On Green Buying – Part Four: Why Bother?

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Suneal from the Roasters Pack asks: why do you want to do direct trade? If you have an importer who is good right? Why bother with the hassle of direct trade? What is the value for you?

Really great question following my two-part tirade on fair trade and direct trade terminology. I very much align myself (and by extension Cut’s green buying program) with the authors of the study referenced in those past emails (or in this case, blog posts). They see Direct Trade as a totally noble and very worthy pursuit but one that is ultimately flawed because it is a private sector creation that is self-governed and contingent on a very loose set of mandates. There is no policing or penalties for misuse. Hence the gondola-esque downward slide from pioneers like Counter Culture – who continue to work extensively on the ground with farms – to Target having a “direct trade” coffee with zero information beyond “central America” and a fancy sticker.

So to Suneal’s question: why would I peruse it? Well, all buying practices (regardless of using designated terms like “direct trade”) rely on some level of internally established organizational and institutional policy. I have touched upon Cut’s several times in these emails: we seek to work with farms who maintain progressive policies on environmental and social fronts. This ranges according to region and scale but includes protection of natural forests, water conservation, sustainable farming, paying hourly rather than by weight, creating infrastructure for workers (like schools or medical clinics) and establishing progressive gender policies. Ultimately, the best way to achieve these goals would be to work directly with the farmer. Opening communication narrows the gap.

A two-way road links the practices of the roaster to the deep-seeded knowledge of farms and cooperatives. Long-term trade relationships mean the elements you taste in the cup – the choices in varietals, growing conditions, approaches to harvest, the washing, the processing, the drying, and the shipping – are perfected through the feedback loop crop-to-crop and year-to-year. There is assurance to the farmers that they are paid appropriately for their extensive work and experience. And at both ends, there is oversight. The partners can guarantee set levels for social, environmental, and labour practices.

In those past emails (again, blog posts…), I discussed a set of emergent green importers (Red Fox Merchants, Souvenir et al) who break away from trade models built around volume and exploitation. Instead, people like Red Fox’s Aleco deal personally with a very select set of farms. Cut may never grow to the point where we can operate on a total Direct Trade level, so thankfully we can access these coffees by way of these importers. And to reiterate my argument from that past dispatch, transparency and honesty on this front goes a long way and is much more meaningful than badges or stickers.

tl;dr: ideally we would be 100% direct trade because the guarantee of quality and social policy is so valuable. Logistically, we are not large enough to operate at that level. So we will continue to work with importers who align with the core values of our program and we will use transparency to communicate that to our wholesale partners.