Transparency and Quality Improvements Within Direct Trade

Posted on August 22, 2010 by

Tim Wendelboe recently posted the prices they paid for the coffees they currently offer. It’s an uncommon move explained in a blog post here, and they join a small group of coffee roasters offering higher forms of transparency. As Tim explains this information is also available from organizations like Cup of Excellence and Sustainable Harvest, and Counter Culture Coffee released a detailed report in May from their Direct Trade program.

TraceableCoffee.org is another company providing helpful information for the end consumer, combing unique ID numbers printed on each bag with QR codes that are easily scanned with a smartphone. Those that buy these coffees can quickly connect to the Traceable Coffee database to see images and videos of the farmers, along with basic information about the farm (but not the prices paid). You can even tip the farmer, contributing a few dollars to their digital tip jars if you’d like.

All of these companies are helping to make the supply chain smaller, but within the transparent model there are larger issues at stake. Wendelboe and Counter Culture both provide much more than pictures and/or prices paid. They’re subjecting their potential purchases to strict quality control standards, spending time with the farmers that they’re working with. If the coffee doesn’t meet these standards they offer education and resources to help them improve. By investing in these farmers they’re helping to raise the value of their products, ultimately putting more money in the farmers pocket. It’s the basis behind Direct Trade, a model covered by Peter Meehan in the New York Times three years ago. It builds on the limitations of programs such as Fair Trade, which offers the benefit of stability and little else. In fact, the current value of Fair Trade coffee lags behind coffee purchased on the open market, and investments in quality are less likely to occur when it fails to increase the farmers income.

In essence Direct Trade rewards farmers who produce better coffees. This occurs regardless of the level of transparency provided to the consumer. Ultimately the strength of Direct Trade is in the transparency provided to the producer, where transparency is most needed. Consumers benefit from an increasing reliance on quality as the determining factor in trade, not price. So I congratulate Tim not just for his transparency, but for his taste buds and commitment to quality.