The Blog

view all

186. How direct is Direct Trade?

2011-07-12 Comments Off on 186. How direct is Direct Trade?

I posted some questions here in June regarding the standards for communication in Direct Trade.  Today I come back to those specific queries, which are not clearly addressed in the prevailing Direct Trade standards for communication.  Last week I summarized of some of emerging Direct Trade standards for quality, price and transparency.  Here are the public commitments made by leading Direct Trade roasters regarding the frequency of their visits to the farms where their coffee is grown, again culled from their respective websites.

These statements all refer to the nature and frequency of direct, in-person roaster communication with growers or smallholder farmer organizations. But in publishing these statements, the roasters are making these same commitments to their customers.

Some make firm minimum commitments, like Intelligentsia: “representatives must visit the farm or cooperative village at least once per harvest season” (italics mine).  Others are less precise, like Cuvee: “a considerable amount of time.”  Still others, like Mad Cap, seem to be stating a principle rather than defining a clear performance objective — “We purchase as much of our coffee directly from the farmer as possible” — and acknowledging that they don’t source all their coffees directly.  They hold up mere traceability as a kind of substitute for direct trading relationships when they are unable to visit the farms where their coffee is grown — a significantly lower standard, in my mind.

By some standards the Mad Cap statement may be considered the weakest of the commitments identified here.  But I admire its candor and honesty.  And I suspect this statement of Direct Trade principles may be a more accurate characterization of the approach to coffee sourcing among the growing ranks of roasters who refer to themselves as “Direct Trade.”  My original post on this issue was inspired by the realization that roasters positioning themselves as direct trade and creating the impression that they source all their coffee directly aren’t necessarily doing so.

Why am I staying after this issue so persistently?  Because I think that direct relationships between coffee growers and roasters may be the most important single aspect of all approaches to sustainability in trade.  And because when roasters gain advantage in the marketplace on the basis of their trading model and their claims about the “directness” of their trading relationships, I think they should make good on those claims.  Or use language that more accurately reflects the degree of directness in their trading relationships.