The terms “direct trade” and “fair trade” are two of the buzzwords describing specialty coffee these days. Both connote hard workers toiling away in lush rainforests while still preserving the environment in which coffee beans thrive. It may seem that these terms can be used interchangeably. In fact, though direct trade and fair trade coffee bear some similarities, they are not the same. Although similar in their goals of putting more money into the hands of the coffee farmers themselves, their approaches and methodologies differ.

Defining Direct Trade and Fair Trade

Direct trade coffee is an approach to coffee sourcing where a representative from a roaster works directly with a farmer or a farming cooperative to purchase coffee. Fair trade is an approach where a roaster approaches a coffee importer to source coffee; the coffee importer, in turn, purchases coffee from the farmers. Coffee farms must be certified in order to be considered as a partner for a direct trade or fair-trade roaster.

How Are They Similar?

Direct trade and fair-trade coffee sourcing are similar in some ways. Both aim to:

  • Increase the wages of coffee farmers
  • End harmful coffee farming practices and encourage environmentally sustainable practices
  • Promote fair labor practices and rights and address labor issues such as health and safety standards
  • Eliminate poverty through increased wages for farmers and laborers, education, improved healthcare, and efficient business practices
  • Establish standards or regulations for direct trade or fair-trade certification

How Are They Different?

Direct trade and fair trade coffee sourcing differ in several ways. For instance, direct trade sourcing completely removes the middleman from the sourcing process. Instead, there is a much closer form of contact between the roaster and the coffee farmers. This allows for the cultivation of a close relationship between the two. Additionally, direct trade focuses primarily on the quality of coffee being grown. If a coffee farm does not meet the environmental sustainability, economic, and social expectations set by the roaster, then their coffee will not be purchased. Direct trade roasters tend to be self-regulated with little to no oversight by a larger organization. This also means there is no accountability or standardization across direct trade coffee roasters.


On the other hand, fair trade coffee sourcing is regulated by Fair Trade USA, an American non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of farmers around the world. In order to become Fair Trade Certified, a coffee farm must meet specific minimum wage, environmental sustainability, and ethical business practice requirements. Fairtrade sourcing also brings in an intermediary between a roaster and a coffee farm. Lastly, Fair Trade USA tends to be less concerned about the quality of coffee than they are about fair business practices are being followed.


Direct trade and fair-trade coffee sourcing are not the same. Although they have some similar ideals, namely improving the lives of coffee farmers and environmental sustainability, they differ in many other ways. Regardless, buying direct trade or fair-trade coffee is a great way to support local farmers and to help save the planet while also enjoying a great cup of Joe.