Complete Guide to Coffee Certifications

About 7 minutes of reading time

Avatar for Jasmine

Home  /  Resources  /  Complete Guide to Coffee Certifications
Coffee Certifications

Coffee, a constant companion to morning people has grown from an unassuming brown bean to an omnipresent ingredient in kitchens all across the globe over the last few centuries. Standing as something so ingrained in our every day, it’s only natural to want to know what exactly you’re getting when you buy yourself a bag of coffee beans.

So whether you’re keen to know the quality of the contents you’re putting into your system every morning or are mindful of the impact of your purchase on the people and planet, it’s common to look out for certain certifications. You can find them on the bags of most of the top coffee bean brands. After all, a certificate stands as irrefutable evidence to the fact that what is stated on the label stands as the truth.

Coffee, like any other commodity on the shelves, can have a lot of certificates to its name. In order to help you wade your way through the clutter and confusion, we’re going to break it all down for you offering up a clear and complete guide to coffee certifications.

Common Coffee Certifications


Fair Trade Seals

Coffee, as it stands today, is the second-highest traded commodity in the world. It is a fact that most of the beans highly regarded in the coffee community grow in developing or under-developed corners of the world. Corners where exploitation of worker and labor force is an unfortunate, yet common occurrence. That is until the introduction of Fairtrade. A system that ensures all stages, from coffee growth and production to packaging and delivery is conducted in a clean and fair manner. With equal respect bestowed on all parties involved. With the demand that is constantly moving upwards, the work is vast and there are several organizations that have turned their attention towards it.

The certificate of Fairtrade you have most probably encountered on your coffee bags is possibly bestowed by either the Fairtrade Labeling Organisations International or the Fairtrade USA. The certificate means the beans in the bag have reached you after holding to certain standards. One of the core concerns of the organization is ensuring the entire process is conducted with due attention towards ecological and environmental sustainability. Another is to ensure the coffee growers receive a fair wage. Many times the coffee is grown by a small farmer or sect of farmers and there is a danger of larger coffee companies exploiting them financially to save a few pennies. The companies hoping to get the fair trade certificate need to ensure that doesn’t happen. They work with a guaranteed minimum price to protect farmers in case the market fluctuates.

What They’ve Achieved

While no system can be deemed perfect it is important to acknowledge ones that work well.

The need for Fairtrade coffee was first thought up in Holland in 1988. And while the practical use of the concept began a year later. The FTO mark that is now used and recognized as certification was created more than a decade later in 2004. All things considered, Fair Trade certainly has impacted the environment, lives, and lively hoods of farmers in developing countries. It would be remiss however to ignore the fact that there are still a few kinks to be ironed out. Like with all systems, corrupt corporations have learned of ways to simply buy the certificate without ensuring any of the standards. There are even complaints of inadequate money reaching the actual farmers. So while the Fair Trade organizations have done a lot of good for the coffee farmers of the world, there is no doubt, still a long way to go.

Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Alliance Seal

Don’t let the name fool you, the Rainforest Alliance is not boxed into working simply for the protection of rainforests of the world. While that is their chief goal, they also work towards improving the climate crises, ensuring locals receive a livelihood they can live off. And ensuring regional communities in crop growing areas receive basic human rights. The global non for profit organization was formed to meld the forces of forests and agriculture with the brashness or business. Born in 1987, the Rainforest Alliance has its headquarters in New York. Today the organization is composed of farmers, scientists, governments, and communities from over eighty-five countries. In 2018 they welcomed the UTZ program that worked to ensure sustainable farming into their fold.

The members wish to increase productivity from agriculture while decreasing the destruction of forests in the process. If you spot a coffee bag with the iconic seal, it means third-party auditors have ensured the coffee has been handled through all its stages according to the requirements of the alliance.

What They’ve Achieved

There has been a measurable improvement of forests that house Rainforest Alliance certified coffee. As if that wasn’t enough the adjoining forests have suffered less exploitation than originally predicted. The Rainforest Alliance does not certify coffee alone. They also cover other crops including bananas, palm oil, tea, cocoa, pineapples, and others.

It is important to note, however, that if you spot the Rainforest Alliance certification on your favorite bag of coffee, it could mean they’ve begun working towards ticking all the boxes the organization has listed. Whether they fulfil all the requirements, are on their way to, or simply on step one, you can’t really know.

USDA Organic

USDA Organic Seal

Organic, a word whispered everywhere today. Whether someone is talking about fruit, meat, grains, or even skincare, makeup, shampoos, or bags. People everywhere want to know if the product they’re using is organic. You might already have heard and seen Organic Coffee, so what exactly is organic when it comes to coffee?

It is primarily to do with coffee through its growth and harvest process. The one you will most probably encounter to ensure the same is the USDA Organic certification.

While it is considered smart to look for this seal, its absence does not mean a non-organic coffee. The cost of pesticides and artificial chemicals can be too high for small farmers to pay. The same is true for the monetary price of certification. It costs close to two thousand US dollars to have your farm inspected and up for consideration of the seal. By all means, a large amount that small-scale farmers might not have to spare. Alternatively, the stamp does not guarantee the coffee is organic. Checks by the USDA are usually held only once a year and the practices on the farm through the rest of the time are left unknown.

What They’ve Achieved

The USDA Organic seal on your coffee ensures that it has grown without the use of artificial chemicals, pesticides, or herbicides. It has grown away from crops that use artificial means to grow, and the farm where the coffee grows follows the process of crop rotation. These three things need to be in practice for a minimum of three years before the coffee from the farm can be considered for certification. It is done to ensure the coffee is produced with attention to biodiversity and the quality and care of the soil.

It is important to know when coffee is certified as USDA organic, your coffee is organic is the only thing they are concerned with. They do not know or guarantee that farmers or other people involved in the chain of production are treated or paid fairly. While they do care about the quality of the coffee, they have nothing to do with anything else in the area.

Smithsonian Bird-Friendly

Smithsonian Bird-Friendly Seal

Now this name might sound odd to most. After all, birds are not something people commonly connect to coffee. In truth, however, this certificate stands proof of shade-grown coffee. If you’ve ever bought yourself a bag of coffee beans, shade-grown is a term you are sure to have encountered. It refers to the scores of coffee farms that grow their crop under the canopy of trees. The Smithsonian conservation noticed the diminishing migratory bird habitats that correlated with coffee farms and decided to do something about it.

It is of interest to note that before a brand of coffee is certified as bird-friendly, it needs to tick all the boxes and be certified as organic. Coffee consumers are informed that opting for a bird-friendly coffee results in your brewing to a more biodiverse and sustainable world.

The goal of the people behind the scenes is to conserve the natural environment the coffee grows in for the birds and animals that call it their home. And although birds are in the name, the certificate is only granted after taking into account everything from the height of the trees and foliage cover to the insect biodiversity, leaf litter, presence of weeds and herbs, and living fences in the coffee farm.

What They’ve Achieved.

The Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certificate is one of the toughest badges of honor for coffee farmers to earn. Unlike the Rainforest Alliance certification, there are only two sides of the line you can be standing at. You either tick all the boxes required, or your coffee is not getting this certificate to its name. While the certificate does not directly deal with the wages farmers earn, the seal once earned, can help farmers work out a better price for their produce. Farmers who hold this certificate to their coffee can ask for between 5 to 12 cents more than what they would receive on an ordinary organic crop.

Although the certificate itself does not require coffee farmers to pay out of pocket, there is a small fee required for audits conducted on the farm. Once received, a Bird-Friendly certificate lasts for three years.

Direct Trade

Direct Tarde Seal

The last certificate we are considering today is the Direct Trade one. And as the name suggests it means the coffee roaster acquires the coffee directly from the farmer. There is no scope or monetary cut for middlemen who interfere with and at times complicate the transaction. Direct trade was introduced to also ease the chain of communication. Many times the demand of the coffee community and specific needs of the coffee roasters are lost or misinterpreted somewhere along the way to the farmers. Direct Tarde ensures a direct and clear line. The scope for errors and wastage is greatly reduced.

While Direct Trade seems a smart solution to the exploitation of farmers, in theory, in everyday practicality it falls short in cases with casualties. The reason is simple as with any production process, there can be a few hitches between getting the coffee from the farm to the roaster. If the coffee is moving internationally to get roasted, the possibility for problems increases. Coffee that does not hold a certificate of Direct Trade to its name has people at every stage to deal with issues when they arise. In the case of Direct Trade coffee, the roasters stand alone. As a result, small roasters simply and literally cannot afford to take the chance to stay away from the Direct Trade coffee certification.

What They’ve Achieved

The Direct Trade certificate was introduced to ensure farmers gained greater pay than they would under Fair Trade. It also moved to be more inclusive allowing producers with farms of all sizes to participate fully in the transaction. It has allowed relationships between farmers and roasters to grow in trust and transparency.
Be sure to not confuse Direct Trade with some importer who calls themself by the same term. Direct Trade importers are an additional rung in the chain. They do not exist in the case of coffees that hold a Direct Trade certificate.

There is a question that arises when we talk of Direct Trade certified coffee however that cannot be ignored.
The cost of coffee often incorporates the cost it takes to get the coffee to the shelves of your local supermarket. If coffee certified as Direct Trade does not go through the same channels as the others without the seal, shouldn’t the result be cheaper coffee?

At the End of the Day

How many of you read the label meticulously before buying a product? Have you ever been in a situation where the back of the bag is filled with words, seals, symbols, or terms you simply cannot decipher? It’s not a comfortable space to be in.
Hopefully, now, the next time you pick up a can of coffee and spot claiming to hold a hoard of certificates. You know exactly what they’re talking about. What’s more, you will be comfortable and ready to make an informed purchase.