The Ins and Outs of Coffee Certifications

Coffee certifications are a really interesting topic. They can provide a way for consumers to support coffee that is grown in a more sustainable way. Each certification has its own standards that a farm must meet in order to be certified by that label. Theoretically, then the farmer receives a higher premium for their coffee. For some certifications such as Organic and Smithsonian Bird Friendly – all the criteria must be abided by. For other certifications such as Rainforest Alliance or UTZ – there is a set of required criteria and then a set of optional criteria – a specified number of which must be abided by. Then there are other labels that I have seen on coffee bags that are actually not certifications like “shade grown”. There is no Shade Grown certification. The only certification that requires that the coffee farms have a certain amount of shade cover within them is Bird Friendly. Rainforest Alliance does have a shade standard in there, but it is in the optional category. So if you see the label “shade grown” – it is not third party verified. Not to say that the coffee was not grown on a shaded coffee farm, it very well could be, but it was not independently vetted.

Coffee certifications have been around since the late 60s. Each one has its own mission and point of focus, although many of them have overlapping criteria. Below is a comparison table of some of the more well-known certifications that I adapted from the SCAA Sustainability Committee.

Mission Founded Pounds Grown in 2010 Average price premium per pound
Organic Harmony with nature, supports biodiversity and enhances soil health 1967 298 million Additional

25 cents

Fair Trade Better life for farming families through fair prices, direct trade, community development, and environmental stewardship 1970s 790 million Minimum $1.31 or $1.51 if organic

Additional 10-20 cents

Rainforest Alliance Integrate biodiversity conservation, community development, workers’ rights, and productive agricultural practices 1992 897 million (up from 197 million in 2007) Additional

15 cents

Smithsonian Bird Friendly® Promote certified shade coffee as a viable supplemental habitat for birds and other organisms 1997 10.4 million Additional

5 to 10 cents over organic prices (all farms must also be certified organic)

There is a trade-off between those certifications that have very strict standards – such as Bird Friendly (BF) – and those whose standards are a bit broader like Rainforest Alliance (RA). There are not very many BF certified farms, although the number is increasing, but the high quality habitat that the farms provide is really important for wildlife. On the other hand, RA has a ton of certified farms that could be more environmentally-friendly than if they were not certified. So do you want to protect and reward a smaller amount of the highest tier of sustainable farms or do you want to protect more land, but with less strict environmental standards? It’s a tough question. I think there are benefits to both. Do farms need to be certified though to be environmentally-friendly or provide great habitat for wildlife? Do these farmers that have been working their land for generations without chemicals and in tune in nature need to pay someone come in and give their stamp of approval for their farms? That is a whole other topic all together and one that gets into a newer trend within independent coffee roasters known as direct trade…more on that in upcoming posts.

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