Sustainable Coffee Certifications
Trying to decipher the various coffee certifications to find a product that meets your values is difficult. There are numerous certifications, some you will be familiar with, like Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance, while others you maybe didn’t know existed.
In this post, we’re diving headfirst into the often confusing world of coffee certifications to help coffee lovers make informed choices when purchasing their next coffee product.
If you’re short on time jump to the conclusion for the TLDR (cliff notes) on what’s what with coffee certifications.
Understanding Sustainable Coffee Certifications
Independent vs internal certifications
All certifications, regardless of the criteria and how they are maintained are technically known as Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS). VSS certifications typically fall into two buckets when it comes to how their requirements are created and monitored; independent certification and internal certifications.
Independent certifications are implemented and overseen by 3rd party organizations (typically NGOs or Government bodies) outside of the coffee production industry. These organizations will set the minimum requirements to be certified and create clear standards of testing and analysis.
Internal certifications are created, assessed, and maintained by corporations directly involved with coffee production. This way an organization can set its own standards for certification and is the ultimate judge for whether those standards have been met. Two well-known Internal programs are Starbucks’ C.A.F.E and the Nespresso AAA certification.
There is an inevitable conflict of interest with internal certifications that leads to questions about their effectiveness. It will be up to us as consumers to judge if these internal standards are truly effective in their goals, a green-washing marketing campaign, or something in between.
How effective are sustainable coffee certifications?
The main independent certifications (listed in this article) all have records of improving various aspects of the coffee industry.
It is important to understand that most sustainable coffee certifications will focus on specific issues within the industry and typically pay little concern to others. For example, the Fair Trade certification carries few environmental standards but aims to help farmers improve their quality of life, while Bird Friendly is focused solely on environmental issues.
In saying that, the majority of these programs have seen a positive outcome in their focus areas, ranging from minor to significant. There are sometimes trade-offs but in general, most certifications report substantial improvements.
Understanding your priorities and measuring them against specific standards is an important step in judging the effectiveness of these certifications. Ultimately any certification can probably be deemed better than uncertified coffee, but understanding which certifications meet your personal standards is an important step in making an informed choice.
Smithsonian Bird Friendly
Best for environmental concerns and biodiversity
The Smithsonian Bird Friendly Coffee Certification aims to protect vital habitats from the deforestation and destructive farming practices commonly used by farmers to grow coffee crops. Bird-Friendly certified farms are required to grow their crops under a canopy of natural forest or agro-forest using shade-grown coffee and promoting biodiversity.
The Smithsonian Migratory Birds Center (SMBC) in Washington D.C. created the standards for the Bird Friendly coffee certification as a result of the first sustainable coffee congress in 1996. The certification standards were based directly on the scientific evidence the SMBC had gathered to address massive declines in migratory bird populations.
SMBC continues to refine its research into the impacts of coffee crops on native ecosystems adjusting their certification standards to match the growing body of knowledge.
Is Smithsonian Bird Friendly Effective?
The Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification is one of the most effective certifications for environmental issues. Bird-friendly is seen as the only true “shade-grown” certification for the coffee industry due to its detailed guidelines and strict standards.
You can find the full guidelines here but key concepts include:
- Crops must have a tree canopy of over 12 meters high and at least 40% foliage cover, during the dry season and after pruning.
- Leaf litter, as well as weeds, herbs and forbs, should be present in the ecosystem.
- Crops must be USDA Organic Certified
- Specific distances for buffer zones must be in place along rivers and streams
Bird-Friendly certification is monitored by trained third-party inspectors using criteria established by the SMBC.
It’s also worth noting that being eligible promises 100% of the beans they certify meet their standards. Some other certifications allow a portion of the product to fall below their standards while maintaining certification.
Bird-Friendly certified coffees also promise 100% product purity. Some other certifications allow as little as 30% of their product to meet their standards while still sporting their certification label.
Shade-grown coffee is proven to prevent deforestation, maintain critical habitats for birds, mammals, and insects, sequester carbon and fight climate change. Read more about the benefits of shade-grown coffee here.
Compulsory USDA organic certification standards for bird-friendly certification minimize the use of harmful pesticides that reduce biodiversity and are an important food source for wildlife (birds eat bugs). It also prohibits most synthetic fertilizers which can have major impacts on rivers and lakes with water runoff.
Bird-friendly certification standards for sustainable coffee are based directly on qualified scientific research which is continually refined and expanded on. Through decades of research, they have defined what combination of foliage cover, tree height, and diversity is required to strike a balance between environmental protection and productive farms.
Bird-Friendly certification allows farmers to sell their coffee beans for a premium and often adds a few cents per cup of coffee for the end consumer. For the positive impact, this certification provides farmers, wildlife, and the environment, it’s a small price to pay.
The biggest downfall of the Bird Friendly certification is it is generally only in operation in the Americas. Key coffee-producing regions in Africa, India, and Asia can not usually gain certification through this program. SMBC states they are looking to expand their certification system to cover the globe.
Best for social issues and income equality
Fairtrade International’s mission is to promote fairer trading conditions for farmers, especially smaller producers, over a range of crop types including coffee. Fairtrade seeks to improve the relationships in the supply chain in order to improve livelihoods, economic factors and empower producers to combat poverty.
The fair trade movement can trace its origins back to the 1940s but it wasn’t until 1988 that a Fairtrade certification was introduced in the Netherlands, in response to the coffee crisis of 1988. The certification had the goal of artificially raising coffee prices to ensure farmers could earn a fair and liveable wage.
In 1997 the current Fairtrade international label was formed representing a non-profit, multi-stakeholder association that brings together all the major actors in the fairtrade system. Fairtrade International is responsible for setting the Fairtrade standards, coordinating global Fairtrade strategy, and are the owners of the Fairtrade mark.
How effective is the Fair Trade certification?
The Fairtrade certification is one of the most common and recognizable labels to see on coffee packaging today, but is it effective in improving the livelihood of farmers? Well, it depends, but overall the effects from becoming Fairtrade certified are reported by farmers to be positive.
Once a producer is certified, a price premium is attached to their product, which generates more revenue, and in many cases, a more sustainable income. Typically, the current premiums per pound for Fair Trade Coffee is at minimum $1.40 and $1.70 for FT and Organic double-certified beans, around 40% higher than conventional coffee prices.
In the early 2000s, the Fair Trade Certification played a crucial role in reducing the negative effects of a price crisis. The safety net for certified producers allowed them to survive through troubling times.
While Fairtrade’s primary goal is focused on helping farmers gain a sustainable wage, certified producers can also see considerable improvements in a range of areas including reducing child labor, agricultural practices, and workers’ rights.
Another important benefit that is easy to overlook is the fact Fairtrade Certified Coffee has helped the industry shift to a more environmentally-friendly production methods and move away from the many damaging effects conventional coffee growing is responsible for.
Producers must meet a comprehensive set of requirements to gain and maintain Fairtrade certification. You can explore FTI’s full requirements for producers and manufacturers here and the coffee-specific requirement here. Producers are audited every three years, or six years for smaller farms by FLO-CERT, a for-profit business owned by Fairtrade International.
While there have been several studies that show improvements in some farmers’ situations, other studies have shown little to no improvement, especially for smaller and poorer producers – typically those in Africa.
The cost of gaining certification will sometimes eat away at the profit margins of any price premium and any productivity improvements. This high cost has led to some mixed reviews from different producers around the world.
The Fair Trade certification does very little for the quality and productivity side of the coffee industry, instead shifting its focus to improving the living standards and situations of the farmers and employees producing the coffee.
In saying that, the general consensus is that Fair Trade has made an overall positive impact in available and reliable studies related to the sustainable coffee certification. This just isn’t a 100% success rate – there are too many variables at play, such as geographical location, size of producer, and how much available revenue there is to get and maintain certification.
One thing Fair Trade does well is it promotes the need for more sustainable and conscious coffee to us as consumers.
Best for holistic coverage of eco-friendly coffee concerns
Rainforest Alliance seeks to bring together communities, companies, governments, civil society, and individuals with the goal of creating a more sustainable world. Unlike the Bird Friendly and Fairtrade certifications, Rainforest Alliance has a more holistic approach, seeking to simultaneously protect forests and biodiversity, take action on climate change, and improve the livelihoods of producers and workers.
Rainforest Alliance has 4 focus areas of “intervention” for achieving their goals
- Sustainability certification for coffee producers
- Landscape management and conservation of tropical ecosystems
- Advocacy for sustainability among governments, companies, and organizations
- Supply chain services to help companies embrace sustainability practice
Rainforest Alliance is an international non-profit founded in 1987 and headquartered in New York. At its conception, Rainforest Alliance was a coalition between Latin American NGOs and the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). The organization has since gone on to have a presence in 70 countries across the world, making it one of the most widespread certifications in the coffee industry.
In 2003 Rainforest Alliance partnered with coffee giant Nespresso (a division of Nestlé) to create the AAA Sustainable Quality Program. AAA is an internal certification that has opt-in independent certification for producers overseen by Rainforest Alliance.
In 2018 Rainforest Alliance merged with the UTZ Certification program (more on UTZ below). In July 2020 the UTZ label began to be phased out to be united under the Rainforest Alliance label. Farms and companies with UTZ certification must transition to the Rainforest Alliance 2020 certification program.
How effective is the Rainforest Alliance certification?
Historically, Rainforest Alliance’s (RA) reputation for effectiveness has been mixed. As one of the largest VSS certification bodies, there have been many studies into the organization’s effectiveness, often with contradictory results.
Proponents of Rainforest Alliance will point to its tough stance on deforestation, biodiversity, and soil quality improvements, increased income due to improved farm management, and improved conditions of workers. It is also important to consider RA’s reach, global impact, and role in educating us as consumers about sustainability issues within the coffee industry.
Some of the common criticisms leveled at Rainforest Alliance in the past include questions around auditing standards, evidence that certification had little impact on farming practices, questions around integrity, credibility and relationships with corporate interests, and the fact that as little as 30% of the coffee in a package can be grown under RA criteria whilst still carrying the Rainforest Alliance seal.
In 2020 RA revamped its certification criteria for producers under a new model based on constant improvement, with less reliance on pass/fail metrics.
What effect this new system will have on RA certifications effectiveness (if any) will need to be carefully studied over the coming years. To view the guidelines and make your own choice view RA’s 2020 Sustainable Agriculture Standard: Farm Requirements. Full credit to RA for creating this transparent, user-friendly, and readily available resource.
Rainforest Alliance is an important organization when it comes to eco-friendly coffee. When you look at its impact on a global scale it has undoubtedly been positive. Whether its impact could have been greater is still a topic for debate, but it is hoped that the new standards imposed in 2020 will go some way towards setting the story straight once and for all.
Best for sustainable farming practices
Unlike the other certifications on this list, USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) organic certification was developed and is enforced by the United States Government.
The certification is designed to ensure a wide range of products (including coffee) are produced in line with strict national standards, allowing shoppers to make informed decisions about their purchases.
When it comes to coffee, USDA certification ensures the crop is grown and processed without the use of prohibited chemicals, such as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are expressly forbidden.
With the public gaining growing awareness of the drawbacks of synthetic and/or chemical farming practices, the U.S. saw increasing consumer demand for organic products in the 1960s and ’70s.
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990 to develop a national standard for organic food production. This was followed by the formation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in 1992.
In 2002, the National Organic Program (NOP) was formed to develop and enforce uniform practices for the organic production of agricultural products in the U.S.
“Organic” is now a common phrase that is often associated with healthy and natural coffee. A study by National Coffee Data Trends shows that 44% of coffee drinkers are more likely to buy coffee that is organically certified. Organic sales account for over 4% of total U.S. food sales, according to recent data.
How effective is USDA Organic?
Coffee that has gained the USDA Organic certification has passed and maintained high standards that impact the health of the soil, the management of weeds and pests, as well as the processing and roasting of the coffee.
Organic certification generally promotes sustainable farming practices. This basically means that no prohibited chemicals (mainly pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) were used in the production and processes for at least 3 years before certification is granted.
Organic certified coffee farms must rely on natural substances and biologically based farming methods in order to maximize their yield while maintaining certification. This encourages the use of natural soil building techniques and the use of physical or mechanical pest control practices.
Organic fertilizers allow for healthy and more fertile soil while minimizing the negative impact of chemical runoff into water bodies associated with synthetic fertilizers. Organic farming practices also tend to reduce soil erosion and provide a more natural habitat for birds and insects, promoting healthy ecosystems.
Coffee products labeled as organic-certified must have at least 95% certified organic content by law. The “made with” organic label requires at least 70% of the coffee product to be certified organic with strict standards for the remaining ingredients.
The USDA Organic Certification has the highest recognition among consumers and has had a significant positive impact on people’s willingness to spend a little extra to buy eco-friendly coffee rather than conventional.
There are very few negatives to this certification. Organic fertilizers tend to release nutrients slower, which means it takes longer to bear harvestable “coffee cherries”. Natural pest and weed controls may also be less effective or require significantly more work to implement and maintain. These combined with the cost of certification can eat into farmers’ profit margins and may be a limiting factor for small producers.
However, when viewed against the long-term benefits to soil fertility, health impacts on workers and consumers, and the price organic certified coffee maintains, there is little doubt that this certification is highly effective in meeting its goals.
This certification is often best for eco-friendly coffee lovers when paired with the other certifications on this list. Keep in mind that USDA organic certification is a core component of Bird-Friendly certification.
The Common Code for the Coffee Community (4C)
Now operating as 4C Services and The Global Coffee Platform
Global Coffee Platform seeks to bring coffee producers, roasters, retailers, traders, governments, donors, and NGOs together to multiply efforts, collectively act on local issues, and scale successful sustainability initiatives across the sector.
4C Services is an independent assurance and compliance company operating under the 4C Certification System. 4C Services seeks to work towards sustainable coffee supply chains and improved livelihoods of farmers.
Despite being the most recent coffee certification on this list, 4C has had a turbulent and somewhat confusing history, especially in recent years. The Common Code for the Coffee Community was founded in 2003 as a multi-stakeholder system for defining a mainstream code of conduct for sustainability in the coffee industry.
In 2007 the organization created the 4C Association as a membership program for coffee producers that met the standards of their code of conduct.
In 2016 the organization split its membership and compliance service, rebranding it as Coffee Assurance Services (CAS) in order to “to separate the commercial certification-related activities from its pre-competitive activities”. The 4C association was also rebranded at this time to the Global Coffee Platform.
Coffee Assurance Services (CAS) was purchased by MEO Carbon Solutions in 2018 and again rebranded to 4C Services where it continues to operate as the owner of the 4C Code of Conduct and the independent assurance and compliance body under the 4C Certification System. 4C Services remains an active member of the GCP and is part of its technical committee.
4C services updated their system regulations as of 1 July 2020, seemingly in an attempt to address criticism of the 4C certification system as a “low barrier to entry standard without visibility”. What changes (if any) this makes to the effectiveness of the certification will need to be studied over the coming years.
While 4C Services evolved into a fully-fledged certification standard, the Global Coffee Platform continued under the original mission of the Common Code for the Coffee Community. Bringing in stakeholders from across the industry to create a separate, if not somewhat similar, code for sustainability in the coffee industry.
In October 2021 the Global Coffee Platform published their renamed and updated Coffee Sustainability Reference Code (formerly The Baseline Coffee Code which was previously named the Baseline Common Code). “The Baseline Coffee Code is a reference framework rather than a standard that measures field level sustainability of green coffee production and primary processing”.
How effective is 4C certification?
The standards for certification under the 4C Code of Conduct are widely viewed as an “entry-level” certification. While it does attempt to prohibit the most egregious practices such as slavery, child labor, the use of banned pesticides, and deforestation, its primary criteria are comparatively weak and severely lacking in definitive benchmarks.
The 4C certification system is governed by the 4C Code of Conduct and covers a range of factors to improve the overall sustainability of the coffee supply chain. These are split into three major areas;
- Environmental – Coffee cultivation is not contributing to deforestation or reduction of biodiversity. Good agricultural practices and the protection of soil, water and air are applied
- Social – Human, labor and land rights are respected
- Economic – Farmers are sufficiently trained to increase productivity and profitability
The 4C code of conduct comprises 12 principles and 45 criteria the latter of which is used to judge if a producer meets the certification standard in an audit. Compliance is measured on 3 levels under a vision of “continuous improvement and a low barrier to entry”.
Depending on where a particular company falls along the coffee supply chain, whether a producer of coffee beans, trader, importer, roaster, or coffee shop chain, there is a specific set of requirements to be met and maintained.
The auditing process is based on a 3 yearly cycle with some criteria necessary for initial certification, some within 3 years and others within 6 years. This means that a farm can technically be certified despite not being compliant with many of the code’s criteria for up to 6 years.
It’s worth noting that 4C Services requires much less land to be audited compared to other certifications. This means there can be unseen issues in the unaudited portion of land which can still contribute to coffee deemed as certified under the standard.
Many of the Code of Conduct’s criteria require a producer to create, implement and comply with their own sustainability management plans, particularly around environmental protection and rehabilitation. This is usually monitored over a 6 year period and with no definitive benchmarks it’s quite possible that these criteria hold little impact on certification
An important factor to consider is that while the 4C certification typically shows smaller signs of improvement compared with other certifications on this list, the cost of becoming and maintaining certification is considerably less. This helps those who need it most due to poverty and other economic factors.
4C has shown improvements in the income coffee growers can obtain however, this varies depending on where the coffee is sourced.
The certification criteria of the 4C Code of Conduct are an important starting point and benchmark for ensuring basic human rights and environmental practices were followed in a coffee product’s production.
We would certainly recommend 4C certified coffee over non-certified coffee for this reason. However, any of the other certifications on this list would be a better choice for consumers concerned with eco-friendly standards.
UTZ certified merged with Rainforest Alliance in January 2018. As a major contributor to global coffee certification standards, we have included them here for reference.
UTZ Certified was an organization whose aim was to create an open and transparent marketplace for sustainable agricultural products. UTZ looked to achieve its goals by educating and training producers on best practices and empowering consumers to buy products that meet their standards for social and environmental responsibility.
UTZ was Founded in 1997 as “UTZ Kapeh” which means good coffee in the Mayan language QuichÚ. At its origin, UTZ was a cooperative effort between a Guatemalan coffee producer and the Dutch coffee roaster Ahold Coffee Company. UTZ Kapeh opened its first office in Guatemala City in 1999 followed by its head office in the Netherlands in 2002
UTZ Kapeh became an independent NGO in 2000 and certified their first coffee farms in 2001.
In March 2007, UTZ Kapeh changed its name to “UTZ CERTIFIED Good Inside” and by 2014, the State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) reported the UTZ program to be the largest for sustainable coffee farming in the world.
In 2018, UTZ officially merged with the Rainforest Alliance. In July 2020 the UTZ label began to be phased out to be united under the Rainforest Alliance label. Farms and companies with UTZ certification have been required to transition to the Rainforest Alliance 2020 certification program.
Was UTZ certification effective?
UTZ’s certification criteria were based on socially, environmentally, and economically conscious growing standards. UTZ relied on a field-based adaptation of GlobalG.A.P. standards for Good Agricultural Practices in combination with International Labour Organization (ILO) Labor standards as a basis for the certification criteria.
UTZ looked to achieve holistic sustainability on 3 fronts by educating farmers and providing technical assistance and capacity building.
Economic – Through increased productivity and farm professionalism.
Environmental – Through preserving flora, fauna, shade, and buffer zones.
Social – Through worker health and safety.
UTZ Certification falls somewhere between Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance in its goals. However, without setting a price minimum, it was weaker on social and economic improvements than Fairtrade while also weaker on environmental protections compared to Rainforest Alliance.
The most prominent impact of the UTZ certification was improvements to farming methods. These improvements and efficiencies provided flow-on effects that improved all 3 sustainability fronts to some extent.
While UTZ certification was said to improve the lives of workers, it was generally through on-farm improvements to housing, work safety, training, and amenities. Wages for workers typically did not improve despite increased profits for farm owners.
Environmental protections were UTZ’s greatest weakness. Coffee farmers in Brazil claimed that UTZ should increase its environmental impact by raising its environmental requirements and providing more details on how to meet environmental criteria.
Nespresso AAA and Starbucks C.A.F.E
Certifications created by large corporate retailers like Starbucks and Nespresso are becoming popular in the coffee industry as they are argued to be cheaper while being just as effective as the independent programs.
The fact is, these internal sustainability standards are questionably verified. Without an independent body to verify all the data, they are less reliable than the other independent certifications on this list.
Nespresso’s AAA program has tried to negate the inevitable conflict of interest by allowing “farmers to opt to certify the performance of their farms via the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade International, and Fairtrade USA certifications.”
While this is a step in the right direction only 48% of AAA-certified coffee is sourced from independently certified producers. – Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality program
It’s hard to define the line between positive policy improvements and the marketing budgets of coffee giants when looking at these internal certifications.
In saying that, the fact Starbucks and Nespresso have made these AAA and C.A.F.E. ratings go to show how valuable our actions as consumers are. As a society, we hold power over these brands by choosing to only support sustainable coffee.
Final Thoughts on Sustainable Coffee Certifications
Smithsonian Bird Friendly Coffee has excellent environmental protection and is the only legitimate “shade-grown” coffee certification. Because of its strict guidelines, Bird Friendly coffee is often harder to find and more expensive to the consumer.
Fairtrade Certified coffee provides the greatest positive impacts for workers and farmers. The certification is well known and Fairtrade certified coffee products are widely available. Coffee products are often double certified with Fairtrade and other environmental certifications such as Rainforest Alliance.
Rainforest Alliance (RA) is by far the largest coffee certification and is widely available to consumers. RA’s certification standards take a holistic approach covering social, ethical and environmental concerns. However, these standards are often weaker when compared to Bird Friendly, Fairtrade, and USDA Organic.
USDA Organic enforces sustainable farming practices that have many positive impacts on the environment and the consumer. Organic certified coffee is widely available and relatively inexpensive. For best results find coffee that is double certified with any of the other independent certifications on this list.
The Common Code for the Coffee Community is a basic certification that ensures the most egregious environmental and social impacts of coffee production are avoided. 4C coffee is still preferable to non-certified coffee but if you have the choice the others above are better options.
Nespresso AAA and Starbucks C.A.F.E are internal certifications run by mega-corporations. With questions around the inevitable conflict of interest this creates, and the limited insight into their effectiveness, it will be up to you as a consumer to decide whether this is something more than “greenwashing”