Fair Trade, Direct Trade and Marketing

Author: Matt Earley — February 2, 2016
This post was written in response to the following article:

It recently was brought to our attention that an article published on The Huffington Post in 2014 critical of Fair Trade was making the rounds again. While we have stopped depending on “Fair Trade” as the sole describer of our model because of its limitations, we also feel the need to weigh in on how the term is used in this article. The Huffington Post’s [click-bait] piece contains a bit of good critique, but a lot of misinformation and confused points. As some of you “old school” Just Coffee drinkers know, we used to spend a lot of time here at Just Coffee Cooperative writing and talking about “fair trade” – at times defending it and often times criticizing it. N​ow we can​ see the red herring inherent in doing either.

“Fair trade” is not one thing and neither is “Direct Trade”. The author’s lack of understanding of this fact makes the article pretty meaningless in our opinion. “Fair Trade” and “Direct Trade” are marketing terms that mean something different to each company that uses them. Just Coffee Co-op operates differently than Equal Exchange who operates differently than Higher Grounds who operates differently than Green Mountain who… you get the point. Yet, all of these companies make some reference to “fair trade” and expect people to understand the basic gist of what they mean. While there are roasters who do an exemplary job of what the direct trade model should look like, there are others who claim “direct trade” but have visited coffee farmers less times than we have fingers on our right hand (we have 5 digits, don’t worry) and have never directly negotiated a contract with a farmer. So that term, direct trade, is not somehow the magic answer. Knowing that these terms only scratch the surface of how a company operates, we think it is best to look past the buzzwords and marketing spin.

In the end there are two questions we should focus on: 

1) What is a company truly doing or trying to do to conduct a better way of trading and to alleviate the poverty felt so acutely in coffee growing communities? 

2) Are they willing to prove that they are doing what they say by showing their contracts, farmer profiles, project details, etc. 

If a company operates transparently and is making a good effort, we say buy their stuff no matter what marketing term they claim – Direct Trade or Fair Trade.