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What Do These 5 Coffee Certifications Really Mean? (2022 Guide)

farmer harvesting coffee berries

Coffee certifications have come a long way in helping to protect the rights of farmers and our environment. Coffee shops have begun to pay far more attention to where they source their beans. Issues like fair trade, sustainability, and eco-friendly roasting are legitimate concerns.

It’s not just cafes that are paying closer attention, either. Individual coffee drinkers want to know how their beans of choice are being harvested, roasted, and processed. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear what the certifications mean.

To shed light on what each coffee certification means, we have shared the importance and criteria for the top five coffee seals. We will explain why each one is important, and what they are lacking.

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What Is A Coffee Certification?

According to the University of Florida, “Certified coffees take one or more aspects of sustainability into account. This means the coffee [is] grown in a healthy environment, is economically viable for farmers, promotes fairness among farmers and workers, or all three aspects.”

The trouble with the current certifications is not one of them covers every aspect that is considered important. However, charging one organization to oversee all the problems coffee production faces would be a tall order.

It would allow a lot to fall through the cracks and get lost in translation. As of now, there are five major certifications coffee can have to indicate it’s a sustainable, fair wage, eco-friendly product. Although none of them are perfect, they each cover at least one important aspect of coffee growth, production, and sale.

The Top 5 Coffee Certifications:

There are five major coffee certifications available to brands. Below, we will outline what each label means, and the criteria needed to achieve them.

1. Bird-Friendly

smithsonian bird-friendly certification logo
Image courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

Importance

Coffee bearing this label indicates it was grown under the shade of other plants. Growing coffee in the shade prevents the sun from wicking moisture away from the crops reducing the amount of water needed for growth. Larger plants prevent soil erosion and protect the habitat of migrating birds.

Criteria

Bird Friendly Certification is done on a pass/fail basis based on the following criteria:

  • Coffee must be grown organically
  • Shade is comprised of ten woody species with the majority being native
  • 40% of coffee plants must be in the shade
  • Trees/plants must be 12 meters high after pruning

Bird-Friendly certification was developed and is monitored by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), and its main purpose is to protect migrating birds and their natural habitats. So, what do birds have to do with coffee? The answer is shade. Shade is an important part of a coffee farm. It provides shade for workers, reduces the amount of water needed for crops, and it helps keep soil erosion at bay.

Bird-friendly certification ensures trees and other natural shade-producing plants are not being eradicated for farming land. In fact, it is the most stringent certification for shade on coffee farms to date. To pass the Smithsonian’s criteria, the canopy must be 12 meters high and cover 40% of the coffee crop. Additionally, there must be at least ten different tree species, and the coffee must be organically grown.


2. USDA Organic

USDA organic coffee certification
Image courtesy of USDA

Importance

USDA Organic products are grown without any harmful pesticides or other chemicals that could cause risk after consumption. The seal implies the coffee was grown in harmony with nature and has not caused any environmental damage.

Criteria

USDA Certified Organic is benchmark-orientated with several requirements in place, such as:

  • No chemicals or prohibited substances can be used in the growing process…
  • Nor can those substances be used on the soil for three years prior
  • Coffee has to be grown at a distance from non-organic crops
  • Crops are not causing unnecessary erosion
  • Various other criteria of the same ilk

The term organic is a relative term. In general language, it means the product in question has been grown and processed as naturally as possible without any chemicals or other man-made interference. That being said, an organic label has little bearing on coffee unless it is from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA has a certification program that regulates which products can bear their organic label. Accredited agencies are charged with the inspection and certification of different products such as coffee. For the coffee to receive a USDA Organic seal, farms must comply with all regulations set forth by the organization.


3. Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Alliance coffee certification logo
Image courtesy of Rainforest Alliance

Importance

A Rainforest Alliance certification is based on several factors including sustainability, fair wages, and environmental responsibility. Coffee with this seal is dedicated to the overall well-being of the industry, community, and ecosystem.

Criteria

There are no specific criteria for a Rainforest Alliance seal. Instead, farms and the coffee they harvest must meet a minimum percentage of requirements including:

  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Labor rights and fair wages
  • Conservancy of natural resources
  • Responsible farm management

The Rainforest Alliance is a broad certification that is regulated by the Sustainable Agricultural Network (SAN). Working together, they promote agricultural preservation along with the protection of workers’ rights and well-being. Recently combined with UTZ, this certification does not have any stipulations in regard to shade-grown coffee or organically grown beans.

It’s also important to note that only a minimum number of criteria needs to be met to receive this certification. In other words, the SAN only requires 30% of coffee beans from any given farm to pass their inspection. This leaves a lot of room for error. Be that as it may, the Rainforest Alliance is often given to coffee producers who are working towards a more sustainable business.


4. UTZ

UTZ coffee certification logo
Image courtesy of Rainforest Alliance’s UTZ

As of 2020, UTZ is part of the Rainforest Alliance. Originally, certification from this organization depended on the transparency of coffee production, and the traceability of the coffee beans themselves.

Some coffee brands still maintain their UTZ seal, but they are slowly being transitioned to the Rainforest Alliance certification where their regulations will take effect.


5. Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade international coffee certification logo
Image courtesy of Fairtrade International

Importance

Fair Trade looks at the livelihood of coffee farming from the fair treatment of workers to increased visibility in the market. It is meant to improve the lives of marginalized coffee planters around the world.

Criteria

Regardless of the organization, the purpose behind Fair Trade certification is similar across the board. To gain this seal, coffee businesses must show the following:

  • Increased market access to farmers
  • Fair wages
  • Increased labor laws
  • Advocacy for partnerships

Fairtrade is another term that is used as a general term for the fair treatment and wages of coffee farmers and workers. To be certified in Fair Trade, coffee producers must be recognized by one of three organizations. They recognize when coffee is paid a minimum price per pound.

The four governing organizations in this area are:

Fairtrade International is the most recognized fair trade organization in the world. They have several branches that grant certifications including Fairtrade America which holds the license for the Fairtrade certified seal for USA-based products.

Regardless of whether coffee goes through the International (FLO) or American branch, the beans must pass the same criteria. Beyond fair practices for farmers and workers, the coffee organization must be a democratic co-op or associate.

Other coffee producers who rely on hired help go through Fair Trade USA. They exclusively deal with estate farmers, bigger organizations, and individual companies. These companies are still able to gain Fair Trade Certification if they meet similar criteria.

Fair Trade seals do not regulate shade-grown coffee, organic growth, or the preservation of wildlife in any measurable way. Instead, this certification is designed to improve the lives of coffee communities living in below-poverty conditions.

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Final Thoughts

As you can see, none of the coffee certifications above are perfect. Each one is lacking in one way or another. Working as a team, however, they all cover the important issues coffee production and consumption have brought to the forefront.

Coffee certification can be confusing if you are unsure what each one means. This article was my ant to give coffee drinkers the basics of each. It provides the details, so consumers can decide which companies they want to support.


Featured Image Credit: HunterProducciones, Pixabay

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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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