Navigating Sustainable Coffee Labels and Certifications

You don’t have to look far to realize that the United States is run on caffeine. A study published in 2013 found that an average of 85% of the U.S. population has at least one caffeinated drink each day. And in February of 2014, the journal Pediatrics found that 73% of children consume caffeine daily.

Meanwhile new reports show that due to climate change, our access to coffee (both in production and cost) will become harder in the coming years. So for those of us interested in drinking coffee that supports local farmers and protects the environment, what should we look for?

coffee labels

Photo credit: Deposit Photos

As someone who is accustomed to reading product and food labels, I hadn’t yet researched the difference in coffee certifications and labels. I wanted to find the most sustainable, farmer-friendly cup of coffee out there.

I hit the internet, I read, I was confused.

And then I called the Rainforest Alliance’s Alex Morgan to help me figure out the difference between organic, shade grown, bird friendly, and the Rainforest Alliance Certified labels. Alex, Rainforest Alliance’s Senior Manager, noted that all of these labels are good things to see on your coffee beans. He noted that there was no shortage of work to be done and said that,

Less than 15% of the world’s coffee of global production is certified by one of these programs.”

Deciphering coffee labels: What to look for

 USDA-Organic-SealUSDA Organic

One of the few labels that means anything these days, this certification lets you know that the coffee wasn’t grown with harmful pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, treated with sewage sludge and doesn’t contain any genetically modified crops.

Whether it’s on your broccoli or coffee, seeing this label is a good thing.


equal exchange coffeeThere are several fair trade certifications (Equal Exchange, Fair Trade USA) making it even more confusing for consumers. In general, the concept of fair trade is that farmers will get paid a fair price for the crops they grow. The result is lifting many farming communities out of poverty, ensuring the growers aren’t given the short end of the stick and that wealth along the supply chain is equitably shared. These are all great things. Just because something is labeled as fair trade, doesn’t mean the coffee was organically grown, or habitat and environmental concerns were taken into account.

If you care about the livelihood of the farmers and communities  the Equal Exchange and Fair Trade USA labels are good to see on your coffee.

bird friendly coffeeBird friendly

Sometimes referred to as “shade grown” this is a certification program by the Smithsonian Bird Institute, which focuses on certifying farms that promote habitat conservation, ensuring that coffee farms don’t eliminate the habitat for birds. The focus of this label is less about reducing exposure to agricultural chemicals and ensuring fair pay, and more about protecting bird habitat.

Another great label to see on your coffee. We all love habitat protection, birds and biodiversity right? Just like the fair trade labels, this label doesn’t ensure organic or reduced pesticide practices, human rights or child labor laws were followed.

A label that has it all: Rainforest Alliance

After diving into the world of coffee programs, labels and certifications I found that the Rainforest Alliance has the most robust labeling program, ensuring farms meet a cross section of criteria.

rainforest alliance certification

The basics of the Rainforest Alliance coffee certification

Unlike the other labels listed above, the Rainforest Alliance certification (apart of the Sustainable Agriculture Standard) considers a cross section of environmental, social and economic issues including: water use, soil quality, wildlife protection, fair and decent working conditions, community relations, farm management, prohibits all child labor, fair wages, pesticide use, deforestation controls, climate change adaptation, and the use of personal protective equipment.

While not requiring farms to be certified under USDA organic standards, the pesticide provisions are stringent and health protective. Integrated pest management is one of the 10 top areas farms must get 100% score on, and bans the most toxic chemicals including anything banned by the Environmental Protection Agency, World Health Organization Class 1, the European Union, chemicals on the Pesticide Action Network list, the Dirty Dozen or listed under the Stockholm convention.

In order to receive the Rainforest Alliance certification, a farm must received a 100% score on the 15 critical criteria required and they need to get an 80% overall score. The farm must also receive 50% within each of those 10 categories, needed to show effort in each of their criteria. This is demonstrated by this helpful chart below, republished with permission from Rainforest Alliance.

rainforest alliance certification

Companies using Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee

  • You can search the Rainforest Alliance’s “Shop the Frog” database to find coffee brands for your home or business.
  • Caribou Coffee, a Minnesota based company with national reach, uses 100% Rainforest Alliance certified coffee (wow!).
  • 100% of McDonald’s espresso is Rainforest Alliance certified.
  • Dunkin Donuts recently announced that 30% of their Dark Roast coffee is certified and they are working towards 100%.

Remember, any of these labels are good to see on your coffee; we have a huge role to play as consumers to show demand for sustainable and people-friendly coffee. Ask your local coffee shop or brand to get Rainforest Alliance certified!

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