Oakland is the official headquarters of Fair Trade USA, and Berkeley was dubbed a “Fair Trade Town” in July of last year. Yet for some local coffee purveyors, the principles championed by fair trade — equitable prices paid to growers, community support, green growing practices — are better achieved by thinking outside the fair trade box.
Fair trade is a decades-old movement, founded to ensure that producers in low-income countries (selling everything from handicrafts to bananas) wouldn’t be exploited. The idea was to set a standard minimum price that’s equitable to all. For coffee beans, prices paid to growers are based on international commodities markets, in exchange for agreed-upon ecological and labor standards.
Coffee production is one of the biggest areas where fair trade has made an impact, but it’s also where the model is most often challenged. Some boutique coffee roasters, and the local shops that sell their products, feel that the goals of fair trade can be achieved without official certification. Through the method loosely termed as direct trade, beans are purchased right from the grower, without third-party involvement.
Cortt Dunlap, who owns Awaken Café, a green-friendly Oakland coffee shop across the street from Fair Trade USA headquarters, says his beans come from San Francisco’s Four Barrel Coffee, a roaster that obtains 90 percent of its coffee through direct trade (though Four Barrel prefers the term “relationship coffees” to describe its sourcing). Dunlap feels that fair trade had its day, bringing unfair trade practices to the popular consciousness, but that a new era is upon us. “Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of respect for what fair trade has done, and continues to do, to improve the treatment of workers throughout the world,” he said. “But fair trade is like outsourcing your values to another company; our roasters know who they’re buying from, without a middleman.”
The reasons for this DIY ethos largely come down to sourcing a higher quality product. By developing a direct relationship with growers, some roasters feel they can incentivize the production of better beans. Tal Mor, green coffee buyer at Four Barrel, says his company pays more per pound than the going fair trade rates: “We’re trying to build a direct bridge between price and quality.”
Berkeley’s Local 123 cafe obtains direct trade coffee from several roasters, including Sightglass and Flying Goat. Owner Frieda Hoffman says the price is higher, but that it’s worth it to obtain a superior coffee bean. “It’s great that I’m getting a beautifully farmed product, but at the end of the day, I’m not going to drink it if it doesn’t taste great,” she said.
Additionally, instead of placing trust on third-party certifiers, there is only one link between Local 123 and the grower. Hoffman said this allows her the greatest peace of mind. “Working directly with the grower ensures the coffee is actually grown sustainably, and that working conditions aren’t subpar,” she said. “Our prices aren’t cheap, but we can sleep with a clear conscience.”
Proponents argue that fair trade has a proven track record of ensuring fair labor and environmental practices, and that buying direct places an unnecessary financial burden on roasters, coffee shops, and ultimately the consuming public. “It’s a matter of scale,” said Joel Goyette, a Fair Trade USA business specialist who works with artisan coffee roasters. “We have the resources that small roasters do not; direct trade has a pretty serious price tag involved.”
On top of the typically higher per-pound prices paid for beans, direct trade roasters often absorb the costs of visiting the country of origin. Four Barrel pays multiple farm visits each year, developing strong ties with growers and ensuring conditions are up to their standards. Some roasters don’t feel this is a viable option.
John Weaver was master roaster for Peet’s Coffee & Tea for 27 years before starting his own roasting company, Weaver’s. Almost half his beans are fair trade-certified, which he says is all the assurance his more progressive-minded customers need. “I honestly don’t have the resources to visit the origin of my coffee,” said Weaver. “It’s a nice idea, but I think fair trade has more than proven its ability to treat growers right.”
Every pound of fair trade coffee also comes with an extra 20-cent fee that goes toward community development projects (schools, roads, etc.) and an additional 30 cents goes to promote organic farming practices. Fair trade proponents argue that these fees can make a significant impact on impoverished communities and their natural environments. “Direct trade helps out a handful of individual farms,” said Weaver, “but what about the rest of the community?”
Despite the nuanced differences between direct and fair trade, much of the coffee-consuming public has yet to grasp the distinction. Katie Barrow, communications manager at Fair Trade USA, said that 34 percent of Americans are now aware of fair trade as a concept, with that number “much higher” in the progressive Bay Area. Direct trade, however, has yet to achieve a comparable degree of recognition.
Brooke McDonnell, co-owner of roaster Equator Coffee in San Rafael, said that while most of her coffee is direct trade, some clients demand fair trade certification based on its “goodwill association” as a symbol. Her other clients prefer the quality of the direct trade beans, trusting that they have been sourced equitably.
Berkeley’s Mokka Cafe sells a combination of direct and fair trade beans from Equator. Owner Michael Iida said that a handful of customers will ask the difference between the two. Though he’s happy to educate the curious, he said that “at the end of the day, most people are just interested in getting their caffeine at the most convenient location.”