Have you noticed all those certifications on your coffee bag? ‘Organic’, ‘Ecofriendly’, ‘Fair trade’, but what do any of these certifications mean? Certifications like fair trade are supposed to be a way to give more information about the products you buy but they often only end up confusing consumers. This is the same with fair trade coffee.
Understanding fair trade coffee will help you make informed buying decisions and can also lead to more questions, like what is fair trade vs direct trade coffee. Here’s a quick breakdown of this complex debate.
What Are Fair Trade Coffee Beans?
‘Fair trade’ is a certification awarded by Fair Trade USA which is a non-profit organization that works to improve farmers’ lives and promote ethical labor standards. This applies to all kinds of farming and cultivation, including coffee. As one of the biggest commodities on the global market, coffee employs millions of people, most of whom are doing manual jobs working on farms to grow coffee. A farm with fair trade certification guarantees that the coffee is grown with sustainable, non-exploitative, and ethical labor practices.
Fair trade coffee beans are grown under environmentally sustainable conditions, farmworkers are paid a living wage, and the farm employs ethical business practices. These points together may not account for absolute quality but it does give you an indication of where the coffee came from and the conditions under which it was grown. Fair trade coffee beans can be expected to be of higher quality, but the Fair Trade organization doesn’t actually account for quality- only growing conditions, labor practices, and a commitment to sustainability.
Difference Between Fair Trade and Non-Fair Trade Coffee
The primary difference is transparency. With fair trade coffee beans, you’re assured that your coffee is grown under ethical conditions. This is important to many who prefer a guilt-free cup, with no need to worry if people were exploited to give you this drink. Non-fair trade coffee is any coffee without a fair trade certification, so you have no guarantee on how the coffee is grown.
Fair Trade Coffee Prices Compared To Normal Prices
As you may expect, fair trade coffee beans tend to be more expensive. Rather than seeing this as a negative thing, it’s actually a positive: it means that you’re helping pay coffee farmers and workers a living wage. The difference between fair trade coffee prices to normal prices is usually not unbearable and knowing that you’re helping to promote transparency and sustainability is invaluable.
Are There Arguments Against Fair Trade Coffee?
Fair trade has come under a lot of scrutiny over the years. The most common arguments against fair trade coffee state that fair trade coffee actually promotes over-commodification of coffee, it ignores quality, and it can be hard to implement in different countries.
A major problem with ‘fair trade’ is that most people don’t know what it means and it’s become more of marketing jargon than actionable change. This can confuse consumers who may expect one thing out of fair trade coffee, and get something else entirely. Secondly, a fair trade certification doesn’t account for the quality of the coffee. Of course, well grown coffee will always be good but even then, fair trade coffee isn’t necessarily of higher quality. Many farmers and experts say this is over-commodification and ignores the art and craft behind growing delicious coffee.
Lastly, fair trade coffee requires more middlemen and more fees for farmers, importers, and roasters. This can reduce the final cut received by farms.
Is Direct Trade The Future Of Coffee?
Direct trade is more of a business practice and not an actual certification. Direct trade is a practice where farmers sell directly to roasters, without importers or middlemen. The obvious benefit of this is that farmers stand to earn a lot more when they trade directly with roasters.
The goal of direct trade is essentially different from fair trade coffee. With direct trade, quality is the foremost criterion. This pushes farmers to invest in new techniques as well as to experiment with their crops. Direct trade promotes long term relationship-building between producers and roasters, which leads to improved farming conditions as well as higher quality, traceable, and sustainable coffee.
Direct trade coffee is often sustainable, much like fair trade coffee, since direct trade coffee is mostly shade-grown and grown with other crops in ecologically balanced environments. Another interesting result of direct trade is that it shifts the responsibility onto roasters to engage with farms that employ ethical labor practices and sustainable farming instead of farmers having this additional responsibility.
Is direct trade the future? It certainly is quite promising on various fronts. With direct trade, we can build a closer, more trustworthy coffee industry while employing the best of fair trade- the focus on ethics and sustainability.