Coffee Certifications Explained – No More Confusion When Buying Coffee

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Coffee quality is one of the most important things to consider when buying coffee at your local store. And coffee certifications may impact the quality and sustainability of your morning cup. 

Certifications are crucial when trying to abide by Fair Trade or USDA organic practices and other environmentally conscious causes, like rainforest preservation and purchasing bird-friendly products. 

Our shortlist covers everything you need to know about coffee certifications, including what they are, the missions behind them, and the main quality criteria. So next time when you see a logo on the coffee bag, you’ll know what it means.

Most Common Coffee Certifications

The four coffee certifications below are the most common.

Fair Trade Certification 

The mission of Fair Trade is to enable farmers and workers to assume more control over their livelihoods in terms of fair pay and ethical working conditions. Products with the Fair Trade mark get produced by businesses that have met the internationally agreed-upon standards regarding fair working conditions and minimum price, especially in the developing world. 

These standards cover lots of good agricultural practices. By working as cooperatives, coffee farmers have the ability to make their prices based on value and negotiate in the same manner. 

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The fair trade logo on Instant coffees

If you buy coffee certified by Fair Trade, you support coffee farmers and agricultural workers who want a more autonomous life in the agriculture community. You’re also supporting businesses that believe in the tenants of fair trade. 

One important distinction to note is that Fair Trade International and Fair Trade USA are two separate entities. But they do have similar goals and environmental benefits. Fair Trade USA doesn’t cover as many products as Fair Trade International. 

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Credit: Fair Trade USA

Coffee is one of the most well-known fair trade agricultural products because coffee is largely produced in developing countries. Next time you shop, look for the Fair Trade logo on coffee to determine which pack of coffee you buy. 

Rainforest Alliance Certification and UTZ

The Rainforest Alliance works to:

  • Protect forests
  • Improve the livelihoods of farmers and forest communities
  • Improve and promote human rights issues
  • Help mitigate the climate crisis 

Its mission is to create a sustainable world where people and nature thrive harmoniously.

For a Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee provider, it must manufacture its product using sustainable methods that support social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Third-party auditors evaluate farmers against requirements in these three areas before awarding the certification. 

UTZ is a certification reserved for coffee, cocoa, tea, or hazelnuts. It began in 2002 as a single entity but is now a part of the Rainforest Alliance, as they share common interests and goals. 

The UTZ certification program allows farmers to use sustainable farming methods, generate more income, and grow better crops. They learn how to adapt to climate change and improve their working conditions. Getting the UTZ coffee certification isn’t a simple process, but once a business is certified, you know they’re at the forefront of environmental sustainability and responsibility. 

By supporting products with UTZ certification or the Rainforest Alliance logo, you’re supporting sustainability efforts and forest preservation across many industries, including coffee production

USDA Organic Certification 

If you’re interested in eating organically, you’ve likely heard of USDA organic certification. Before a product can be labeled and sold as USDA Organic, it must meet the criteria and specific standards laid out by the USDA.

Farms and facilities anywhere in the world can receive the USDA Organic Certification, though it’s a United States-based program. 

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USDA Organic Certification on the coffee package

To be certified as organic coffee, a producer must adopt organic standards and apply for certification. Certifying agents and on-site inspectors confirm that such practices are in place and properly used in the growing, supply chain, roasting, and manufacturing. If the inspector deems it fit, it will receive the USDA Organic label. Recertification happens every year.

The USDA’s required standards for certification include using methods that prevent soil erosion, as well as managing the plant and animal materials to improve soil content and quality. 

They also cover reducing crop contamination and using organically-grown seedlings and planting stock each year. Using non-GMO seeds and planting stock is crucial for USDA Organic compliance. 

By buying USDA-certified organic coffee products, you’re supporting businesses that choose to abide by sustainable practices and avoid using GMOs throughout their coffee production journey. 

Bird-Friendly Coffee

The Bird-Friendly certification is given by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. It was developed in the late 1990s to preserve habitats for migratory birds. So far, 5,100 bird-friendly farmers in 11 countries across the world are bird-friendly coffee producers. 

Coffee produced by non-bird-friendly certified farmers can damage biomes causing birds to become lost or die due to their loss of habitat. Their mission with the Bird Friendly coffee program is to adhere to three main sustainability goals. These include:

  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Preserving wildlife on land 

Bird-Friendly certification provides farmers with a premium for their products, which promotes better livelihoods for the producers. It also is an asset to fighting climate change because of the strict environmental standards farmers must meet to be certified. 

When you buy bird-friendly coffee, you’re supporting coffee growers and coffee companies that are committed to protecting habitats for birds. Many coffee lovers believe the shade-grown environment is better for coffee crops because it protects them from harsh temperatures and rains.

Does Certified Coffee Taste Better?

To start with, remember that coffee taste is often subjective. What one person thinks is a delicious cup of coffee, another person might think it is too bitter, too strong, or too weak. 

The certification programs we covered don’t guarantee the coffee’s quality or taste. Instead, the standards are meant to be more environmentally conscious and adhere to sustainability efforts for a better future for our land. 

Although the certifications don’t guarantee better taste or quality, there are plenty of best coffees that are popular among consumers for their taste that are also Fair Trade Certified or USDA organically certified. Try out various brands that adhere to the certification of your choice to decide for yourself which tastes the best.

Certifications in Speciality Coffee

Small-batch specialty coffee isn’t usually certified under the four main coffee certifications listed above. Instead, they usually focus on paying premiums for direct trade and quality. 

Direct trade means the coffee producers work directly with local farmers to establish long-term and mutually-beneficial agreements to engage in direct trade. A great example of this is Intelligentsia. Their direct trade program focuses more on paying high prices for good quality green coffee beans and less on sustainability efforts. It’s even more common for small producers.

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James Hoffmann, a coffee expert, and entrepreneur, states that so far, premiums of specialty coffee haven’t proved to be transformative in any way. He also says there’s rarely a crossover between the specialty coffee market and the certified coffee market. Some do have sustainability reports, but sometimes it’s not demanded by the consumer. 

Based on these observations, one can surmise that specialty coffee isn’t produced or thought of in the same manner as certified coffee. The main goals and aims of the two don’t line up. Some reputable brands ensure their beans are high-quality and also follow similar sustainability and best practices as other certifications programs. However, it doesn’t mean all specialty coffee producers are following the same standards.  

Conclusion 

Hopefully, you now have a clearer understanding of the various types of coffee certifications. The various certifications have high standards, ensuring that certified coffee producers are engaging in sustainable and ethical practices.

While there may not be a difference in taste, certified coffee often results from organizations that have made it their mission to practice sustainable production. Start your sustainability journey today by contributing to the certified coffee movement to improve farmers’ livelihoods and engage in sustainability efforts.