What are the certifications that ensure sustainability in the coffee industry?

What are the certifications that ensure sustainability in the coffee industry?

Wherefrom prefers to buy specialty coffee, direct trade or Bird Friendly certified coffee. Some other certifications do good work but we recommend being critical and doing extra research.

Photo credit: Daily Coffee News

Rainforest Alliance and UTZ

One of the most popular programmes for coffee products which combines environmental and social standards. However, there has been public concern over the stringency of their regulations, farms’ environmental practices and unfair pay.


The Fairtrade certification focuses on livelihoods and aims to ensure minimum prices are paid to farmers with buyers paying a premium of 20% more than market price. However, there are issues with the fairtrade certification like the fact that the price to get certified outweighs the economic benefits of participating in the system.

Bird Friendly

Less well known but very stringent. The certification requires that there be 40% shade cover, compared to 15% by Rainforest Alliance, and asks for 100% organic production.

Direct Trade

Although there is no commonly agreed definition of Direct Trade coffee, this is a method of coffee buying whereby farmers and roasters have direct communication with each other. This ensures that consumers are able to see the supplier more transparently. However, sometimes this is just a one-off purchase rather than a long-term relationship and environmental and social standards are not always integrated in these partnerships.

Specialty coffee

Specialty coffee is all about superior quality and superior taste. It also advocates for the sustainable growth of the coffee industry through collaborative partnerships that pursue equity, prioritise mutual benefits, and results in positive impacts. Normally, the contractual terms of purchase are agreed directly with farmers ensuring 100% transparency and traceability with a minimum price safety-net, always above the Fairtrade minimum price. Most coffee providers are in contact with the Specialty Coffee Association which has a whole section on sustainability with relevant resources and events to help improve social and environmental conditions on coffee farms.

Certifications are not the be-all end-all

The most important action we can do as consumers is to research what our favourite brands are doing. Yes, a certification helps us to understand a product's provenance better. However, sometimes good actions are not necessarily represented in a certification.

For instance, brands that have long-term partnerships with their coffee farmers or supplying coffee cooperatives and that go visit them might not get a certification for that. HOWEVER, it's a really great thing to do. The brand and farmers will have mutual trust and the brand will have a better capacity to ensure wages are paid and to invest in training for environmentally-sound agricultural practices.  

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