Interpreting the Info on your Coffee Bag (Part Nine - Certifications)

July 08, 2019

Should I always buy certified coffees?

This is Part Nine in a series about the information on your coffee bag and what the heck it all means.


Several certifications can be applied to coffee. Here are the most prevalent ones and what they aim to certify:

Organic indicates the producer does not use prohibited substances such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and adheres to other sustainable farming practices, such as erosion control and crop rotation. Issued by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Fair Trade ensures a minimum price per pound, additional premiums for re-investment and other certifications, such as Organic. Depending on the issuing body, meeting certain environmental and wildlife standards may also be necessary. The certification is intended to help more money flow to farmers and producers. Two organizations issue the certification: Fair Trade International and Fair Trade USA.

Bird Friendly is an anti-deforestation/shade grown certification that promotes a quality habitat for wildlife (including birds). It includes requirements for foliage or canopy cover, tree height, and biodiversity; farms must also be certified Organic. This certifications is issued by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Rainforest Alliance/UTZ is focused on sustainable practices related to agriculture, community, and labor. such as minimizing water use and pollution and protecting workers rights to organize. Interestingly, organizations receiving the certification only need to be working towards its standards, not necessarily achieving them. These two organizations are merging as of 2018 as a single certifying body.

Final thoughts...

Just because a coffee doesn’t carry an Organic or Fair-Trade certification doesn’t mean it isn’t. The verification process necessary to obtain these certifications can be cost-prohibitive, so many farms forgo formal certification.

In addition, as with any certification or set of rules, some manipulation and “gaming of the system” exists. Organizations may comply with the bare minimum to brand their products with this certification, while not conducting business in a way that aligns with the spirit of the certification and its ultimate goals.

Certifications at a glance

What it is: Certifications indicate coffee was produced under certain standards. The governing body sets the standards and the process to become certified.

Why you might care: Certifications are intended to help consumers identify products that meet standards related to environmental and human welfare concerns. However, some certification process are easier to game than others, and producers that meet the criteria may not be certified.

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