Quick guide to coffee certifications

Most recent update April 2024

This is a quick guide to the most common certifications seen on coffee. Information on criteria is provided, emphasizing ecological and environmental standards. All these certifications require verification by third-party auditors; producers (and in some case buyers) must pay various fees associated with certification. You can find additional posts on the standards, marketing, and issues surrounding eco-certification in the certifications category of this site.

Bird-Friendly (Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center)

The only true “shade-grown” certification, developed by ecologists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Criteria include a canopy at least 12 meters high with the dominant tree species being native, a minimum of 40% shade cover even after pruning, at least two strata or layers of vegetation, made up of at least 10 woody species dispersed throughout the production area. Additionally, the coffee must also be certified organic. Bird-Friendly certification has the most robust shade/habitat standards of any coffee certification.

This is a pass/fail, benchmark-oriented certification: all criteria must be met before certification is awarded.

Discontinued logo.

There is no minimum price set, but producers can use the certification to negotiate a better price for their coffee, generally an additional 5 to 10 cents per pound. Also, farmers typically receive a premium for their organic certification.

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.

Only coffee certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center can be called Bird-Friendy. Look for the new seal for authentic Bird-Friendly certified coffee (the gold one). Some older packaging may have the older, round seal.

More info:

Rainforest Alliance (now merged with Utz)

The Rainforest Alliance is an NGO with programs in several areas that promote standards for sustainability. Their sustainable agriculture program certifies many crops, including coffee.

Not exclusively an environmental certification, it covers a number of ecological issues as well as community relations and fair treatment of workers. Certification is awarded based on a score for meeting a minimum number of an array of criteria.

There are no criteria for shade management. Criterion is for “native vegetation cover” and is not required for six years. Therefore it is important to note that Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee may not be shade grown. There is no organic requirement (less than 20% of Rainforest Alliance-certifed coffee is also certified organic). The standard was updated in 2020. Please see this post for details.

Note that Rainforest Alliance itself cautions businesses to avoid using the term “100% sustainably/responsibly sourced” in marketing materials!

This is a process-oriented certification: Certification is granted for farms working towards the criteria in the standard. There is no way to distinguish which or how many of the criteria have been met. Rainforest Alliance tells businesses using their seal to describe sustainability as “a journey.”

Fees to producers include an annual fee based on the size of the certified area, as well as annual auditing fees.


Coffee sold as certified in the U.S. must be produced under U.S. standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Verification is carried out by accredited certifying agencies. Requirements for this seal include no use of prohibited substances on the land for at least three years.  This includes most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Other certification requirements include a buffer between the coffee and any other crop not grown organically, a plan that demonstrates methods that prevent soil erosion, and other sustainable agricultural criteria.

This is a benchmark-oriented certification: farms must be in compliance with organic practices to be certified.

Fees to producers and buyers vary depending on the certification agency, and include annual auditing fees.

If organic coffee is purchased under a Fair Trade contract (see below), the producing cooperative receives a price premium of 15 cents a pound. Outside a Fair Trade contract, producers can use the certification to negotiate a better price for their coffee.

More info:

The following are common coffee certifications that have only general ecological critera.

“Fair Trade”

Generically, “fair trade” is primarily concerned with alleviating poverty through greater equity in international trade; many products besides coffee can be certified as “fair trade.” The main fair trade organization and standards-setter is Fairtrade International (FLO), and the Fairtrade label is exclusively licensed by Fairtrade America in the U.S. Products bearing this label meet the international standard. Certification is only available to democratically-organized cooperatives or associations of small producers, not individually-owned farms or estates, or those that rely heavily on hired labor.

Fair Trade USA is another certifier of fair trade coffee and products in the U.S. Once the U.S. member of the international system, it resigned in early 2012 and is now independent.  Under Fair Trade USA, independent producers and estates can gain certification.

Under both systems, certified cooperatives receive a minimum price per pound, with an additional premium if the coffee is also certified organic. In addition, producers receive the Fairtrade Premium above the purchase price that farmers democratically invest according to their priorities.

Neither certification has criteria related to growing coffee under shade and standards regarding wildlife are relatively generic. It does not require organic certification. Fees to producers include an annual auditing fee.

Links below from Sustainability Map show that Fairtrade International has a greater number and somwhat stronger environmental critera than Fair Trade USA.

More info:


UTZ-new-logoNote that UTZ  merged with Rainforest Alliance in 2017 and a new standard was adopted in 2020. This is here for historical purposes only, please see the Rainforest Alliance section for current information.

UTZ  (formerly Utz Kapeh and UTZ Certified Good Inside) certifies several agricultural products including coffee. Their emphasis is on transparency and traceability in the supply chain and efficient farm management. The latter includes good agricultural practices such as soil erosion prevention, minimizing water use and pollution, responsible use of chemicals, and habitat protection.

Certification requires compliance with mandatory control points; the number required increases over a four-year period. The standards in the Code that deal with the environment are quite general and lack specificity for meaningful protection of habitats and biodiversity. There is no requirement for using shade trees.

This is a process-oriented certification: Certification is granted for farms working towards the criteria in the standard. There is no way to distinguish which or how many of the criteria have been met.

Fees to producers include auditing fees. The first buyer in the supply chain pays a small per-pound fee (just over 1 cent) that is passed along through the chain.

There is no minimum price set, but producers can use the certification to negotiate a better price for their coffee, currently around 6 cents/lb for arabica coffee.

More info:

Graphic adapted from Standards Map database of sustainability standards, International Trade Centre. – Used with permission.

There are several other private or voluntary initiatives that provide standards under which coffee is produced.

Remember: These certifications cost the producers money — both in fees and in changes to their methods to achieve the standards. Yet certifications don’t add intrinsic value to coffee. The extra money the farmer receives for the coffee is often entirely dependent on what the consumer is willing to pay for the social or environmental benefits of the product. Don’t expect people in the developing world to shoulder the cost of keeping your world green, safe, and prosperous. Be willing to pay more for these certifications!



Revised on April 8, 2024