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More often than not, a little bit of time spent on Google or a perusing a company’s web site will help an interested consumer distinguish fact from fantasy. I actually put a full scan of my passport on our website at one point just for the people who wanted to go through and see all those stamps. We usually provide a whole lot of background on each coffee we sell--all it takes is a few clicks to access photo galleries, farm data, and personal accounts of farm visits. And at some point, it does make sense to put some faith in companies (at least those that are privately held--public ownership has a way of changing the rules of the game) that appear to have a substantive track record, the same way we put faith in some leaders who have earned our trust through their actions. The snake charmers will come and go, and occasionally we may get mislead. But by cultivating a reasonable dose of skepticism, paying attention and seeking detail beyond the sloganeering consumers will succeed in finding the products they want to support much more often than they fail. Blind support for ANY label should be reserved for the careless or the unwise. I encourage coffee drinkers who care about farming conditions, environmental stewardship, and high quality to pay less attention to the sustainability catch-phrases that are becoming a dime-a-dozen in specialty coffee and instead spend their energy looking for evidence of substance behind the label. Most of the time it is easier than one might think to gain an informed opinion about how serious any given company is about their quality and sustainability claims, just by poking around on the internet for a while and by asking questions. And I would submit that you can usually start with price...that can serve as a useful initial litmus test. Running a serious Direct Trade model is not cheap, and solving the numerous sustainability issues at the farm level always requires some additional investment and results in higher production costs. Maximizing quality on a farm means even further increases in cost. For these reasons you should expect to pay more if you are looking for a genuinely better coffee that hits all the marks in the sustainability checklists. If something sounds too good to be true it usually is, right? Specialty coffee is no different. If the cost on a coffee advertised as being of great quality, sustainable, fair, farm friendly, bird friendly, earth friendly...and so on...is only marginally above the costs of a commercial coffee that makes no such claims, you probably have reason to be wary.
thanks for listening,
Geoff WattsIntelligentsia Coffee
The point made at the end of your DT analysis is a valid one. In the best of worlds, all companies purporting to source coffee using a Direct Trade model would be by default doing the work required to make it valid. They would be motivated by personal ethics, visions of a more sustainable industry, a desire for better quality and a sense of social responsibility rather than seeking only marketing gain. It is certainly true that there are some companies out there mislabeling their coffees as Direct Trade, either because they don’t really get what it means or because they are intentionally greenwashing their products. But that’s the way of the world--if something appears to have a sales or marketing value there always will be those who seek to take advantage irresponsibly, driven by nothing more than an interest in financial gain. Even the large certification companies have to deal with this...cheaters exist in every stage of the coffee supply chain, and there are farms and farmer groups out there with certifications that they really shouldn’t have. But that doesn’t invalidate the certification programs, as I’m sure that in the majority of cases the compliance is legit. It’s just a recognition of reality--we live in a large world and absolute control over a program, a concept, or a philosophy is probably not something that can be had. Yet there is a solution: consumers can, if they choose, take the time to look past the label for evidence of substance. They can ask questions when things are unclear. Our collective Spidey-sense/BS meter is actually pretty powerful. As a wiser man than me once said, “You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time”. (continued in next post...3000 characters translates to fewer words than I had supposed..)
When it comes to environmental and social standards, there are certain things that have traditionally been problematic in coffee production and we focus especially on those that make the biggest impact. Water waste and the pollution that can result when it is not dealt with properly is is perhaps the number one concern, so we always start there. Reckless degradation of existing ecosystems or habitats so as to create high-density full sun monoculture plantations is another detrimental practice that has arisen in coffee production in the past, and we avoid working with farmers who do not see the problem with this. On the social front, low wages for seasonal pickers doesn’t work either. Not only is it unsustainable from a community perspective, that sort of approach to minimizing production cost is a major obstacle to attaining quality. We monitor these things, and will not choose to work with farmers who cannot understand the need to support the people that make the harvest possible and pay them rates that encourage better quality work.
How do we know that the farmers we work with are adhering to these principles? That’s yet another reason why regular travel and time spent on the farms themselves during harvest season is crucial to the model. There is no substitute for eyes on the ground. We could perhaps hire a local agency or certifier to go to a farm and run through a checklist, but the reality is that I feel much more confident when it is our own staff that makes these assessments. The certification game can be a real racket sometimes. That’s not to say certifications aren’t good or are patently unreliable--they play an important role in the industry. They cover a whole lot of ground and service a very large swath of the industry, providing a degree of assurance for buyers who cannot spend the time themselves or whose volumes make it impossible to monitor things on their own--but are not nearly as relevant when looking at acute situations where there is long-term, active collaboration between roaster and producer. And there can be crossover...many of the farms and farmer organizations we work with are already being certified by other groups--Fair Trade, RFA, Utz Kapeh, Cafe Practices--which is good, but we choose not to advertise that in most cases because it distracts from the message we are trying to send about the value of DT and the role of sensory quality in differentiating coffees. (continued in next post...last one, I promise ;)
If coffee quality is the target there are economic considerations that are unavoidable. Simply put, to create better coffees means spending more on their production at just about every step. It makes no sense to improve coffee quality if there is no improved return, and given the relatively slim historical margins few farmers or millers would take the risk of increasing their costs without knowing that there were reliable premiums awaiting them once the harvest was ready. For this reason we have to be prepared to pay more for such coffees, and to do so consistently. Hence the 25% above FT, which is really just a reference point. In practice the premiums we pay usually range from fifty to two-hundred percent above the FT minimum. Fair Trade is the most recognizable standard in the industry today, and it serves as a very useful reference when explaining our purchasing standards to the public--that’s why we include FT standards as a comparison when talking about Direct Trade. (continued in next post...)
Nice article Cari...quite succinct. There are a few things I feel are worth adding to give more insight into what it is that Direct Trade means in context. For starters, Direct Trade is not a program or certification scheme in the sense that some of the other labels mentioned here are. The reason is simple--there is not currently any consistent industry-wide standard for what Direct Trade signifies and no list of requirements that are followed uniformly by companies using the term. Today there are dozens or more roasting and importing companies around the world applying the phrase to their purchasing practices, but the unfortunate truth is that for every legitimate application one can find several examples where the term is being misused. And among those really doing it right there can still be substantive differences in approach, based largely on the individual value systems of the owners and staff (the issues that they care most about) and the resources at their disposal. The reality is that Direct Trade, as it was originally conceived, is both difficult and costly to operate and requires a degree of commitment that takes years to really achieve. To understand what Direct Trade is (or what it is meant to be) it is probably best to look at its origin.
The term Direct Trade was conceived back in 2003 in an effort to represent a specific approach to working with coffee farmers and a specific philosophy that informed and guided our efforts to create an effective and sustainable model for coffee sourcing and coffee quality development. At the heart of it lies a fairly simple principle: roaster and farmer collaborating in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way to create great tasting coffees that are fully traceable, highly differentiated, and definitively sustainable as measured by current social, economic, and environmental indicators.
Several concepts follow directly from this mandate, and build upon themselves in a logical way. To be truly collaborative there must exist a significant, substantive relationship and feeling of partnership, which can only be achieved when there is real trust and understanding between both parties. To achieve such trust and understanding requires patience and is only possible if people actually spend significant time together...a relationship is not built in a day, and cannot be very meaningful without regular personal contact. This is where the travel necessity kicks in--it is not possible to operate DT as we know it without extensive and regular travel to spend time at the farms every single year. It also follows that there must be transparency in the chain of custody for each coffee; without absolute transparency it is difficult or perhaps impossible to really attain the kind of trust and sense of partnership that transforms a simple buyer/seller dynamic into something more powerful and reliable. (continued in next post...)