On Green Buying – Part Three: Evaluating Claims

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In last week’s email (or in this case, blog), I outlined the general differences in prices and practices for c-market, fair trade, and direct trade coffee. Part of the discussion was about how the voluntary nature of direct trade places the consumer in the role of adjudicator. And I received a great follow-up question: “any tips on judging the validity of direct trade claims?”

The article at the heart of last week’s email was “Problems with Firm-Led Voluntary Sustainability Schemes: The Case of Direct Trade Coffee” (also worth re-posting a link to the open access article: here). It outlines problematic use of direct trade stemming from the “lack of enforcement ” which fosters “an environment that makes co-optation possible” (20). The authors point to Target’s ‘direct trade’ brand Archer Farms as a particularly flawed use of the term as “products were not all traceable to their specific origins, not even to a country level” and they incorrectly used identical information for multiple origins.

This is obviously one way to spot a co-option of the term. Direct trade should not be linked to a vague region or country but rather an individual farm and specific producer. Archer is an easy target (there is a couple of puns somewhere here) but it becomes more difficult when you scale down to more specialty roasters. A good general rule with smaller roasters is to consider logistics. Reviewing Cut’s own timeline to direct trade last week, I emphasized the size requirements of using a shipping container worth of coffee before it fades. While the intention might be there, if a company is relatively new or their account roster is meager, they are likely overstating their sourcing practices with any claims of direct trade. Equally important, check the offer sheet. Direct relations go hand-in-hand with transparency and traceability. When in doubt: ask!

I wanted to add an addendum to last week’s email. There is nothing shameful in working with great importers. Granted, there is a long history of importers who prioritized profits over producers and there continue to be a plethora of companies who exploit farmers. However, the evolution of specialty or third-wave coffee has been multi fold: changing practices at farm level, techniques at the roaster, and the entire experience of cafes. A core aspect behind all of these shifts is an increase in green quality facilitated by either re-invented or brand-new importers. I would love to see the industry foreground these relationships rather than co-opting (and by extension diluting) the term direct trade.