it is NOT.
5.       A copy of an importer contract does not show the price to farmer so stop misleading people with the price paid to the importer.
6.       Stop disrespecting the pioneers of Direct Trade and everyone who follows the model as it was originally defined/intended.  It’s like saying you were a Navy SEAL when you were not…OK, maybe not exactly like that, but you get the idea.
7.       If you want to have a real direct relationship, then do it.  No one is stopping you.  And stop using excuses like time and money.  Lots of people find a way.  If it is truly important, you will too.


  1. Well said my friend. I so agree with you.

  2. I am the developer of CoffeeGuru for iPhone, a coffeehouse finder. It emphasizes those roasters who call themselves "Direct Trade", about 46 in all. While doing research for the app I discovered that there is no Direct Trade standard within the industry. Also, while some publish information regarding their Direct Trade practices, others give no evidence or information to the public but call themselves "Direct Trade", "Direct Relationship" or other terms.
    It's quite frustrating. Unfortunately, determining which is truly Direct Trade and which is not is beyond the scope of this app, but the real issue is that there isn't an accepted method within the coffee roasting community what constitutes Direct Trade.
    Some Direct Trade roasters have taken the initiative and have worked together attempting to set an industry standard. For example PT’s and Intelligentsia have established specific Direct Trade criteria. Counter Culture uses a 3rd party certification process.
    I agree that the best method is for roasters to spend the time establishing direct relationships but I don't think that's realistic for all. What about the small coffeeshop that roasts their own, wants to do the right thing but has to worry about their margins? What about the micro roasters who have very small client lists?
    I propose that there needs to be a reasonable and certifiable Direct Trade standard that both large and small roasters can afford. Looking to the wine industry, the evolution of “Meritage” wines is an interesting example.

    Meritage is used mostly by California wineries to denote red and white Bordeaux-style wines. It is a blend of grapes using at least two specific bordeaux varietals. In order to display the term on a bottle, winemakers must license the Meritage trademark, a proprietary name, from its owner, the Meritage Alliance.

    Begun in 1988, the Alliance initially focussed on policing their trademark. Eleven years later there were only 22 members. Shifting its focus to education and marketing, the Association grew to over 250 wineries by 2009. Fees for membership are $1.00 per case of wine, capped at $500 per vintage.

    So what can we learn from this example? Here’s what I think Direct Trade roasters should consider:

    -Establish standards set by roaster representatives within the industry. They should be fair for roasters of all sizes and, at the same time, acknowledge the goals of protecting the enviornment and livlihood of farmers and producing the world’s best beans.

    -Trademark a term. Establish a proprietary name that represents Direct Trade

    -Keep fees low

    -Educate and market to the public using an association of Direct Trade roasters, in other words a “Direct Trade Alliance” paid for by fees collected.

    Anyway, just one person's take on things. I think we both want the same thing..... true direct relationships that benefit producers and coffee that's world class.