Counter Culture Coffee’s Direct Trade program

by on July 7, 2008

Counter Culture Coffee recently launched its Direct Trade program. It is a natural progression from their Source project, and is a robust example of similar models employed by other roasters, most notably Intelligentsia. Counter Culture is a pioneer, however, in that their Direct Trade coffees are certified by a third party (Quality Certification Services, paid for by Counter Culture).

Here are the standards:

  • Fair and sustainable prices. Counter Culture works with each farmer to determine their production costs and begins price negotiations accordingly. This is the beauty of a direct relationship: many farmers really don’t know how to determine or track their productions costs, and therefore accept pricing that may not realize a profit for themselves. A direct relationship like this Counter Culture model is a true partnership, with the roaster assisting the farmers in calculating, forecasting, and streamlining their production costs. The result: farmers make a good living, roasters have reliable sources of great coffee.Currently, CCC pays a minimum of $1.60/lb. for green coffee; this is expected to rise in 2009. There are also quality-based financial incentives paid to growers on top of this (see below), designed to encourage ecologically-responsible cultivation methods and sustained quality improvement over time.
  • Personal and direct communiction. Counter Culture visits grower partners on a biennial basis, at minimum. CCC has an entire section on their web site devoted to posts on trips to origin.
  • Exceptional quality. Direct Trade coffees have scored at least 85 on a 100-pt. cup quality scale. The highest quality coffees are rewarded with higher prices paid to the grower.
  • 100% Transparency. All relevant financial information is is available to all parties — growers, buyers, seller, intermediaries, customers — always.

I think this is a superior model to that of Fair Trade certification in a number of ways. First, of course, is that FT certification only applies to small farmers organized into cooperatives, it is not available to family-owned farms or plantations or single producers. Farmers themselves also do not necessarily receive all or a large portion of any price premiums; this is decided by the cooperative. Second, FT pricing does not take into account any differences in cost of production or cost of living in different regions. Third, FT certification does not certify or verify relationships or communications between producers and roasters or retailer, they only certify the financial transactions between them. Finally, FT does not certify, reward, or incorporate quality into their standards.

Some of Counter Culture’s coffees are also Fair Trade certified, but not labelled as such. And not all Counter Culture coffees will be Direct Trade certified, as it
takes some time to work with farmers to get to that level. But the sourcing and purchasing philosophy behind Direct Trade at Counter Culture applies to all their coffees. Congratulations to Counter Culture for this progressive move, which I hope is the future of all coffee sourcing!

If you’d like to read more on direct trade versus Fair Trade, take a look at the comments of Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia at green LA girl (or my brief summary), the Intelligentsia Direct Trade principles and criteria, or this discussion at Coffeed.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Fair and Direct Trade,Retail and specialty roasters

who benefits? July 29, 2008 at 9:00 pm

Sad to see 'the new' Counter Culture jumping on Intelligentsia's self proclaimed "Direct Trade!" gimmick. And really shocking to see QCS putting it's stamp of approval on it, talk about weakening standards!
After they built their reputations and brands on the superior quality and taste of Certified Organic, Fair Trade, Bird Friendly coffees, CC, Intelligentsia (and others who copy them like Barefoot) are now choosing to drop 3rd party certification in favor of their own self-created and self policed models, oh excuse me 'certifications'. *They want us to take THEIR word for it?* In the process, these companies are all dismissing the very effective Certification systems that have done so much for so many around the world that they previously embraced. Tragic. Why? All to make a buck? Or what? At least Counter Culture had enough conscience left to have the scam 3rd party certified, however vague the criteria may be, lets hope it shames their friends from Chicago into joining in. Not that it means anything, the 4 criteria listed on the site link are pretty standard items in today's coffee supply chain, absurdly easy to meet even by a non-organic grower or roaster, and they make no reference to sustainable farming practice.
Everybody knows that the companies doing "direct trade" and "100% Transparency", "Relationship Coffee" for real; Green Mountain, Cooperative Coffees, Equal Exchange, and a few reliable others, don't talk about it much, are making an amazing difference on a global level, buy most of the very same coffees as CC et all, and ALL (like anyone else with a conscience in coffee) support the millions of members of coffee grower Cooperative Unions around the world, who have chosen to work within the Fair Trade and Organic supply chain. Here in the states a coffee importer or seller HONORS the growers choice by marketing the coffee under the certification the grower has worked to hard to achieve, not by renaming the coffee and saying it's "better" than the very same coffee from another roaster. I always thought Sustainability, and for that matter Coops were about the Greater/Common good. Everybody wins, not just a few.
How ever Direct Trade may spin in the press release, and I must say I am surprised that somebody of Coffee Habitats brilliance fell for it, this new DT fad being pushed by a small number of very well capitalized out front roasters is, in my honest opinion reckless, self serving and dangerous. Also hints of green washing and *gasp* Capitalist agendas. The "4 Criteria" they all list could be satisfied by most small or larger regional roasters, most of whom travel to origin at least once every 2 years and otherwise "directly communicate" and drink beers with growers at the conventions right along with counter culture and Geoff watts. Anybody in the business is now paying well above $1.60/Lb for average quality beans, and most of the fresh crop Organic, Fair Trade certified, Rainforest Alliance & Shade Grown coffees on today's market are in the $1.95-$3.50 range for average quality stuff, the small amount (5% total of US imports) "Specialty" quality beans range from $2.75 to $35 on average, so $1.60 is a bit of a laugh, really. That's about the same Starbucks pays to the very same Coops (more on that below).
The Spiels tend to skew the natural growing pains and issues within the otherwise incredibly successful 15 year old Shade Grown, Organic Fair Trade coffee movement, and the linked items twist facts to their own purposes in the various manifestos. Fair Trade is working, and Fair Trade can prove it, can Counter Culture? In practice, by dumping Fair Trade Certification (though many of these "DT" coffees are grown by Fair Trade Unions, Certified Organic and Smithsonian Bird Friendly farms) and by using the Companies' own quality standards to identify a few winners within giant Unions they will "reward" (this harvest), they put the individual growers and their Unions at risk in the same way Starbucks, Wal Mart and Agri Business hold farmers and suppliers hostage, and isolates the grower from the only supply chain system and network that does protect coffee growers in good years and in low years: Fair Trade Unions, Bird Friendly, Organic, Rainforest Alliance. These schemes give growers "incentive$" to NOT follow Organic and Shade Standards, by not participating in the programs themselves and by not marketing the coffee as Certified even when it carries the Certifications (this is what Starbucks and the BIG guys do).
Perfect coffee examples: Counter Culture "Direct Trade" Mexican coffee, from 21st of September co-operative in Zaragoza, Mexico. This is the same Fair Trade Shade Grown Mexican Coffee Whole Foods/Allegro, Sustainable Harvest and scores of others buy, from the same Importer, as CC. But at CC they don't participate in Fair Trade or other 3rd party programs other than Organic Certification for a small percentage of their total volume that they market as "Organic" (always sure to NOT market the really amazing Organic coffees as Organic, or the "Direct Trade" as per La Esmeralda…ditto for Intelligentsia). CC identified a few growers within the 21st Sept. Coop and paid them a little extra front end cash to set aside the best bags for them. maybe put it in special sacks. If something happens and these growers don't meet these particular buyers "quality standards" next harvest, bye bye "direct trade". Pretty anti-logical to what Coop Unions are all about, if you ask me. Another good example is the "New" "Ethiopia Misty Valley Idado" all these roasters are claiming they have exclusively, well, that's just the fancy name the Cabal came up with for Organic Fair Trade Ethiopia Yirgacheffe natural process coffee folks, and most, even Starbucks, respect the Ethiopian's enough to call it Yirgacheffe™.
To me, the 'new' "Direct Trade" schemes represent a return to the ages old plantation model in coffee. A few winners temporarily empowered by current fortunes and trade-winds -like Esmeralda- holding exclusive deals with a few overly empowered buyers and lots and lots of losers. Including the 'winners' themselves if they have a problem meeting ever increasing demands of the buyer. It all leaves me wondering why anyone would want to do anything to devalue or not support Shade Grown, Fair Trade Certified Organic coffee and the wonderful Unions so many have worked so hard to organize all around the world. Also wondering, how come the only information on this scheme out there is provided to me by the people hyping it? (and now, sadly, my favorite most ethical coffee blog ;(
No thanks, I'll stick with 3RD PARTY CERTIFIED: FAIR TRADE, BIRD FRIENDLY, ORGANIC CERTIFIED- a truly holy trinity the guarantees me delicious java with no bad vibes in the cup for me or the earth or the birds (remember them?) or the people who grew it, NO MATTER WHAT might happen at the NY Board of Trade that day, after all, it's usually all the same coffee ANYWAY!!!! I'll stick with Deans Beans and other roasters I can TRUST.

Julie (BirdBarista) July 29, 2008 at 10:14 pm

Well, "who", I guess first of all thanks for saying that I am brilliant and that C&C is one of your favorite blogs. Let's hope we can agree to disagree here, and that you do not take offense when I say that I find it disrespectful when people leave comments that 1) are over twice as long as the original post, 2) are so rambling that it's difficult, or at least tedious, for me to discern some sort of cogent argument that I can discuss, and 3) so ranting in tone that I feel as if it's really not worth the attempt.

As fate would have it, I am preparing to leave for a 10-day conference and don't feel I have the time to devote to dissecting this comment. I feel pretty confident that I would be unable to convince you that I believe Counter Culture is very sincere in its efforts with Direct Trade. Are they out to make a profit? Of course! So are Dean's Beans, Green Mountain, and all the other roasters you mention. None of them are non-profit organizations!

I do think you have some of your facts wrong, but my impression is that you have made up your mind which roasters you will support, and which you will not. Dean's Beans is a fine outfit. Go for it.

Kim Elena July 30, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Hi Who Benefits,
My name is Kim Elena Bullock and I am the Sustainability and Producer Relations Manager at Counter Culture Coffee. As the farmer liaison and the person in charge of the logistics of Counter Culture Direct Trade Certification (CCDTC), and because transparency is one of the values on which our program is based, I would like to address a few of your comments and ideas here.

Since you mentioned the 21st of September co-op, I will use them as an example of a CCDTC coffee and relationship in hopes of explaining our purchasing process in a bit more depth. We share that coffee with other roasters (not a score of roasters, just Allegro Coffee and Taylor Maid Farms) and one of our collective goals of the past three years has been to improve the overall quality of coffee from the co-op’s 900 grower members by identifying the best lots, wherever they occur, and paying higher prices for those lots. All of us – the roasters, the co-op and Sustainable Harvest Specialty Coffee Importers – believe that consistent, high quality in the cup is an important precursor to real sustainability, and the aim of our lot separation projects is to show growers that investing in quality through better farming and processing practices is worth something to us and to our customers. This year, CCC found the best quality in coffee from the small communities of El Fresno, Piedra Blanca and Majada del Toro. Our hope is that these growers keep doing what they’ve been doing and that perhaps we can learn what they’re doing so well in order to apply that knowledge to other growers. That way, everyone’s quality improves and everyone (including CCC and customers) pays more. These extra “incentive$” go to the co-op and support the entire structure of quality, not just a few individual growers.

Setting a base price was a huge challenge for us because we knew people would automatically assume that’s what we pay for coffee and claim it was too low, unsustainable, etc. Interestingly, people criticize the international Fair Trade Certified floor price of $1.35/lb. for the same reason, forgetting it’s a minimum, too. I’d love to throw out maximum prices instead of minimums, or ignore price altogether because it varies (upward!) so much from $1.60/lb., but we had to choose a number or consumers would be suspicious of our claim to pay fair prices. We chose one based on conversations with our partners at the time we wrote the standard, and, as we knew would occur, it’s already become obsolete.

The 21st co-operative is both Fair Trade Certified and certified organic, and its farms have excellent, diverse shade cover. We are supportive and proud of these certifications, which strengthen the co-op and demonstrate their commitments to environmental and social sustainability. We would never hide these certifications, but they are only a few of the many reasons why we purchase coffee from this group of growers, and we want to talk about all of it: quality taste, unique climatic conditions, cultural traditions, community projects, and so on. CCDTC helps us do that, but doesn’t substitute for organic, Fair Trade, Bird Friendly, Rainforest Alliance or any other certification. In fact, CCDTC intentionally avoids any certification cost for the farmer, because we wanted to focus the scrutiny is on us as a buyer and the trustworthiness of our buying practices.

I’m pleased that you saw our decision to obtain third party verification as a sign of good conscience, but sad that you still doubt its truthfulness. The main reason we decided to undertake the process of third-party verification for CCDTC was feedback from customers and consumers that it’s hard to trust what a company tells you about itself. I know that as a consumer, I find myself looking at companies’ claims and thinking, “sure, it sounds good… but how do I know that they’re doing all of that stuff they say they do?” I work for Counter Culture and I say it’s great, and more specifically, I work with farmers and say that our relationships are great, but I understand that my word probably isn’t enough for a lot of people. So after coming up with a basic outline for the program – I call it a program because we apply these principles to all of our coffee purchases, though not every coffee meets all the criteria to get the stamp – I started talking to certifying bodies about the process of independent verification. I am both grateful to and admiring of the folks at Quality Certification Services: grateful because they gave me the benefit of their advice and experience when I was trying to figure out how to measure the vague values we wanted to measure (like personal communication, a concept that means something different to every person), and admiring because they have never been afraid to ask for proof of transparency, send me searching for information and challenge me. QCS is a really thoughtful, dedicated organization of people and I hope that, whatever your feelings about CCDTC, you will continue to trust and respect them, because they totally deserve it.

It breaks my heart to read that your interpretation of our direct and personal communication criterion includes “drinking beers at the conventions”. Between the various travelers in our company, we spend at least 8 months a year visiting our farmer partners at origin! It might not be clear from the language of the certification, but a meeting at a conference would never qualify as one of our at-least-biennial visits. Not that I ever tried to convince QCS to sign off on beers at a convention, but I can’t believe they would have agreed to it if I had, because it feels wrong from any perspective. We build relationships by walking around coffee farms and sleeping in the homes of incredibly gracious growers, and occasionally, by getting to host them in our homes here in the states. If I had an unlimited travel budget and no concern for the environmental implications of constant travel, I would spend twice as much time at origin as I currently do. This all probably sounds cheesy to you, and like I’m taking this awfully personally, and you might be right. But that’s the thing: it IS personal, because it’s about people, grower groups and families that I know and care about a lot. That excitement and emotion is what drives Counter Culture to do the work we do, and it’s what we’re trying to express with CCDTC.

As consumers, we all have the responsibility of scrutinizing the companies we buy stuff from and finding values that match our personal values. I echo Julie in saying that Dean’s Beans is a good coffee company with strong environmental and social standards, and I will end by wishing you luck in your continuing search for sustainable coffee.

Thanks,
Kim Elena

BirdBarista (Julie) August 1, 2008 at 6:47 am

Thanks, Kim. I'll quickly add that a distrust of QCS is a little odd, considering they are one of the agencies that also certifies organic products for the USDA, and Bird-Friendly for Smithsonian.

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