Direct Trade emerges with Third Wave pioneers like Intelligentsia and Counter Culture. A big part of the reason that I am currently pondering (and boring you with) these models is the recent and very excellent publication “Problems with Firm-Led Voluntary Sustainability Schemes: The Case of Direct Trade Coffee” (available open access here). The authors outline how the Direct Trade label is increasingly “muddled” because “the term is used in three different ways: first, as a general concept for coffee sourcing; second, as a marketing strategy; and third, as a voluntary scheme” (2).
The focus on the voluntary nature is important because there is no mandatory or regulatory dimension to direct trade. It is simply a self-created criteria to ensure some level of ongoing and traceable contact with producers. In its best iterations, it should provide financial incentives for farms with a focus on long term sustainability. However, the authors illuminate that the term’s overuse in marketing (logos on bags, wide adoption across industry, vague understandings, etc) has watered down its principle aspects and because it is a creation of the private sector with no oversight or governance, there are no repercussions or penalties for its misuse.
Essentially, due to co-optation and internally facing compliance, the term no longer reflects any definite or common standards. Even in Scandinavia, where it is trademarked term, the voluntary nature of direct trade fails to guarantee solid sourcing practices (19). This leaves the consumer in the role of industry monitor, which is certainly flawed.
For Cut, the difficult part of sourcing direct is scale. Effective direct trade typically means getting a shipping container of coffee. You can buy one or two bags, but as producers often tell me that does little compared to volume purchases. Accordingly, for it it to have real impact, you need to be roasting enough to use roughly 300 bags of green before it starts to fade. This Fall, we will be featuring our first Direct Trade from Brazil! We are working with Carmo Coffees (who we have been buying from for several years through importers) to get a whole crop! Very exciting. The other direct trade offerings were facilitated by Mark Froud (pictured above with Nelson Ramirez). He lives in Honduras and happily describes himself as “less of an importer and more a salesman for his friends”. By virtue of his connections, we are able to access coffee straight from Katia Duke and Nelson Ramirez, which we hope to do for many years to come.
Allow me to conclude these ramblings with my general mandate: I seek to work with farms with progressive policies on environmental and social fronts. This means everything from protection of natural forest to water conservation and sustainable farming, as well as farms who pay hourly rather than by weight, create infrastructure for workers like schools or medical clinics, utilize progressive gender policies and so on. To this end, I work with extremely solid importers like Red Fox Merchants or Apex Coffee. They share our values and, most importantly, pay producers properly for their labour.
I always want to be transparent and open to everyone who buys and brews Cut. So if you ever have questions or concerns, I am more than happy to discuss our green buying. In that vein and for the curious, by working directly with Mark, we purchased our Honduras offerings for what currently converts to 4.86 USD per pound. As for that certification-free, logo-less Kenya? We pay 5.23 USD per pound.