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Coffee Certifications and What They Mean

When you buy a cup or a bag of coffee, you want to make sure that your was grown and harvested in a sustainable way. Many people, like myself, want to buy coffee that will not hurt the environment and also be of high quality

When I first started the roastery and I was out doing sale calls to introduce myself and the coffee options to potential businesses, I can count on my hand the number of businesses that would ask me what about coffee certifications and the differences between them all.

It was even more infrequent to be asked more specific questions such as: Is your coffee fair trade and/or is your coffee organic?

Flash forward to this year and after I would give my sales pitch, I would often get questions and the most common being about the coffee being or organic and/or fair trade. For some,  it was such a big factor that it made the determination on whether they decided to order from me or not.   The same was true for the customers that came into coffee shop as well.

However, a lot of the times the people that asked these questions were confused about what this meant exactly and also were not aware of the other types of certifications out there. So it is with this in mind am going to briefly describe the types of coffee certifications available .

So what are the 6 most common Coffee Certifications that are currently used? Here are the most commonly used ones:

  1. Fair Trade
  2. Bird Friendly
  3. Rainforest Alliance
  4. Carbon Neutral
  5. Organic
  6. Direct Trade

Fair Trade

Fairtrade International was established in Germany in 1997 and brings together different global initiatives under one umbrella organization and establishing a set of international standards for fair trade. Its purpose is to make sure that coffee is grown according to a set of strict standards that encourage environmental sustainability, as well as ensuring that the people involved in production were treated and compensated fairly

In short, the Fair Trade certification model—pays producers an above-market “fair trade” price provided they meet specific labor, environmental, and production standards.

It needs to be noted here that the Fair Trade Certification as changed recently as initially there was a split between 2 groups, the Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International due to who should get the certification just small farms or both large and small.

To make matters even more confusing, Fair Trade USA then split again and so there is now a third organization called Fair Trade America which is independent from the 2 but is more closely aligned to Fair Trade International?

Did you get all that? Anyway its not my intention to go into all the details here as you can read more about through other sources but you do need to know that there are now 3 types of Fair Trade certifications and which one is best is up to the individual buyer.

Bird Friendly

This certification comes from what I think is a rather surprising source, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington D.C. This type of certification is very strict compared to the others as they must first get there organic certification.   This certification is almost always from family farms and basically is saying that this coffee was grown in a more natural environment and the growing and harvesting of coffee is incorporated into natural surroundings.

In a normal scenario when a farm is being prepared for coffee cultivation the land is cleared and the trees are planted. However with a bird friendly certification the farms  provide good, forest-like habitat for birds were coffee is planted under a canopy of trees rather than being grown on farms that have been cleared of vegetation. As with some others, the bird friendly certification does not get into anything else such as labor pay or work conditions.

This is probably the most strict certification of all of them and depending on your level of concern for these types of issues it’s the one that you should ask about from your local roastery or coffee shop.

Rainforest Alliance

Sometimes people assume that Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade are one in the same and/or have the same goals. Even though they both assist coffee growers there are some distinct differences.

The actual overseer and organization that controls this certification on a non profit based out of New York and whose mission is not only to protect the environment i.e. rainforest and deforestation but also the rights of the workers that grow coffee with this certification.

Because of its on-farm focus and lack of trade standards, it is more naturally suited for larger farms rather than the small producers that are at the core of the fair trade movement. It also does not prohibit the use of pesticides and therefore is distinct and separate from the organic certification.

When asking about coffee with Rainforest Alliance certification, one needs to ask if it 100% certified because under the current guidelines the coffee that is grown only has to have 30% grown under the Rainforest Alliance criteria to get this certification and the other 70% can be grown under any other method the coffee farmers deem appropriate.

Carbon Neutral

A carbon-neutral coffee business is one that, through the totality of its activities, does not add to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However verifying this is easier said then done and unfortunately, there isn’t a uniform, internationally recognized methodology or standards for determining if a company is carbon-neutral or not.

However the theory behind having coffee certified as Carbon-Free, a company must submit, the coffee for a detailed Life Cycle Analysis, a third-party process that formally scrutinizes the carbon emissions associated with every step in production. The resulting analysis accounts for all carbon dioxide emissions starting with a coffee plant and ending with an empty bag of coffee.

This type of certification similar to some of the others in which it does not take into account the conditions under which the farmers or laborers work however for those that make the effort get this type of certification are also very mindful of the workers.


In the case of green coffee entering the United States, at least 95% of what comes in cannot have been treated with pesticides or synthetic substances in order to get organic coffee certification.  In other words it has to comply with the way  coffee was grown and  harvested way back in the day before the advent of these newer ways of farming.

An important point to keep in mind when it comes to organic coffee and this certification and that it does not take into consideration basically anything else besides this criteria so it does not mean that farmers will be paid more or that there working conditions will be any better then if they were producing non organic coffee.

One also needs to take into consideration that even though a coffee is not certified as organic does not necessarily make it non-organic since many small family owned farms cannot afford to either pay for this certification or have the means to pay for the Pesticides and synthetics that may protect their crops.

The reverse is true as well where coffee that is certified organic may not necessarily be so since inspections are done usually once a year and therefore difficult to control despite the voluntary assistance of non profit and for profit companies that have services to assist in the verification process.

Direct Trade

This is where a coffee roaster will deal with the farmers directly. Another words  they will by pass any middleman and any boards that do coffee certifications like the ones listed above.

This, at first, may seem like a great situation and for a larger roaster it is but for the small roaster it is difficult to economic sense as the roaster is taking a lot of risk. Once the roaster contract with the farm he is going to have to then get the coffee to his roasting facility.

Another words he will have to get the coffee from the farm to the port of the country he is buying from. It will then have to from that port to a port, in this example to the United States and finally from there to his roasting facility.  If, at any point along the way there is an issue it will be up to the buyer to resolve it. It has been my experience therefore that if you are not a large roaster, direct trade is difficult to justify financially.

Final Thoughts on Coffee Certifications

This is by no means all the types of certifications as there are new ones coming along every once in a while however these are the major ones I was asked about and that I hope you now have a better understanding of the different types of the major Coffee certifications that are out there as well as the differences between them all.

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