Current coffee production methods are unsustainable both from the environmental, social and economic perspectives. Recognizing the severity of these problems, several organizations have established programs that enable consumers to make a difference each time they purchase coffee. There are a variety of coffee labels indicating adherence to certification guidelines, whether it’s protecting wildlife, ensuring fair labor practices or supporting a combination of socially and ecologically sustainable practices. Some coffees qualify for multiple labels so they can be double- or triple-certified.
“Bird Friendly” coffee is certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center of the National Zoo and ensures that the coffee has been shade-grown under a canopy of trees thus preventing habitat destruction for select migratory birds and minimizing soil erosion. Bird Friendly coffee is also organic (grown without chemical-based pesticides).
Bird Friendly coffee is mainly concerned with the ecological impacts of coffee bean production. This certification program does not specifically address economic inequality or social justice issues.
Ethical Direct Trade
Direct Trade refers to corporate relationships with coffee producers rather than a third party certification process. For example, Peet’s Coffee & Tea Company and Portland Roasting Company source coffee beans of high quality and require production methods that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible. They pay growers higher prices than the fixed Fair Trade price per pound. Neither company, however, uses a transparent set of standards for consumers to compare against third party certifying guidelines.
“Fair Trade" coffee are in compliance with certain guidelines set by TransFair USA.
The Fair Trade program primarily aims to support small farmers, which is why only small farmers who belong to farmer-owned, democratically-run coffee cooperatives are eligible for Fair Trade certification. Fair Trade coffee farmers are guaranteed a minimum price for their product and importers are required to purchase the coffee beans directly from the producer group. This bypasses the various middlemen and ensures that the farmers themselves receive a higher premium for their crop. Fair Trade premiums are reinvested in what the co-op chooses which can include community scholarship programs, training sessions or other projects for business skills development.
Coffee farms that are Fair Trade certified are required to provide safe working conditions for their laborers as well as reasonable living wages. Child labor is strictly prohibited. Fair Trade certification also aims to sustain environmental health by prohibiting the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides. Sustainable farming methods are required because this not only enhances biodiversity but also protects the coffee farmer from constant pesticide exposure.
Critics of the Fair Trade program point out that the coffee supply is outpacing demand and the Fair Trade certification is an artificial construct in the economic system (similar to farm subsidies). Existing farmers will be encouraged to produce more coffee and new producers to enter the market, ultimately leading to excess supply. In a free trade market, extremely low prices would encourage coffee farmers to grow other crops that would yield more revenue. This overproduction, critics argue, would not only distort the economic market, it would also affect already poor coffee farmers who are not Fair Trade certified. Excess supply would drive the price of non-Fair Trade certified coffee even lower leaving those farmers in worse economic conditions.
“Certified Organic” means that the coffee beans were grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This not only benefits the environment by minimizing contamination of waterways and wildlife, but it also protects the farm workers’ health by decreasing their exposure to these chemicals. Organic certification does not address economic inequality or social justice issues. It is primarily concerned with the production methods of coffee beans and the environmental impact of these practices.
There are also criticisms about the certification process. Some argue that it is an unfair marketing method that does not benefit the poor farmers. For example, it is estimated that 65% of the coffee producers in Mexico are organic, not by choice, but because they don’t have the resources to pay for chemical fertilizers. However, they are not certified as organic by the USDA because certification is too expensive. Therefore, although their coffee beans are technically “passively organic,” they are unable to charge a premium for their product.
“Rainforest Alliance"-certified” coffee focuses on sustainable farm management, including social, labor and environmental responsibility. This label also guarantees that the coffee beans have been shade-grown under the rainforest canopy, minimizing soil erosion and preserving the biodiversity and natural ecosystem of the area.
In order to qualify for “Rainforest Alliance” certification, coffee farms (of any size) develop and implement plans for the following categories: ecosystem and water conservation, wildlife protection, fair treatment and good working conditions for workers, occupational health and safety, community development, soil management and conservation, and integrated crop and waste management. Once the coffee farm is inspected by Rainforest Alliance-trained specialists, an independent team evaluates the report to determine qualification. Child labor is strictly prohibited.
Coffee naturally grows in the shade under a canopy of trees. However, monocropping and “sun cultivation” techniques were introduced to increase yield and also led to deforestation. Trees were natural habitats for many songbirds which have become endangered as a result of their habitat damage. In addition, compared to sun-grown coffee plants, shade-grown varieties are more environmentally-friendly because they live twice as long due to better soil maintenance (less erosion). This helps to preserve the surrounding biodiversity and also preserves habitats for songbirds. Coffee that is shade-grown indicates that the coffee beans were grown using traditional methods that protect environmental health. Shade-grown does not specifically address the social and economic issues of coffee workers.
Utz Kapeh translates into “Good Coffee” in an ancient Mayan dialect. Coffee farmers who are “Utz Certified” must comply with the program’s Code of Conduct, which outlines standards for socially and environmentally responsible practices, improved farm management and product traceability. These farmers also receive technical assistance, coaching sessions, nonprofit support systems and other services. Annual third party audits are conducted to ensure compliance. Utz Kapeh is the main certifier of ethically-sourced coffee in Europe and is now becoming more readily available in the United States.