Quick guide to coffee certifications
Most recent update February 2017.
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.
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-Friendly; look for this seal for authentic Bird-Friendly certified coffee.
- Quick reference to Bird-Friendly criteria
- Bird-Friendly home page
- Where to buy Bird-Friendly coffee
- Full criteria, including processing and marketing, here (PDF)
- List of Bird-Friendly farms
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, perhaps longer. Therefore it is important to note that Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee may not be shade grown. There is no organic requirement. The standards were updated for 2017. Please see this post for details.
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 an annual fee based on the size of the certified area, as well as annual auditing fees.
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.
Examine the seal on the package carefully. Rainforest Alliance allows use of the seal on coffee that contains only 30% certified beans. The proportion should be indicated.
- The 2017 standard: no specific shade criterion, weaker overall vegetation criteria
- Rainforest Alliance coffee home page
- More on the percentage of certified beans allowed in Rainforest Alliance coffees
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.
- Understanding organic labeling and percentages allowed under certain terms
- Current U.S. organic agriculture regulations (technical)
- Pesticides used on coffee
- Resources on organic coffee
The following are common coffee certifications that have only general ecological critera.
Fair Trade is primarily concerned with alleviating poverty through greater equity in international trade; many products besides coffee can be Fair Trade certified. Fair Trade is governed in most of the world by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). In the U.S., it is governed by Fair Trade USA, which resigned from the international system in early 2012. Under FLO, certification is only available to democratically-organized cooperatives of small producers, not individually-owned farms, estates, or farms that use hired labor. Under Fair Trade USA, independent small producers and estates can gain certification.
Fair Trade cooperatives receive a minimum price per pound, with an additional premium if the coffee is also certified organic. How this price premium is distributed (to the farmers or to community projects, etc.) is up to the cooperative.
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.
The following graphs, from Standards Map, illustrate that FLO has more criteria or requirements related to the environment and biodiversity than FT USA; this only indicates the number, not the strength, specificity, or mandatory/voluntary nature of the requirements. These do not coincide with numbers in the actual standards, but those developed by Standards Map to facilitate comparisons. See recent data, including comparisions and detailed information on all criteria, at Standards Map.
- Current FLO small producer and coffee standards
- Details on Fair Trade environmental standards
- Frequently asked questions about Fair Trade
UTZ Certified (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.
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.
The following graphs, from Standards Map, show the number of criteria or requirements related to the environment and biodiversity; this only indicates the number, not the strength, specificity, or mandatory/voluntary nature of the requirements. These do not coincide with numbers in the actual standards, but those developed by Standards Map to facilitate comparisons. See recent data, including comparisions and detailed information on all criteria, at Standards Map.
- More on UTZ environmental standards
- UTZ Certified Code of Conduct (certification criteria) links; latest coffee specific standards can be found on this page
There are several other private or voluntary initiatives that provide standards under which coffee is produced.
- Read this post for detailed information on Starbucks CAFÉ Practices, which includes very good environmental standards and is third-party verified. I also wrote an overview and information in May 2015 on CAFÉ Practices at Daily Coffee News.
- This post has information on Nestlé’s Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Coffee Program.
- This post has information on the 4C Code for commodity coffee.
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!