The Pilot's Blog

Responsible Coffee: USDA Organic vs. Fair Trade vs. Direct Trade

Coffee is a world trade commodity. In fact, coffee is the second largest trade in the world, next to gasoline. This means that the effort of getting every single “cuppa Joe” into your hands involved grueling, competitive, labor-intensive work from the farmers, pickers, exporters, buyers, roasters, and packagers involved in every level of coffee production. Unfortunately, where there is hard work, there is often exploitation and the cutting of corners. Coffee consumers, producers and retailers have become aware of this problem, and for that reason, have implemented systems to make sure that conscious coffee consumers are able to find products that are ethically, socially and environmentally mindful. Fair Trade, Organic, and “direct trade” are all practiced by the Roasterie to protect our farming partners while securing the highest quality product possible for our customers. But what exactly does Fair Trade Certified, Organic Certified, and direct trade mean and what is the difference between the three?

USDA Organic Certification

When a coffee is certified as “Organic” it must pass a list of checks and balances legally enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture. The term “organic” comes with a heavy weight of qualifications, because consumers interested in organic products want to be sure the product was grown in a way that is safe to the environment. A product’s organic certification comes from every level of the production process. It starts at the farms, includes the actual roasting process, and even includes the bags and packaging materials. These conditions are verified by the USDA, and that product may then legally advertise as “organic.”

Fair Trade Certification

The Fair Trade association developed from the need to have protection and security for coffee farmers. Fair Trade exists to make sure farmers are paid for their work. It provides a set premium to farmers for their product, which ensures the farmer will be paid at a standardized price, which increases the profit flow to further the quality of the product, and assures the customer that the farmers were not exploited for labor in the process.

However, many roasters have found Fair Trade practices to be problematic, and antithetical to most of the issues it aims to solve. First of all, the Fair Trade association is not backed by a government branch. Unlike the USDA, Fair Trade is a non-profit organization that certifies and labels coffees based on standards created within the program. These standards are set at a specific price regardless of the growth of the coffee market, and there is no way to trace where the money ends up. Is it going to the laborers? Is it going to support better farm conditions and improve coffee quality? Is it going to expand the land owner’s private pool? It is difficult to trace.

Direct Trade

The Roasterie utilizes “direct trade” as our primary sourcing practice for our coffees, and as an additional security where Fair Trade is found faulty. Direct trade is not a third party associated certification like Fair Trade or USDA Organic, but is actually the phrase coined to describe working directly with the farmer. While there is no stamp or logo to differentiate a direct trade coffee in the market, there is traceability, transparency, and quality. Transactions between the coffee grower and the coffee buyer are directed and negotiated on an individual basis.

Our Green Coffee Buyer, Jon Ferguson is using a background in anthropology and USDA Organic certification training to assess farms and cooperatives for their environmental and labor practices, while focusing on finding the highest quality coffee to invest in. The prices of these coffees are also negotiated on a case-by-case basis, which is important when working with coffee producers in different countries where the cost of living is often drastically different. This transparency secures a fair price for the farmer and a quality product for the consumer. Working without a third party also provides traceability for the Roasterie’s customers, because we as a company are responsible for all of our transactions.

The Roasterie supports and participates in Fair Trade and USDA Organic certification, but we find that trading directly gives us the most conscious, quality products. The evidence of which is found in not only the paperwork and the cup, but in the loyalty of our farming partnerships and customers.

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