5 of the most important Coffee Certifications – A Helpful Guide

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When you buy a cup or a bag of coffee, you want to make sure that yours was grown and harvested sustainably. Many people, like me, want to buy coffee that will not hurt the environment and also be of high quality
So what are the 5 most common Coffee Certifications that are currently used?

Coffee certifications are confusing. There are too many, all with different criteria. Some are stricter than others, and some require expensive fees.

Some protect the environment, others protect people.

So what is the best way to use coffee certifications for your coffee purchases? Read this definitive guide to find out.
These below are the coffee certifications that are going to be discussed today:
• Fair Trade
• Bird-Friendly
• Rainforest Alliance
• Carbon Neutral
• Organic

When I first started the roaster and I was out doing sale calls to introduce myself and the coffee options to potential businesses, I can count on my hand the number of businesses that would ask me what about coffee certifications and the differences between them all.

In addition is even more infrequent to be asked more specific questions such as: Is your coffee fair trade and/or is your coffee organic?

Flash forward to this year and after I would give my sales pitch, I would often get questions and the most common being about the coffee being or organic and/or fair trade. For some, it was such a big factor that it determined whether they decided to order from me or not.

The same was true for the customers that came into the coffee shop as well.
However, a lot of the time the people that asked these questions were confused about what this meant exactly and also were not aware of the other types of certifications out there.

So, it is with this in mind am going to briefly describe the types of coffee certifications available.

Fair Trade certification

fair trade certified, coffee certifications
Alwas check coffee certifications

Fairtrade International was established in Germany in 1997 and brings together different global initiatives under one umbrella organization and establishing a set of international standards for fair trade.

Its purpose is to make sure that coffee is grown according to a set of strict standards that encourage environmental sustainability, as well as ensuring that the people involved in the production were treated and compensated fairly.

In short, the Fair Trade certification model—pays producers an above-market “fair trade” price assuring they meet specific labour, environmental, and production standards.

It needs to be noted here that the Fair Trade Certification has changed recently as initially there was a split between 2 groups, the Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International due to who should get the coffee certification either small farms or both large and small.

To make matters even more confusing, Fair Trade USA then splits again and so there is now a third organization called Fair Trade America which is independent from the 2 but is more closely aligned to Fair Trade International.

Did you get all that? Anyway, It’s not my intention to go into all the details about the split here as you can read more about it through other sources but you do need to know that there are now 3 types of Fair Trade certifications and which one is best is up to the individual buyer.

Bird-friendly certification

coffee certifications
Birth-friednly coffee certification

This certification comes from what I think is a rather surprising source, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington D.C. This type of certification is very strict compared to the others as before they can get this certification they must first get their organic one.

This certification is basically saying that the coffee was grown in a more natural environment and the growing and harvesting of the coffee is incorporated into natural surroundings.

In a normal scenario when a farm is being prepared for coffee cultivation the land is cleared and the trees are planted. However, with a bird-friendly certification, the farms provide good, forest-like habitat for birds where coffee is planted under a canopy of trees rather than being grown on farms that have been cleared of vegetation.

As with some others, the bird-friendly certification does not get into anything else such as labour pay or work conditions.
This is probably the strictest coffee certification of all of them and depending on your level of concern for these types of issues it’s the one that you should ask about from your local roastery or coffee shop.

Rainforest Alliance certification

What is Rainforest certified coffee

Coffee certifications
Coffee certifications are important

Sometimes people assume that Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade are the same and/or have the same goals. Even though they both assist coffee growers there are some distinct differences.

rainforest alliance vs fair trade

THE mission is not only to protect the environment i.e. rainforest and deforestation but also the rights of the workers that grow coffee with this certification.

Because of its on-farm focus and lack of trade standards, it is more naturally suited for larger farms rather than the small producers that are at the core of the fair trade movement. It also does not prohibit the use of pesticides and therefore is distinct and separate from the organic certification.

When asking about coffee with Rainforest Alliance certification, one needs to ask if it is 100% certified because under the current guidelines the coffee that is grown only has to have 30% of the land grown under the Rainforest Alliance criteria to get this certification and the other 70% can be grown under any other method the farmers deem appropriate.

Carbon Neutral certification

best coffee certifications
Carbon neutral certified

A carbon-neutral coffee business is one that, through the totality of its activities, does not add to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

However verifying this is easier said than done and unfortunately, there isn’t a uniform, internationally recognized methodology or standards for determining if a company is carbon-neutral or not.

However the theory behind having coffee certified as Carbon-Free, a company must submit, the coffee for a detailed Life Cycle Analysis, a third-party process that formally scrutinizes the carbon emissions associated with every step in production.

The resulting analysis accounts for all carbon dioxide emissions starting with a coffee plant and ending with an empty bag of coffee.

This type of coffee certification is similar to some of the others in which it does not take into account the conditions under which the farmers or labourers work. However, those that make the effort to get this type of certification are usually very mindful of the workers.

Organic coffee certification

USDA organic certification

important coffee certifications
Oganic coffee is high quality coffee

In the case of a green coffee certificate entering the United States, at least 95% of what comes in cannot have been treated with pesticides or synthetic substances in order to get the organic coffee certification.

In other words, it has to comply with the way coffee was grown and harvested way back in the day before the advent of these newer ways of farming.

An important point to keep in mind when it comes to organic coffee and this coffee certification is that it does not take into consideration basically anything else besides these criteria so it does not mean that farmers will be paid more or that their working conditions will be any better than if they were producing non-organic coffee.

One also needs to take into consideration that even though coffee is not certified as organic does not necessarily make it non-organic since many small families owned farms cannot afford to either pay for this certification or have the means to pay for the pesticides and synthetics that may protect their crops.

The reverse is true as well where coffee that is certified organic may not necessarily be so since inspections are done usually once a year and therefore difficult to control despite the voluntary assistance of nonprofit and for-profit companies that have services to assist in the verification process.


  • Demand for organic and fair trade coffee (FTO) analyzed using retail purchase data.
  • FTO and conventional coffee were rated according to premium and regular price ranges
  •  Demand for both FTO coffees was more elastic than for conventional coffees.
  • FTO coffees were not the main substitute for even the largest consumers of FTO.
  •  The adjustment of the price of certified coffees to conventional coffees did not imply an improvement in demand.

Competitiveness was measured in terms of price sensitivity and substitution behaviour in the market and in core consumer segments that spent the majority of their coffee budget on FTO coffees.

We found that most consumers are more likely to replace conventional products with FTO products than with conventional products.

Even the main consumers of premium FTO coffees, who had an inelastic demand for this type of coffee, switched to regular conventional coffees instead of regular FTO coffees, even though both alternatives were equally inexpensive to certified products.

Companies that manufacture and sell certified products must do more than align prices and use sustainability certification seals to increase their market competitiveness and potential options.

Final Thoughts on Coffee Certifications

This is by no means all the types of certifications as new ones are coming along every once in a while however these are the major ones I was asked about and that I hope you now have a better understanding of the different types of major Coffee certifications that are out there as well as the differences between them all.

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