Tuesday, January 18, 2011

a snack and a lesson

Alright, friends. Get yourselves a cup of coffee and a muffin…it’s story time.


Yes, I still have 20 cans of pumpkin in my basement…after the great pumpkin shortage of 2009, one can never be too prepared. But anyway, make these pumpkin gingerbread muffins.


*substitutions: 2 cups of whole wheat flour vs. 1 cup, applesauce for the oil, 1/2 cup of turbinado sugar instead of 1 cup of regular sugar.

Now that we’ve covered the snack part, it’s time for a lesson. When I published Patrick’s guest post as part of the 12 days of giving series, I alluded to the fact that fair trade might not be as fantastic as it sounds…here, Patrick presents another solution.


Patrick: I will be the first to admit that in today’s coffee world, where you can find anything from Organic to Fair Trade to Bird Friendly-certified coffee, the last thing most people want to worry about is another coffee certification. But before you give up on this blog, what do you really know about the Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, or Bird Friendly Certified coffee that you bought this morning?


The whole point of certifying a coffee is that the end consumer knows that certain standards have been met, but these standards are often so complex that it would take a college course to understand them all. There is a certification just starting to grow in the coffee world that is refreshingly simple and, in my opinion, much more beneficial to farmers:

Direct Trade Coffee.

There are three simple guiding principles behind Direct Trade Coffee:

(1) High wages.

(2) High quality.

(3) Direct purchasing through a relationship between farmer and buyer.

direct trade

Since Direct Trade is a new idea, these ideals manifest themselves in different ways. Industry leaders like Counter Culture Coffee, Intelligentsia, and Stump Town Coffee Roasters each have their own standards for what these principles mean, but these standards all include a minimum purchase price, minimum cup quality, and minimum amount of contact between farmer and the company. Although Counter Culture may set quality standards based upon their proprietary tasting system, while Intelligentsia bases it on their own system, these companies are establishing their own set of guidelines they think best fulfill the three guiding principles.


In my mind, Direct Trade is the logical step forward from the current obsession with Fair Trade. First, Direct Trade is set up so that buyers, not farmers, pay fees. Fair Trade, on the other hand, requires large up-front costs from the farmers themselves. This policy actually excludes the small-scale, independent farmers that consumers often associate with the Fair Trade logo!

CCC_DTCseal_CCC      vs.     fair-trade-certified

Second, Direct Trade is more sustainable. Since Direct Trade is as focused on quality as it is on price, it gives farmers a reason to continually improve their coffee growing and harvesting techniques. Fair Trade certification says nothing about the quality of the coffee. As such, people often end up paying a premium for inferior coffee grown by a large coffee plantation that can cover Fair Trade Certification costs. At least it has a Fair Trade Certified sticker on the bag, I guess.


images via Counter Culture Coffee

Finally, even though we may just be “average coffee drinkers,” we should still have the opportunity to learn how our morning coffee got to where it is today. When buying a Direct Trade coffee, coffee shops will know if it came from a small-scale, independent farmer or a large-scale plantation, how much was paid for the coffee, and probably more than we would ever actually care to find out. With this knowledge, it is no longer coffee intermediaries, exporters or importers, or even local coffee shops that determine who we buy our coffee from and how much we pay them. It is us, the coffee drinkers of the world, that get to make this important choice.


I think we buy fair trade products to feel better about ourselves, but in reality, do we know what this certification really means? I had never heard of direct trade before, and I find the difference from fair trade both significant and interesting.

Have you heard of direct trade? What are your thoughts on direct trade vs. fair trade?



  1. First of all, that muffin looks divine. And I learned about a lot of this trade stuff in a random geography class that I took last year! Very interesting for sure.

  2. I always buy organic, fair trade coffee, but I have never even heard of "direct trade." Thanks for the post!

  3. I don't drink coffee so I haven't educated myself on this topic all that well. It sounds as though Direct Trade supports the farmer more so than the "process," if you know what I mean. That's never a bad thing!

  4. Oh, I really like Intelligentsia coffee. That's really interesting.

  5. I've never heard about direct trade, nor that I know that fair trade says nothing about the quality.
    Great informative post Emily!

  6. never heard of direct trade but I'm learning a lot from you and Patrick! Thanks.

  7. Can you take the pecan off the top of that muffin and then make me a batch? YUM!

    Direct trade is new to me, too, but I really like it!

  8. I totally stocked up on pumpkin too! I was without it so long in 2009, I vowed to never let that happen again :)

  9. 20 cans of pumpkin?! wowza. hahah. i've never heard of direct trade before. only fair trade. i probably should educate myself more on this stuff considering how much coffee i've started drinking hah!

  10. Nope, I've never heard of direct trade either. I try to buy fair trade products whenever possible. I don't drink coffee though....maybe that's why! :)

    Your muffin looks killer!

  11. Ha, I love that I'm not the only one who got all stocked up on pumpkin this season!

    I've been debating a lot about Fair Trade coffee as well. That's the route I've been trying to go (which is also saving some $$ from randomly grabbing a cup whenever/wherever) but when I buy it for home or the office I want to make a good decision. I was unfamiliar with Direct Trade, so this is is a new option as well. I think you're right that we go with Fair Trade to FEEL like we're doing something good, but Direct Trade seems to have the evidence to back it up!

  12. Oh the pumpkin shortage-what a disaster!
    I'm not a coffee drinker-so the topics new!

  13. I have stocked up on pumpkin too. Yep, about 10 medium-sized jars are sitting in my cupboards right now, waiting to be devoured.

    I went to the direct-trade website to inquire about pricing, but didn't see anything. See, my Maxwell House coffee is SO CHEAP, it's hard for me to spend more on coffee, despite the sustainability. I know that sounds awful, but I drink a lot of coffee and I'm cheap. Do you know anything about the prices of the wholesale direct-trade coffee?
    This post was very interesting. I didn't even know there was such a think as direct-trade.

  14. Thanks for the info! My finace was JUST asking me what the heck fair trade coffee is.... might have to send this to him :) The muffin looks beautiful!


  15. I don't drink coffee, but this was very interesting, great info!

    Those muffins looks awesome!

    Love your blog, dear!

  16. sounds good to me I have heard of it

  17. This is really interesting! I'd never heard of direct trade. I definitely want to learn more. Thanks for this post!


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