Bird friendly, Organic, Fair Trade…coffee has a lot of certifications. Here’s what they mean.

Good for the earth? Good for the workers? Good for the ecosystem? Good for all? Coffee certifications are numerous, diverse, and given to you with little or no explanation. Today, we are going to remedy that. Keep reading to learn more about coffee’s primary environmental and social certifications.

Bird Friendly

Bird Friendly is a certification created and monitored by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Established in 1996, this unique certification was created to preserve migratory bird’s, including the beloved songbird’s, natural habitat, which is vital to their survival. Without the large forest canopy trees, may of these migratory birds would face persistence threats, including extinction. Bird Friendly certification is the only certification that requires coffee be organically grown under a natural shade canopy.

Primary focus: Migratory birds; indigenous shade trees.

Certification criteria: Farms must be Certified Organic with healthy soil and no pesticide use. Certified farms must also grow their coffee under at least two layers of vegetation and a variety of native shade trees standing at least thirty-nine feet in height. When pruned, the trees must still provide, at minimum, 40% coverage. This is a pass / fail certification. To receive certification all criteria must be met. For the complete list of criteria, click here.

In their own words: “This seal of approval ensures tropical “agroforests” and the critical habitats they provide migratory birds are preserved.”

Certified Organic

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic focuses on the environmental sustainability of the growing land and purity of the product produced.

Primary focus: Cleanliness of the final product through environmental and soil preservation.

Certification criteria: No use of prohibited substances, including pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for at least three years prior to receiving certification. The crop must also be physically separated from non-organically grown crops and the land must have adequate crop rotation to prevent soil erosion. To achieve USDA Organic Certification all criteria must be met. To learn more about USDA Organic Certification, click here.

In their own words: “Organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.”

Fair trade:

The Fair Trade Organization strives to provide farmers / growers with good working conditions and living wages by establishing fair, minimum purchase prices for producers with Fair Trade certification and for producers with both Fair Trade and Certified Organic certifications.

Primary focus: Farmers / growers.

Certification criteria: To receive Fair Trade certification, producers must meet established standards on worker wages, rights, and empowerment, product traceability, internal management, and environmental sustainability. Fair Trade focuses highly on worker quality of life and requires only baseline environmental criteria to receive certification. Examples of environmental criteria include soil erosion management, water management, and a mandate to sustainably harvest wild material. Coffee may be sun-grown or shade-grown, organic or inorganic. To learn more about Fair Trade standards, click here.

In their own words: “..standards are designed to tackle poverty and empower producers in the poorest countries in the world.”

Rainforest Alliance / Eco-OK

The Rainforest Alliance is an NGO devoted to protecting biodiversity, ensuring good working conditions for farmers / growers, and curbing deforestation through a sustainable agriculture certification, including Eco-OK.

Primary focus: Protecting indigenous forests from deforestation.

Certification criteria: Rainforest Alliance has two sets of criteria, Critical Criteria, which must be met to receive certification, and Continuous Improvement Criteria, which must be met within six years of receiving the first certification audit. Critical Criteria include numerous requirements such as no negative effects on protected areas, no forced labor, and no GMOs. Continuous Improvement Criteria focus on environmental sustainability in the areas of growing coffee under native vegetation (note, this does not mean shade-grown), water conservation and quality, and waste management. Worker wage requirements also fall under Continuous Improvement Criteria. Progress towards these criteria must improve each year over a six-year period. For a complete list of criteria, click here. Rainforest Alliance merged with UTZ in 2017.

In their own words: “The Rainforest Alliance has forged innovative solutions to address the global crisis of deforestation.”

UTZ Certified

UTZ, which merged with Rainforest Alliance in 2017, is a farm management and efficiency certification that strives to ensure environmental sustainability and grower quality of life through process transparency and management.

Primary focus: Supply chain transparency and farm management efficiency.

Certification criteria: UTZ’s Code of Conduct focuses on production and establishes criteria defined as Control Points. Most Control Points govern management such as water management, land use, storage, and harvest / processing processes. UTZ certification is process-oriented, meaning certification may be granted before all criteria are met as long as there is continual progress towards achieving a requirement. In addition to the Code of Conduct, UTZ has a Chain of Custody, which governs coffee’s movement from the point of production to the point of sale. Chain of Custody requirements are grouped into four categories: Management, Traceability, Product Separation and Identification, and Product Claims. In terms of environmental sustainability, UTZ’s requirements are baseline.

In their own words: “UTZ certified ingredients are grown by farmers who have been trained to implement better farming practices, with respect for people and the planet.”

Brand-specific and private initiatives

In addition to broader certification programs, there are private / regional and brand-specific sustainability certifications, listed below.

The Common Code for the Coffee Community (4C), also known as GCP Baseline Common Code establishes baseline requirements for sustainable coffee production, processing, and trade. 4C covers a range of topics form child labor to natural resource destruction. 4C certification has minimal requirements and oversight.

C.A.F.É.(Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices is a Starbuck’s sustainability certification based on a scorecard that measures growers against 200 social, economic, and environmental indicators. The scorecard covers the bean’s lifecycle, from growth to consumption. To learn more about their Generic Scorecard, click here.

Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program is Nespresso-specific and focuses on sustainability both in environmental practices and with grower relationships.

If you enjoyed this entry, you may also enjoy the following blog entries:

Coffee and sustainability, creating a sustainable cup

Direct Trade or Fair Trade?

Single origin, microlot, co-op, small farm: what’s the difference?

2 thoughts on “Bird friendly, Organic, Fair Trade…coffee has a lot of certifications. Here’s what they mean.

Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Dragons And Flowers and commented:
    While it’s always important to be critical of whether or not companies actually renew these certifications, this is a useful compilation of what these qualifications actually entail.


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