What’s the Best Coffee: Fairtrade, Direct Trade or Bird Friendly?
Coffee: how did such a simple thing become so complex? Entire certification schemes, NGOs, magazines and communities worship, defend, describe, analyze and yes, live from the humble brown drink. There are lots of needs to be met: the farmers, intermediaries, roasters, brewers, sellers, buyers, drinkers, natural ecosystems, etc. How to keep everyone happy?
There are lots of needs to be met: the farmers, intermediaries, roasters, brewers, sellers, buyers, drinkers, natural ecosystems, etc. How to keep everyone happy?
As occasional coffee drinkers, we care about this question. Our coffee drinking styles have evolved throughout our lives, dependent on health considerations, where we worked and how aware we were of the environmental and social impacts. While we’re still figuring out the ideal quantity to drink, it’s part of our “gg challenge” to find quality coffee options that fit our criteria of minimal harm to ourselves, society and the planet – and of course tasting great.
To get a few more points of view, we spoke with Martin Bašus, former CEO of the Czech fair-trade roaster Mamacoffee, former owner and manager of Czech direct trade roaster Café Original, and current co-owner of Kavarna Pod Lipami; Petr Košťál, owner of Czech direct trade roaster Coffee Source and CoffeeHouse Prague; Dana Siedem, owner of the Czech Republic’s first Bird Friendly certified coffee brand, BirdSong Coffee; and Jaroslav Tuček, co-owner of Czech specialty coffee roaster doubleshot s.r.o. and co-owner of cafés Můj šálek kávy, Místo and Alza Café.
Based on our discussions and some internet research, we’ve laid out some of our coffee options, and their pros and cons.
Fairtrade certified coffee
What is it?
Fairtrade is a certification system that by now has become ubiquitous, with most people having at least a general idea that it has something to do with ensuring fairer conditions for farmers. But do we really understand how it works?
There are multiple fair-trade certifications, including those granted by Fairtrade International and Max Havelaar. According to Fairtrade International’s website: “Fairtrade is an alternative approach to conventional trade and is based on a partnership between producers and consumers. When farmers can sell on Fairtrade terms, it provides them with a better deal and improved terms of trade.”
Essentially, we see Fairtrade as a form of insurance for farmers, promising them some income for their coffee every season regardless of bad weather or fluctuating coffee prices on the international market. In addition, some of the money from certification is reinvested into improving farmers’ local communities and improving coffee quality.
Essentially, we see Fairtrade as a form of insurance for farmers, promising them some income for their coffee every season regardless of bad weather or fluctuating coffee prices on the international market.
At face value, based on its objective of helping improve the lives of farmers and their communities, Fairtrade most definitely seems to be a “good” thing. Furthermore, in Prague, Fairtrade coffee is widely available, affordable and tastes fine (depending on your level of coffee expertise). Brands available here include Czech roaster Mamacoffee and most multinational coffee chains, Starbucks being no exception. Thus, coffee drinkers can conveniently get their caffeine fix while having a clear conscience – or can they? See cons.
Fairtrade has gotten some serious critique in recent years. According to our discussions and research, a key problem is that achieving certification is expensive for farmers, and while it guarantees them a set income for their harvest, it can prevent them from earning more for above-average performance. Furthermore, in some Fairtrade schemes, farmers work as part of a cooperative, where their coffee is combined with the beans from other farms in the community. Because farmers don’t get individually rewarded for a better harvest, their incentive to produce higher quality can be diminished. As Jaroslav explained to us, “Fairtrade doesn’t say anything about quality. There is no motivation to produce higher quality.”
“Fairtrade doesn’t say anything about quality. There is no motivation to produce higher quality.” – Jaroslav Tuček
Martin spoke along similar lines : “It was, and is a good idea, but when this NGO idea starts to be a business, it starts to behave like a big corporation. It is stopping to be what it was before. People who care about quality will abandon it and find a new way.”
“It was, and is a good idea, but when this NGO idea starts to be a business, it starts to behave like a big corporation. It is stopping to be what it was before. People who care about quality will abandon it and find a new way.” – Martin Bašus
We agree that Fairtrade is a well-meaning initiative that ends up helping many people, but overall may be disabling the ability of the complex coffee ecosystem to find a natural balance. By ecosystem we of course mean the involved human stakeholders, but, importantly also the natural world that is impacted. And this latter element happens to not be a central focus of the Fairtrade label.
Direct trade coffee
What is it?
Direct trade is a relatively new phenomenon in the coffee world that seems to be a response to this problem of declining trust and transparency. It means (in theory) that roasters buy raw coffee directly from farmers. There is no third-party certification per se, as it is up to the farmer to gain any kind of organic, Fairtrade or other certification. What this means is that we consumers have to trust that the roasters are genuinely choosing coffee that aligns with our standards and values. And indeed, as Jaroslav told us, “there are so many people involved, so it’s all about trust.”
“There are so many people involved, so it’s all about trust.” – Jaroslav Tuček
Unlike Fairtrade, which is often a blend of beans from a cooperative and guarantees farmers money each season regardless of the quality of their harvest, direct trade simply rewards the coffee from the specific farm that was best that season. Roasters can visit farms personally — or today more frequently find them online (given the farmer has internet access) — and set up a direct agreement with them. The roasters we spoke with do this because it gives them the freedom to choose the highest quality, equating in their view to the best tasting coffee available each season.
Petr explain that it boils down to one simple thing: “quality in the cup.”
“If the coffee is good, it means it was made in the right way.”
“I’m looking for quality in the cup. If the coffee is good, it means it was made in the right way.” – Petr Košťál
Farmers who suffered a bad harvest due to poor weather conditions one year might face a tough road if they aren’t able to find any direct trade buyers. However, as we discussed with Martin, this is an inherent risk all farmers face. To balance this risk, direct trade may enable farmers to earn more in a good season, allowing them to survive a bad spell. Furthermore, many farmers grow other crops in addition to coffee to reduce their dependence on income from just coffee.
Transparency is an issue with direct trade coffee due to several obstacles. First, in reality there are usually some intermediaries between the roasters and the farmers, due to cultural, logistical or language-related barriers. As Jaroslav told us, in most cases there needs to be some kind of “middleman,” particularly in Africa where the logistics of exporting coffee are complicated. Dana from BirdSong Coffee further explained to us that based on her experience in Ethiopia, where she sources her BirdSong Coffee, “the prevalence of small hold farmers makes it almost impossible to operate without a local mediator. This is due to multiple factors including cultural and language barriers and lacking infrastructure.”
“The prevalence of small hold farmers [in Ethiopia] makes it almost impossible to operate without a local mediator. This is due to multiple factors including cultural and language barriers and lacking infrastructure.” – Dana Siedem
Second, given that there is no third party auditing agency for direct trade coffee, it is difficult for the consumer to guarantee where the coffee really came from.
Fortunately, today roasters can partially tackle these challenges by working with trusted importers who have high standards and make a point of transparently reporting all transactions.
Therefore, while direct trade seems to be a sustainable, logical approach, we do think its success is dependent on trust. In other words: decide on a case by case basis. If the roaster can answer your questions about the origin of their coffee, it’s probably a good sign.
In other words: decide on a case by case basis. If the roaster can answer your questions about the origin of their coffee, it’s probably a good sign.
Bird Friendly coffee
What is it?
Bird Friendly is a coffee certification scheme that takes both the needs of human communities and natural ecosystems into account. Bird Friendly coffee is grown without pesticides in shady forest habitats by small-scale farmers. The label is granted by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, whose research has found that coffee plantations harm the survival of migrating birds by turning their natural forest habitat into treeless monoculture coffee plantations.
Bird Friendly is a coffee certification scheme that takes both the needs of human communities and natural ecosystems into account.
The most obvious benefit of Bird Friendly coffee is that it helps preserve forest ecosystems and therefore biodiversity, both of which we believe to be important to the wellbeing of not only birds, but whole ecosystems and humanity as well. In addition, Bird Friendly coffee is organic, which we see as beneficial for our health. Further, it is shade-grown, which theoretically means slowly ripened coffee beans that taste better. It is usually also direct trade, giving it the above listed benefits. In our view, Bird Friendly coffee meets virtually all of our criteria – oh and did we mention it tastes good?
In our view, Bird Friendly coffee meets virtually all of our criteria – oh and did we mention it tastes good?
Currently, BirdSong Coffee is the only provider of Bird Friendly certified coffee in the Czech Republic, selling it online and through several coffee shops in Prague (find out more here and here). BirdSong has direct contact with the farmers in Ethiopia, making it as direct trade as possible, and comes from one of the few farms on the continent offering Bird Friendly coffee.
Bird Friendly Coffee inevitably suffers from the same transparency issues as all coffee, though we believe that BirdSong Coffee is tackling this issue by maintaining a personal relationship with their farmers in Ethiopia. Other than that, we can find very little to complain about.
So what’s the verdict?
Clearly there’s no simple answer to the question of “which coffee is the best,” but like with anything, the more you know, the better prepared you are to make a good choice. Our research has made us realize that we’ve just scratched the surface of the coffee universe. There are so many steps in the process from bean to cup, and quality, integrity, equity and sustainability can be compromised at any point. It’s also worth noting that the techniques, machinery and coffee cups used are also vital parts of the story.
What about you? Do you have some opinions about coffee certification schemes?
Search “cafe” on our site to find some great sustainable options in Prague!
Photo: Birdsong Coffee