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Fairtrade Isn't Always Fair Enough

25/04/2014 10:55 BST | Updated 24/06/2014 10:59 BST

Guess what? You don't pay enough for coffee. Yes, that's right - as the end point in a long line of intermediaries between producer to consumer, the consumer is the one who determines price.

Unfortunately there's a perception that coffee, even speciality grade coffee, should be cheap, but this isn't sustainable. High quality coffee has higher costs at every step to market and requires greater skills to grow.

This is why we need to sufficiently reward producers for their labour.

There is an on-going debate amongst us coffee lovers as to whether or not Fairtrade is the fairest solution for helping coffee farmers the world over. Particularly as there are alternative options that should be considered, such as direct trade, which Harris+Hoole is convinced is the best bet on balance.

I'm naturally very pro any initiative that aims to increase fairness to coffee farmers as any measure that supports their livelihood is a positive thing. For example, there are a lot of benefits to being involved in Fairtrade, such as allowing farmers' co-operatives to attain higher prices and retain access to markets, but there are still a lot of drawbacks.

For example, the minimum price that the Fairtrade Organisation guarantees is only for farmers within the co-operative, and not the small-scale farmers who may not be able to afford the entry price into Fairtrade. These prices are also fixed without adapting to the individual countries, meaning some coffee farmers are getting just the bare minimum in payment.

So to really make a difference, just buying products with the Fairtrade sticker isn't enough. It's time to go beyond Fairtrade and get involved with the farmers directly.

That might sound tricky but actually, direct trade is there to save consumers the legwork. Direct trade is a term used by coffee roasters who buy straight from the growers. It's seen as an alternative to Fairtrade certification, particularly for roasters who disagree with certain aspects of Fairtrade coffee; such as their lack of quality incentives and limits to participation (such as costs for entering a Fairtrade co-operative).

Direct trade allows a buyer to communicate directly with the farmer and discuss prices with them. Buyers can agree a price that covers production costs, premiums for higher quality crops, and no additional cost to the farmer for certification.

As there is no formal method for direct trade, it does slightly differ from buyer to buyer and farmer to farmer. The common element running throughout, however, is the direct communication and price negotiation between farmer and buyer. It builds mutually beneficial and respectful relationships with individual producers or co-operatives in the coffee-producing countries.

It also leads to better quality coffee. By negotiating directly with the farmers, buyers can ensure they get the best possible beans. Ongoing relationships lead to better communication that improves agronomy, sorting, processing, storage and dry milling. With Fairtrade however, farmers receive a fixed price regardless of the quality produced, so there is less incentive to grow higher quality crops.

Direct trade is working towards eliminating power imbalances that currently exist in the more traditional supply chains. Farmers are still getting a lower price than they deserve, usually through uniformity of pricing, so direct trade ensures prices are negotiated on a case by case basis to ensure the farmer gets what he deserves. In the remote regions where coffee is grown, we're talking about access to health care, education and food for their families, so they deserve an income that will at least provide for the basic necessities in life.

These mutual relationships set up by direct trade do require a lot of trust and respect, but by buyer and producer working together in the long-term, the farmer is empowered while the buyer gets the best coffee. Ultimately, consumers win by getting the best cup of coffee that has been ethically sourced.

At Harris+Hoole, we work with Union Hand Roasted Coffee to directly trade with farmers and come to fair and mutually beneficial arrangements. We also go on sourcing trips with Union, our most recent one to Guatemala, to help with sourcing the best quality beans and ensuring the farmers get a good deal. On our last trip, we took a couple of our baristas with us so they could see a different side to coffee and really appreciate where the beans come from.

To see a video on direct trade and how it can be done properly, it's worth checking out Union Hand Roasted Coffee's video on YouTube.