This is your definitive guide to the 10 most popular coffee certifications.
With it you can be a wiser consumer and help us to protect a sustainable environment.
Learn about these certifications so you can choose wisely.
Pass it on!
1. Fair Trade USA
FairTrade USA pays a premium to producers in developing countries of coffee , tea, bananas and other foods in return for their long-term investment in their farms, ecosystems, skills, worker safety, and communities through schools and community centers. Coffee is central to Fair Trade, accounting for a whopping 70% of its products in the US. Products can be called Fair Trade if they contain as little as 10% Fair Trade certified products, and large coffee farms are allowed to gain the certification — these were 2 central points of difference with FairTrade International from which FairTrade USA split in 2011. Fair Trade USA has been criticized as a “sell out” to larger corporate farms and to brands like Starbucks that can have as little as 10% in their coffee bag and still claim Fair Trade USA, but it’s still a positive sign of good stewardship of farms and good business practices.
Good for: Ensuring that some of your money reaches farmers and help improve their communities.
In the US, the USDA certifies farms and products as organic, based on 3 conditions: (1) no use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers within the past 3 years, (2) there is sufficient separation of organic and conventional crops and (3) the farm has a crop rotation plan in place. 75% of the world’s organic certified coffee comes from Latin America. Farms pay inspection fees of up to $2,000 / year, placing this certification out of the reach of small producers – which is the main criticism of it, that USDA Organic favors large farms. We know MANY farms in Ethiopia, Kenya, Hawaii, Sumatra and Central America that are organic but can’t pay the USDA inspection fee annually. In reality, only 4% of Starbucks coffee is Organic certified.
Good for: Encouraging large farms to be ecologically responsible.
Skeptics say: Inspections and compliance expensive so large farms use “Organic” to gain a benefit over small family farms.
This certification is awarded only by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and it’s the only true and the most rigorous “shade-grown” certification. It requires the separate organic certification plus a minimum of 40% shade cover by a canopy 12 meters high or more, with at least 11 species of trees. That’s rigorous! Growers often receive 5-10 cents premium per pound, roughly 10% above their typical prices. That’s in addition to the premium they receive for being organic.
There is no certification fee, but producers must pay for initial and periodic audits. However, these are combined with organic certification audits, and Bird-Friendly certification lasts for three years, not just one. Importers pay a fee of $100/yr, and roasters pay 25 cents/lb. These fees support bird conservation research.
Good for: Conservation of migratory birds through natural shade
Skeptics say: Why are you so worried about birds?
4. Rainforest Alliance
The Rainforest Alliance certifies farms (as opposed to crops or products) especially in tropical regions, and 75% of certificates (783,000) are for small farms. Its goal is to conserve ecosystems, protect biodiversity, reduce the use of agricultural chemicals, and promote worker safety. Its long list of standards include that farms must have an ecosystem conservation program, protect wild animals and waterway, and not contract children under 15 years old.
Good for: Ensuring that the farmer directly meets standards for conservation, sustainability, and good management.
Skeptics say: But it does not offer its farms minimum or guaranteed prices for their coffee.
5. UTZ Certified
UTZ claims to be the largest certification program involving coffee, and cocoa, certifying 9% of the world’s coffee and over 10,000 different product packages. UTZ certifies that farms growing coffee, tea or cocoa comply with their standards for sustainability which includes good agricultural practices, farm management, social and living conditions, and the environment. All the practices fall under UTZ’s Code of Conduct which uniquely was developed with input from farmers. Uniquely it was started by a Belgian-Guatemalan coffee farmer and a Dutch coffee roaster, so UTZ is believed to have the farmers’ interests at heart.
Good For: Feeling confident that farms you buy from are investing in their future and treating workers fairly.
Skeptics Say: Like all these other certifications, UTZ doesn’t certify the quality and flavor of the product, only the farming practices used by its certified farms.
6. Direct Trade
The Big Three of the “Third Wave” of specialty coffee — Intelligentsia Coffee, Stumptown Coffee, and Counter Culture Coffee — pioneered Direct Trade and have trademarked the term. It means coffee purchased directly from the farmer or producer by the roaster. It cuts out middlemen and allows the producer / farmer to potentially get paid more money for a quality product.
There are a lot of hucksters in the coffee business who take advantage of small farmers in developing nations, and many middlemen. This eliminates them. Because the roasters communicate directly to the producers / farmers, they can say exactly what they are looking for from the grower and pay a premium price, often with forward contracts to pre-purchase harvests. This is a response to Fair Trade coffee which doesn’t necessarily pay the farmer a higher price or result in a higher quality product.
Good for: High quality tasting coffee from reliable growers
Skeptics say: If you cut out all the coffee middlemen why are you still charging me so much for that coffee?
7. SPP (Small Producers Symbol)
Also called Símbolo de Pequeños Productores, SPP is the only grass-roots certification owned by and for small farm cooperatives, primarily in Central America. It doesn’t have the marketing muscle of Fair Trade USA and the Rainforest Alliance but it certifies that farms adhere to fair and transparent business and farming practices, and unlike Fair Trade USA is restricts membership to small farms.
We see the SPP certificate on more and more coffees from Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, even Sumatra.
Good for: Ensuring your coffee comes from a small farming cooperative with sustainable business practices
Skeptics say: They respect the SPP.
8. CAFE (Coffee and Farm Equity)
When you’re Starbucks and you buy 545 million pounds a year of coffee beans, you can make your own coffee growing standards!
That’s the genesis of Starbuck’s CAFE which ensures that coffee purchased by Starbucks meets its ethical responsibility standards for cultivation, transparency, environmental sustainability and worker treatment. Starbuck’s goal is for 100% of its coffee to be CAFE certified by 2015. That’s good considering that only 8% of its coffee is Fair Trade certified, and only 1% is USDA Organic!
Good for: Ensuring that Starbucks coffee producers meet a minimum farming standard
Skeptics say: This is more of a minimum standard producers need to meet to sell to Starbucks than it is a blueprint to improve your farm, business and society.
9. Cup of Excellence
This is the ultimate sign that a coffee is quality, that it has been rated and sold through a Cup of Excellence competition. During the competition Q-Graders who are coffee tasting experts rate every coffee submitted by small producers in countries that hold Cup of Excellence competitions including Brazil, Burundi, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Rwanda.
These are small farms often selling micro-lots of their finest coffee. There is absolute transparency in pricing because bidders from around the world bid in an online auction. In fact, many of the top lots from South America are gobbled up by buyers from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan at prices nearing $50 a pound. This is outrageously high prices considering that commodity coffee is sold by the farm for about $1 a pound.
Good for: Unique coffees pre-approved and judged by quality coffee graders
Skeptics say: This doesn’t certify the farm’s sustainability or custodianship of the environment. It’s just a measure of the taste of the coffee.
10. Fair Trade
This is the non-US version of Fair Trade that caused all the kerfuffle a few years back resulting in the breakout of the Direct Trade movement and Direct Trade USA. Over 1.2 million farms participate in Fair Trade in 60 countries selling approximately $4.98 in products. Fair Trade certifies ethical production of commodities like coffee to be free of child or slave labor, on environmentally sustainable farms, in safe work conditions, with transparency in pricing and farming practices.
Good for: Ensuring that a minimum standard is met in ethical sourcing of coffee.
Skeptics say: Unsure how much of the premium paid for Fair Trade coffee actually reaches producers and the working poor on farms.
Now you can purchase coffee more ethically and responsibly.
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