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How To Buy Ethically Sourced Coffee: 11 Things To Look For

arabica coffee beans

Supporting ethically and responsibly produced items has become a bigger concern in the mind of consumers. This includes food and beverages such as coffee. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear whether your coffee selection is ethically sourced.

With many different labels and phrases to sift through, it is no wonder customers have questions about how their coffee is made and produced. We have taken a closer look at this problem and provided an in-depth answer below.

We will share what the different labels mean, the eight labels to look for that indicate ethically sourced products, and the three things you shouldn’t be paying attention to when shopping.

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The 8 Ethically Sourced Coffee Labels to Look For

1. USDA Organic Seal

One of the more important seals you want to look for is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). They are a non-profit organization that checks the integrity of the food and beverages consumed in the United States. In this case, you want to look for the USDA organic seal. This term indicates the coffee was verified by government-accredited inspectors to ensure it meets their standards. Keep in mind, however, the term “organic” is not enough. Organic alone doesn’t have any legal bearing, so you want to look for the USDA deal.

The Problems

The USDA is charged with making sure coffee producers don’t use any synthetic pesticides in their crops, and they are not planting too close to non-organic crops. Furthermore, they ensure their no excess erosion which is common in coffee farming. They require all coffee to be certified in these areas, however, they are not able to check and oversee every farm across the globe. As problems go, however, USDA organic has the best track record.

2. Fair Trade Certified

This is another important term that you want to look for in its entirety. Like organic, “fair trade” doesn’t have any meaning that is governed. On the other hand, seals from Fairtrade International or Fair Trade USA ensure the coffee is produced in a fair environment. For it to meet the requirements of either organization, the coffee must be grown and manufactured inside labor laws. Farms and roasters must also meet environmental and production requirements. For example, farmers must be receiving fair market value for their crops.

The Problems

For reference, Fairtrade International is made up of Co-ops and smaller farms while Fair Trade USA is comprised of Co-ops and individual companies that are generally big brand names. Both organizations are hard-pressed to ensure the fair wages of each small farmer. In addition to that, farmers and roasters that employ less than 20 employees are not regulated at all. This means the poorest of farmers are falling between the cracks, and still making far below market price for their beans.

3. Rainforest Alliance Certified

This is a lesser-known coffee deal, yet it makes a large impact on whether or not your purchase is ethically sourced. The Rainforest Alliance was created to protect the environment, but it also covers several other areas. For example, the Alliance looks at whether the coffee was grown in the shade, whether clean water was used, and child labor laws followed. Overall, they aim to make sure coffee exporters are producing their beans in an eco-friendly environment.

The Problems

Although this organization brings a lot to the table, there are some distinct problems. First and most importantly, while they do enforce their policies, it is only done for about 30% of coffee for any given producer. This means 70% of any bag of beans bearing this label will not be subject to these requirements. Additionally, they do not have any current rules regarding minimum purchase price, or the farmer’s fair wages.

4. Direct Trade

Direct Trade, in essence, is an important part of ethically produced and sold coffee beans. This term indicates the middleman has been cut out of the equation so farmers (especially smaller farmers) can make more profits. A side effect of this is the strengthening of the relationship between roasters and coffee planters.

The Problems

The main problem here is there is no legal meaning to the term direct trade, and besides being partly regulated by other organizations, there is no overseeing body to enforce it. Coffee products that indicate direct trade on their label are likely so, but there is no law governing what the term entails leaving the definition open to individual interpretation.

5. Shade Grown

Shade-grown is meant to underline various problems in coffee agriculture. In a general sense, the label indicates the coffee is derived from plants that are covered by a canopy of trees; grown in the shade of other plants. This is important for several reasons. First, it protects the various species of animals who inhabit the overgrowing trees, so they are not left homeless if the trees are cut down. Larger plants also retain more moisture. This reduces the amount of water needed to grow coffee; plus, moist soil is less likely to erode.

The Problems

Like many of the other labels we have discussed, there is no legal bearing to the term shade-grown. While manufacturers can put this on their packaging, it is often loosely defined. For example, there is no enforcement regarding how much shade there needs to be, nor is there regulation regarding documentation.

6. Bird-Friendly Certified

This is another lesser-known seal you may find on a coffee package, but unlike the other labels, this one has fewer problems. The Bird-Friendly Certified commission was created by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to promote and protect winged wildlife. Under their certification, coffee must be shade-grown. Plus, unlike the Shade Grown seal, they pay attention to details such as the height of the canopy. As a bonus, the coffee must also pass their organic regulations that deal with issues like pesticides.

The Problems

As mentioned, this particle coffee label is a good one to look for, but it doesn’t cover all the bases for truly ethically sourced beans. Issues such as fair market price and labor laws are not part of their regulatory system.

7. UTZ Certified

UTZ Certified is a broad agricultural and environmental protection that is focused on habitat preservation. UTZ is a term that means “good” in the Maya language, and it’s designed to oversee the agricultural effects of several crops besides coffee. Some of the areas they cover include excess water use, pesticide use, and erosion. This branch of requirements has also been absorbed into the Rainforest Alliance.

The Problems

The main issue with UTZ certification is the broad scope of the plants it oversees, as well as the general terms in which the regulations are put forth. It provides a lot of wiggle room for coffee producers and growers. They also don’t require any regulations on the shade. What’s more, as they are part of the Rainforest Alliance, they are also subject to their drawbacks.

8. Proudly Made In Africa

This is a new term that is starting to gain momentum. Generally, finished products are held at a higher value. For example, coffee beans that are grown, roasted, packaged, and shipped from one place will command a higher price. Being able to produce a finished product is the game plan for how many smaller coffee farmers are finding financial independence. The Proudly Made In Africa (PMIA) organization was created to support this concept, and they provide tools to small, poverty-stricken coffee planters.

The Problems

The PMIA foundation is primarily geared toward wages and fair-trade practices. They do not cover environmental issues such as shade, erosion, and organic production. That being said, they do provide their partners with training in many areas, and they also help attain certifications and meet regulations so small businesses can compete with larger corporations.

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The 3 Things That Don’t Matter for Ethically Sourced Coffee

Now that you have an idea about what to look for, and what those things mean, it’s time to learn what things are not important to your search for ethically sourced coffee. Three additional things are not relative but are often mistaken for important.

1. Price

coffee beans display with prices
Image Credit: StockSnap, Pixabay

Many people often confuse a high price tag with quality, organic, or well-sourced coffee. This is not necessarily the case. Price has little to nothing to do with whether it was grown in the shade, whether it’s organic, or if the farmer is being paid a fair price for their beans.

Be that as it may, some of the biggest coffee companies produce the cheapest coffee. They are also the most likely offenders of unfair practices and non-eco-friendly policies. This is true for big brands like Maxwell House and Folgers. The smaller coffee producers are usually more likely to follow regulations as the “labels” give them a foothold against the conglomerates.

2. The Label and Packaging

coffee label and packaging in white background
Image Credit: earlybird coffee, Unsplash

In this case, the label we are referring to is the actual brand, logo, and design on the packaging. You mustn’t be lured in by pretty or fancy packaging. Some of the best coffee in the world comes in a brown paper bag-like package while the less ethical is provided to consumers in glass with fancy logos. Fancy and elaborate packaging is often a product of marketing. Those without the resources to hire a marketing team often put their resources into their beans instead.

3. Lack of Labels

coffee beans spill over the table
Image Credit: Darina Belonogova, Pexels

If you have a favorite coffee that doesn’t have any of the above-mentioned labels, don’t worry. No regulation states coffee manufacturers, farmers, or roasters must put their certification seals on their products. As mentioned, smaller producers may not have the ability to add these seals, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have them. If this is the case with your favorite brand, your best option is to do some research to see what the brand is doing behind the scenes.

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What is Ethically Sourced Coffee?

Most people consider the definition of ethically sourced to be, “the process of ensuring that the products made are obtained through responsible and sustainable methods”. This, however, is a very broad idea and makes sense more for companies that are sourcing materials to use in their businesses.

So, what does it mean for a person? Ethically sourcing items such as coffee mean you have done your due diligence on the product, and you are confident you are not adding to the exploitation of workers. In other words, you’re not contributing to the injustice of poverty-level wages and prices for small, poor coffee farmers.

Many people take this idea to the next level by also including other concepts, as well. Ethically sourcing can include buying products from eco-friendly companies. Those who grow in the shade, protect habitats, and take steps to prevent erosion can also be added to the definition.

cropped farmer harvesting coffee cherries
Image Credit: danramirez, Pixabay

What Does An Ethically Sourced Company Look Like?

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy finding an ethically sourced coffee nor is it easy to spot an unethical one. Even the quality of the coffee is not a fair indication of whether it’s responsibly made and paid with fair wages.

The overall issue is the result of the dramatic coffee inflation over the last several decades. Coffee is in high demand and brings in a higher dollar amount than ever before. Not only that, but consumers are also more interested in the ethics of the companies they support.

This created a hefty incentive for companies to shape up their business practices. Sadly, though, it also led to many coffee manufacturers taking advantage of unregulated terms like “direct trade” and “organic”. Adding these terms to their packaging and labels gives them higher credibility, therefore, higher profits.

So, how do you tell an ethically sourced coffee brand from a non-responsible one? First, familiarize yourself with the labels and certifications above, so you know what each one means. Beyond that, take a look at the company for the following:

Clear Identification

The coffee in question should be very clear about who they are, where they are located, and where they are headed. The typical ethical company will have clearly defined goals for its brand, community, and future.

Accurate Information

You also want to check for the accuracy of their information. Are there conflicting statements about where they are located, what year they were established, or their growing procedure? Keep this in mind for any promises they make, as well. Did they follow through with promises in the past? Are their promises attainable?

Lifeboost types of coffee
Lifeboost is a great example of an ethically sourced coffee company.

Clear Information

Not to be confused with clear identification, clear information means is the info on their website easy to understand and navigate? Do they have all the normal pages like about us, what we do, etc? Also, is the info on their packaging easy to read and understand?

Labor Policies

Most coffee producers that are exploiting their workers will not have any information about their employees on their farming partners. On the other hand, ethically responsible coffee growers will provide the information upfront.

Cultural and Local Awareness

This is another area where ethical companies will step up to the plate. As they are doing their part to be responsible, they will offer up information on preserving their culture or community. Any info on either of these topics is worth taking a look at.


Overall, the key thing you want to look for is transparency in the information. Any details that are hard to find, out of sight, misleading, confusing, or absent are a cause for concern. This is also true if there is a

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Finding an ethically sourced coffee you love does more than just put your mind at ease. It also helps provide fair wages to poor farmers, protects the environment, animal species, and the earth. It also helps with pollution, water conservation, and the quality of the item we consume. Although it can be confusing at times, we hope this article has helped to define which coffee brands are worth supporting.

Featured Image Credit: Ri_Ya, Pixabay


Kate MacDonnell

Kate is a lifelong coffee enthusiast and homebrewer who enjoys writing for coffee websites and sampling every kind of coffee known to man. She’s tried unusual coffees from all over the world and owns an unhealthy amount of coffee gear.

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