A Quick Word on Fair Trade and Direct Trade Coffee

Photo from Belmont’s visit to a coffee farm in Guatemala.

Photo from Belmont’s visit to a coffee farm in Guatemala.


We’re glad you’re here.

Because, that means you’re interested in bringing ethically-sourced coffee to your office. We're sure you've heard a lot of words tossed around about coffee sourcing. Words like: Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Relationship Trade, etc.

Here’s the good news: At Belmont, every local coffee we carry is either Fair Trade, Direct Trade or Relationship Trade.

But, you’re probably wondering what’s the difference? And which is better?

What is Fair Trade Coffee?

Here’s a simple definition: Fair trade is an organization that offers certification for a cost. This certification helps consumers trust their coffee was ethically-sourced.

There are some pros and cons to Fair Trade.

Fair Trade certification helped raise awareness about ethical sourcing and created accountability for coffee farms abroad. According to Fair Trade USA, the certification aims to ensure coffee farmers “work in safe conditions, protect the environment, build sustainable livelihoods, and earn additional money to empower and uplift their communities.” That’s an admirable aim for sure.

But remember, Fair Trade is a certification and not an actual sourcing method.

Think of it this way, you might buy fruit that’s organic, but not USDA certified organic. This doesn’t mean the apples you buy at the farmers market aren’t organic if they lack the USDA sticker. It just means that farmer hasn’t paid an organic certifier to provide documentation of their organic practices.

Fair Trade is similar in that farmers and roasters pay a premium to an organization to prove to you, the consumer, that certain ethical standards are met.

But, what if there’s another way to prove to you the coffee was ethically sourced and, in many cases, the farmers are paid a higher wage for their work?

What is Direct Trade and Relationship Trade coffee?

First, “direct trade” and “relationship trade” are different words for the same thing: A method for ethically-sourcing coffee directly from coffee farms.

With Direct and Relationship Trade, coffee roasters and farmers meet directly, side-step the costs of certification and often pass that money on to the farmer. They form partnerships, collaborate, and help farmers identify emerging styles and markets in coffee.

On top of that, direct trade gives roasters access to hundreds of quality farms that can’t afford to get Fair Trade certified.

A drawback, you might think, is without certification how can you be certain the roaster is treating the farmer fairly? Or the farm is ethically operated? To solve this many roasters are transparent about their sourcing by documenting and visiting the farms they work with. Even our very own Thornton Family Coffee Roasters has a 100% transparent supply chain!

We’ve experienced Direct Trade first hand. Our good friends at Nossa Familia took us to Guatemala to meet their coffee farmers first hand, to meet the people in the communities, to experience their daily work—these are the experiences of direct and relationship trade.

If your goal is to have ethically-sourced coffee, then Belmont’s preference is direct and relationship trade.

Meet Timoteo, a Guatemalan coffee farmer partnered with Nossa Familia.

Meet Timoteo, a Guatemalan coffee farmer partnered with Nossa Familia.

Fair Trade Cheat Sheet

Fair Trade Coffees

  • As with direct trade, fair trade seeks to impact the lives of coffee farmers by providing a fair price for their coffee.

  • There is more than one organization that certifies "fair trade" coffee.  Each organization has its own standards.

  • Fair trade coffees generally must be purchased through a cooperative, rather than directly from the coffee farmers.

  • There are typically more "middle men" in the supply chain (vs. direct trade).

  • Coffee quality may be less consistent with fair trade, as differing grades of coffee may be mixed together.

 Direct Trade Coffees

  • The coffee farmer establishes a relationship directly with the roaster.

  • This buying model typically results in improved coffee quality and collaborative relationships.

  • In theory, direct trade should result in greater profitability for the coffee farmer.

  • The roaster helps directly impact living conditions for the farmer.

  • Many local Portland roasters utilize this buying model, and are proud to offer their farmers above Fair Trade pricing.

Our Roasters' Sourcing and Sustainability

Below, you’ll find direct links to each of our coffee roasters’ sustainability efforts.

Lastly, Belmont would like to thank you for your interest in where your coffee comes from. Coffee is a part of our culture here in Portland, and we're happy to find that culture positively impacting other cultures.

Related: Where Does My Office Coffee Come From?