Drink Local, Ditch Fair Trade? Why Some Roasters Say Direct Trade is Better

Drink Local, Ditch Fair Trade? Why Some Roasters Say Direct Trade is Better

In the realm of specialty coffee, there are a lot of terms that are thrown around, and not a lot of them correlate to the consumer's impressions. As a coffee enthusiast and someone who cares about the sustainability of coffee farmers around the world, I started asking farmers about Fair Trade coffee. In my recent trips to farms in Colombia, I got a unique response I wasn’t expecting. When I asked the owner of Paisa Coffee, Yolima, an exporter/importer, she had mixed opinions.  Yolima represents small family farms, and though she likes the concept of Fair Trade, oftentimes it's not good for the coffee farmers. Yolima grew up on a coffee farm in Paisa Colombia and has seen firsthand the effects of Fair Trade. Yolima moved to the United States and now purchases green coffee, and oversees the processing, exportstion, and importation of that coffee.

When it comes to fair trade coffee there are a few things that are unique to this industry. The primary issue is who is certified and who issues the certifications. In coffee-producing countries, the responsibility is on the farmer to be certified. Additionally, the cooperatives or farm organizations are the ones that  issue the certification. This means the cooperatives are determining what’s fair, not the farmers. Alternatively, if a third-party organization such as the World Coffee Organization or Specialty Coffee Association were to determine fair prices and fair practices, then the farmer could get a fairer deal. 

Another challenge with Fair Trade is the way price is established. A base rate is set in US Dollars. As currency rates change, fair trade prices can drop below market value. T

Additionally, transparency is important. One of the main purposes of Fair Trade is to assure the farmers are being treated fairly. Oftentimes, the beans you are consuming aren’t traceable. Coops will combine beans from a specific region, which isn’t an issue in and of itself, however, the coop controls the price, selects beans to buy and sell, and issues the certificates. This allows the coop or farm organization to select the price they pay the farms.

Lastly, becoming Fair Trade certified is costly for small farms. For a lot of small farms, the investment and paperwork aren’t worth it given that they may not get any difference in price when they take their crops to market. 

So how do we buy great coffee while still supporting the farmers and not over paying? A way to ensure both quality and ethical treatment is to buy from small-batch roasters that have transparency in where they source their green coffee. Rather than buying fair trade coffees, Yolima is passionat about roasters buying coffees that are “direct from the farm”.