Labels on coffee bags are confusing. Direct trade, Fair Trade? How many different kinds of trade are there? Organic, shade grown? Which is better for the environment?
This article puts a little bit of meaning back into those labels so that next time you’re shopping for coffee, hopefully things are a less overwhelming.
Bird Friendly is the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s certification. It starts with protecting migratory birds and their habitats, but it doesn’t stop there. To earn this certification, the coffee has to be certified organic and meet shade and habitat standards, the highest of any coffee certification. Farmers aren’t guaranteed a set price for Bird Friendly coffee, but generally they receive a premium for their organic certification.
There’s no official Direct Trade certification, it’s simple a direct purchase by a coffee roaster or company with the farmer, cutting out as many middlemen as possible. Since there’s no certification, there’s no set standards. However, it generally means higher quality coffee and that means higher premiums for the farmers. The drawback is that there’s no exact standards for environmental or labor practices. Many coffee roasters do require certain standards, but when it comes to direct trade you may want to do a little bit of reading and research to find out exactly what you’re buying.
Fair Trade is probably the most popular and well known label. It’s a certification by the Fairtrade Labeling Organization International and TransFair USA in the United States. To be fair trade, coffee has to meet certain environment and labor standards. The farmers than receive a higher premium for their coffee above the traditional rates. One thing to note is that Fair Trade doesn’t necessarily mean organic.
The USDA certifies coffee Organic. To earn that label, a farm must not use any banned substances for three years. The list of banned substances includes most synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Plus, there has to be a buffer between organic crops and traditional crops, sustainable agricultural, plans to prevent soil erosion.
The Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that developed sustainable certifications for coffee. To earn this certification, coffee must meet a variety of requirements including reducing threats to the environment and human health, protecting wildlife habitat, etc. Think of Rainforest Alliance certification as a big checklist, to be certified a farmer has to get a certain number of requirements checked. Organic isn’t required and shade grown is one of the optional items on the list.
Both the Rainforest Alliance and Smithsonian have standards for shade grown coffee, but what exactly does that mean? Shade grown is coffee from farms grown under a natural canopy of trees. It incorporates natural ecology to promote a healthy environment for animals and plants.
UTZ has a baseline standard for “responsible coffee.” This includes good agricultural and business practices like traceability of coffee and record keeping of fertilizers. It also requires certain social standards like access to health care for the farmers, their employees and families, as well as education for the community’s children. As far as environmental requirements, it aims to prevent soil erosion, deforestation and protecting endangered species. There are some complaints about it being too vague and not really doing enough to help the farmers and protect the environment.
Which coffee certification is best?
That’s up to you to decide which one most aligns with your values.
Let us know in the comments if you find certifications useful?
Do they just add to the price or do they provide real value to the consumer?
Have you ever made a purchasing decision based on one of these labels? If so which one?
As always, keep your suggestions coming for future articles.