Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and Regular Coffee – What’s The Difference Anyway?

Have you ever wondered how coffee is made? From ground coffee beans, you would say. I see your point, but have you ever thought of the amount of labor needed to make coffee? It’s a labor of love, it’s a labor of pain. In Africa, they call coffee “black diamond”. And just like a diamond, coffee is a valuable commodity. How valuable?

Well, according to statistics, over 1.6 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day. That’s about 18,500 cups per second. Coffee is a fast-moving good. Because of this mass consumption, the demand for coffee beans is always high.

However, coffee beans do not grow overnight. A typical tree of coffee Arabica will bear fruits after three to five years and this tree can produce coffee cherries for 50 to 60 years. A coffee tree, on average and depending on species and growing location, can yield one to twelve pounds of roasted coffee ever year.

Red coffee cherries are picked, washed, dried and hulled. This results in green coffee beans which are roasted and ground to make coffee.

Did you know that coffee cherries do not ripe evenly? This means that harvesters need to make several visits to the same tree during harvest season. It can be pretty labor intensive.

Brazil and Vietnam account for 50 percent of the world’s coffee production.

You see, there are a lot of things going on before coffee is served to you. That is why coffee trading is an important discussion among coffee lovers.

Today, let’s discuss fair trade, direct trade, and regular coffee. What are their differences? And why should you bother to know these things?

What is fair trade coffee?

According to Fairtrade International, the international association of fair trade organizations, fair trade strives to support farmers in earning a dignified living from the coffee they produce. In addition, fair trade farmers are encouraged to diversify their sources of income, involve the next generation in the coffee business to assure the industry’s future, establish long-term relationships with traders, and to pursue their right to a fair share of the global coffee industry.

Fair trade also considers how coffee farming affects the environment and how farmers benefit from the industry. According to Ethical Coffee, fair trade standards encourage sustainable agriculture practices, but farmers do have some leeway. Most fair trade coffee is also certified organic, for example, but agrochemicals can be used by those not certified as organic. Farmers must also follow sustainable practices for disposing of hazardous and organic wastes, maintain buffer zones around bodies of water, minimize water use, and avoid erosion to conserve the soil.

The very basis for establishing fair trade is to set a minimum price for coffee. A guaranteed price keeps small farmers in business. It enables more families who rely on coffee farming to benefit from the sales of coffee beans.

In essence, coffee farmers under fair trade can submit their harvested coffee beans to a cooperative, where the cooperative pays the farmer based on the fair trade price standard. This process protects the farmer in case of coffee price changes, weather problems, agricultural problems and even natural disasters.

Fair trade coffee facts

  • There are 812,500 small-scale coffee farmers organized in 445 producer cooperatives
  • Coffee farmers from 30 countries produce fair trade coffee.
  • 80 percent of fair trade coffee is from South America (Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Nicaragua and Costa Rica)
  • Fair trade coffee farmers harvest mostly Arabica (milder but more expensive) and Robusta (stronger but less expensive) coffee beans

If you are wondering what coffee brands are fair trade coffee, here is a sample list:

  • Cafédirect – Ethics | Fair trade, re-invest ⅓ of profits, Location: London, UK
  • Equal Exchange – Ethics | Worker owned, fair trade, Location: St. Paul, MN
  • Higher Ground Roasters – Ethics | Fair trade, organic, shade-grown, Location: Leeds, AL
  • Grumpy Mule – Ethics | Fair trade, Rainforest Alliance, organic; Location: London, UK
  • DOMA – Ethics | Fair trade, organic, Location: Post Falls, ID
  • Stumptown Roasters – Ethics | Direct trade, organic, Location: Portland, OR
  • Rise Up Coffee Roasters – Ethics | Fair trade, organic, Location: Easton, MD
  • Pura Vida Coffee – Ethics | Fair trade, organic, shade-grown, Location: Tukwila, WA
  • Larry’s Beans – Ethics | Fair trade, organic, shade-grown, B Corporation, Location: Raleigh, NC
  • Café Mam – Ethics | Fair trade, organic, shade-grown, Location: Eugene, OR
  • Allegro Coffee – Ethics | Fair trade, organic, Location: Thornton, CO
  • Conscious Coffees – Ethics | Fair trade, organic, B Corporation, Location: Boulder, CO
  • Salt Spring Coffee – Ethics | Fair For Life, B Corporation, 1% for planet, Location: Richmond, British Columbia
  • Kickapoo Coffee – Ethics | Fair trade, organic, Location: Milwaukee, WI

What is direct trade coffee?

Unlike fair trade which uses a cooperative to pool together coffee beans from different farmers, direct trade eliminates this middleman process and goes directly to the coffee farmers to buy their harvests. According to Ethical Coffee, direct trade proponents believe that their business model is better because they provide better opportunities to farmers. They build mutually beneficial and respectful relationships with individual producers or cooperatives in the coffee-producing countries. Some roasters do it because they are dissatisfied with the third-party certification programs, while others want to have more control over aspects ranging from the quality of the coffee to social issues, or environmental concerns.

Direct trade is also known as “beyond fair trade coffee” and “single origin”. Famous brands that are known for direct trade coffee are Intelligentsia and Counter Culture Coffee.

What is regular coffee?

Today, coffee lovers become more conscious about the products they buy. This is a good thing. They understand about environmental concerns, labor issues, and economic conditions. However, this has also led to so many names, terms, and certifications such as organic, natural, eco, and green, to bird-friendly, reef-safe, and cruelty-free, with additional certifications from the Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade International, Fair Trade USA, FSC, MSC and more!

Whew! Can I just have a regular coffee?

Technically, regular coffee is something brewed coffee with milk and two sugars. Isn’t it something that we all love? But you can make that sort of coffee out of fair trade and direct trade beans, so what do we mean when we say regular?

Regular coffee is mass-produced by farmers using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other artificial aids with whatever working practices they find useful. The aim is to maximize plantation and harvest in order to get a good yield of coffee beans.

Regular coffee is inexpensive compared to fair trade and direct trade. Regular coffee farmers are after a huge production, not to get certified by third party organizations. Regular coffee is available in your local deli and convenience stores. If you are after a quick caffeine fix, regardless of the labor and environmental issues associated with coffee farming, regular coffee is right there, waiting for you.

What are the differences?

One of the main differences between fair trade and direct trade is the pricing of coffee beans. Direct trade has a higher price paid to growers. There is no minimum price set because there is no cooperative operating between the grower and the companies. Also, there are no price cuts for premiums, which are pooled together to support coffee farmers. Under direct trade, the company and the farmer discuss the price under their own terms.

However, direct trade also lacks third party certifications. Meaning, consumers could not really tell whether this coffee brand is a direct trade or not. Coffee quality can be questioned. However, companies with direct trade relations with coffee farmers often do visits to the farm and check with farmers to maintain the company’s coffee quality standards.

Regular coffee can be fair trade, direct trade or neither, depending on the brand that you are using.

If you ask me, all these coffee are good. Fair trade protects farmers from sudden price changes that could affect their livelihood. The direct trade gives a strong relationship between the roaster and the farmer. But if you can’t decide which one to buy, I’ll say stick to regular coffee.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

Wait, Wait...There's More!