What is Direct Trade?

February 7, 2019


Direct: “Extending or moving from one place to another by the shortest way without changing direction or stopping.”

Trade: “The action of buying and selling goods and services.”


In this case, Direct Trade can literally be defined as, ‘buying or selling goods/services from one place and moving them to another by means of the shortest way possible without changing direction.’

To us, this means working with experts across the supply chain that specialize in different portions of the exchange. We can learn from them and collaborate to improve our practices and create an overall more efficient and valuable business for all those involved. This is especially important to homogenize understandings and goals at different ends of process. The language of coffee isn’t always easy to interpret by yourself.

In the mid 1960’s, popularity in the environmental movement paved the way for a ‘greenwashing’ technique that still thrives today in many industries, especially in agriculturally based products. To ‘green wash’ or add a ‘green sheen’ is to create the perception of an environmentally friendly product even if the product is not. This consumer awareness has been beneficial in pressuring companies to make decisions not only based on the bottom line, but in respect to the nature of process. On the other hand, it has spawned a global grey area in marketing and advertisement that can easily be manipulated in a communicatively disconnected climate.

The coffee industry is full of titles that evoke specific feelings from those who read or hear them. Each of these commonly used labels possess different attributes a buyer may be interested in; Fairtrade, Certified Organic, Rainforest Alliance, Bird Friendly, Shade-Grown, 100% Arabica, etc. are all symbols one can pursue not only to organize and sell green coffee, but to market roasted coffee to consumers. In a trade where buyers and sellers are so far away from one another, the middle ground can become quite crowded with people willing to help but also people interested in taking advantage. They can either welcome you into a world of complexity and purpose or leave you shrouded in smoke and mirrors, it all depends on the quality of expression and diligence behind the title holder.

All of these cases cannot be dissected and discussed under the same terms, nor are there any implications of wrong-doing, simply said, these representations have become convoluted. The titles listed above have created demand without attentiveness to support that demand on the ground where the coffee is grown. These guarantees are not without expectation or cost to the producer and anyone looking to use their logo on a package to sell roasted coffee. We do not seek to devalue practices that have strengthened the industry we work in, but we do want to explore how things have changed and are changing in the places where coffee is traded.

Yes, we want traceability for varieties. Yes, we want biological diversity on coffee farms. This would definitely include taller trees or shrubs that give shade to coffee and force it to grow stronger to reach the sun and also provide friendly habitats for birds to live in and strengthen the farm’s ecosystem. For the team here at DCC, these expectations can be met by working closely with our importer, Cafe Imports, who we consider to be the best specialty coffee importer operating. They not only have people all over the world constantly working with farmer partners, but they offer comprehensive coffee education and guidance here in the US, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Berlin, Australia and beyond. They share with us kindly and openly in order to cultivate a more informed industry and have been setting the bar in specialty coffee culture since we’ve known them. They listen and learn from everyone they interact with. They work with exporting partners, co-ops, and single producers as well as cafes and roasteries to continue to help improve the overall quality of coffee being produced and the quality of practices that nurture its growth.

Relationship. Trust. Communication. Friendship. Responsibility. Commitment. Awareness. Compassion. These are all words that come to mind when we think of direct trade practice, and they are also words that imply cooperation. In the pursuit of quality coffee, it is necessary to work closely with people all across the supply chain to ensure a fresh, dynamic product. From a distance, direct trade might look as though one coffee company is completing all the steps necessary to bring roasted coffee to market. That’s not how it works. Even companies who have worked to gain accessibility and purchasing power like Intelligentsia out of Chicago, IL aren’t operating with complete vertical integration. Intelligencia describes their practices as such, “We understand that what happens on the farm directly affects the quality of our coffees, which is why we’ve spent the last 15 years and counting cultivating relationships with growers who share our exact standards in quality.” Intelligentsia, along with others who promote Direct Trade processes, believe that creating pathways with specific producers and communities enable everyone engaged to foster quality philosophies in order to sustain lasting, beneficial relationships.

There are many complexities surrounding this lovely seed, in fact, more are created every day. Our ideas or Intelli’s ideas for example, are not the end all be all for how to trade coffee. Balance is found amongst many people from many different backgrounds and finding it requires hard work for all those involved. As soon as we are committed to that, relationships are the most fulfilling exchange humans can share. We seek to learn from practices used in the past and grow with new ideas that emerge in the present. Never will we hide behind titles and nomenclature, as we yearn to expose the truth behind the veil that separates consumer from crop.


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