What Coffee Certifications Mean for Beans’ Production?

This article will show you the importance of coffee certifications for nature and people - from learning meaning of each to learning how they are recieved
Last updatedLast updated: October 05, 2022
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Coffee certification is often overlooked when purchasing the beans. Even though roasting levels and aroma are important for the taste, certificates might tell you more about the quality and production of the product than you thought.

So, what are coffee certifications? They are given to certain coffee brands and companies that are following ethical and sustainable methods for procuring and selling their beans and ground coffee. Though not every brand concerns itself with certifications, those who do are ensuring the products they sell aren’t harming the environment and are as high-quality as the company claims. There are several different types of certifications, each with specific guidelines that must be met before the certification can be added to the label. For more information on what each one has to offer, keep reading.

How to Read Coffee Certifications

What Coffee Certifications Mean for Beans' Production?

There is a lot of information on a bag of coffee, regardless of whether you’re buying whole beans or a specific grind. Most prominent is the brand name and possibly a logo, like the ones on Starbucks coffee beans. There is also the origin of the beans, like Brazilian, Costa Rican, or Columbian coffee beans. Other information includes the type of beans, the name of the farm, whether it is a blend, and the roast level.

Though it won’t be as prominent, any coffee brand that has acquired some type of certification will list it on the bag as well. This is because the higher-rated certifications can be difficult and pricey to achieve, so those who do so want it known. There is usually a symbol and the name of the certification right on the bag for you to see.

This doesn’t mean that a lack of certification on the bag means the brand is producing inferior or poorly-obtained beans, it just means they may not be able to afford the certifications at this time. If you’re unsure of the practices used to obtain the beans you’re considering, you can always check the brand’s website. Ethical companies want such details known, so if the brand is vague about where and how their beans are obtained, you may want to look somewhere else.

You may also want to remember that different certifications cover different areas. Some are designed to protect the environment while others are there to protect the people and farms producing them. It’s best to look into what each certification covers to ensure it is meeting the standards you believe in when purchasing your coffee.

Coffee Certifications Explained

Though there are a wide variety of coffee certifications available, the following six are the most common in the coffee industry.

Smithsonian Bird Friendly


What Coffee Certifications Mean for Beans' Production?

Developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Trusted Source Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Dedicated to understanding, conserving and championing the grand phenomenon of bird migration nationalzoo.si.edu , which is located in Washington D.C., the Smithsonian Bird Friendly Certification is one of the most difficult to obtain. Before coffee growers can receive this certification, they must first be certified organic.

Many strict conditions must be followed when setting up the farm to qualify for the certification. This includes a canopy of at least 12 meters high rather than a clear-cut farm with newly planted trees. There must be at least 2 strata layers of vegetation, as well as 10 woody species scattered across the production area, all of which must create at least 40% shade. The purpose of these conditions is to create a natural habitat for birds.

This one is one of the more environmental certifications, so it doesn’t cover any of the work or pay conditions for the workers on the farm. It is also usually given to smaller family farms rather than large corporate ones.

USDA Organic

What Coffee Certifications Mean for Beans' Production?

USDA stands for United States Department of Agriculture and is the branch of the government that is responsible for the organic certification in this country. There are several steps Trusted Source Becoming a Certified Operation | Agricultural Marketing Service Certifiers are responsible for making sure that USDA organic products meet all organic standards. There are five basic steps to organic certification www.ams.usda.gov to gaining this certification.

After adopting organic practices on your farm, an application and fee must be sent to a USDA-accredited certifying agent. This agent reviews the application to verify the organic claims and an inspector is sent for an on-site inspection of the farm or production area.

The agent then reviews the application again, along with the report from the inspector, before an organic certificate is sent out. There are also yearly reviews and inspections to be sure the farm continues to meet organic standards.

It does take a while for this type of certification to be obtained since the land in use must not use any prohibited substances for at least 3 years before an application can be sent in. These substances include synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Small amounts of nonorganic ingredients may be used as long as they are on the approved substances list.

Fair Trade Certified

What Coffee Certifications Mean for Beans' Production?

When it comes to Fair Trade Certifications, there are 3 separate certifiers in the U.S. These include IMO Fair Trade for Life, Fair Trade USA, and Fairtrade America, the last of which is a member of Fair Trade International.

Though they are separate branches, they all work towards the same goal, which is supporting the farming families producing the goods by ensuring fair compensation and treatment. This includes meeting standards for labor and production. These certifications also encourage sustainable environmental practices, though the focus is on the people working who own or work the farm.

Utz or Rainforest Alliance

What Coffee Certifications Mean for Beans' Production?

Though UTZ and Rainforest Alliance used to be separate certification entities, they merged in 2017 and have released new criteria to obtain this certification in 2020. The Rainforest Alliance focuses on sustainable practices in farming, such as conserving biodiversity and natural resources, improving the livelihoods of the farmers and workers, and proper farm planning and management. The Rainforest Alliance is also concerned with climate change, poverty, and deforestation, as well as sustainable farming, so they cast a wide net when it comes to environmental and economical practices. We feel the need to mention Lavazza as one of the brands that has been awarded with this certification for substantial growing standards.

The only issue with this certification is that a farm only needs to meet 30% of the criteria to maintain its certification. The other 70% can be farmed using whatever method or conditions the farmer approves of. This means that they may not be using environmentally-friendly practices or sustainable development, instead choosing practices to speed up the growing process or save money over the long run without losing their certification.

Direct Trade

What Coffee Certifications Mean for Beans' Production?

Direct Trade certification is given to coffee roasters that get their beans directly from the farmer rather than through a middleman. Sometimes this certification is listed on the side of the bag while other brands list it right in the name. AmazonFresh Direct Trade Nicaragua Whole Bean Coffee is an example of the latter, so you know that their 100% medium-roast Arabica coffee has a single origin.

Technically speaking, this isn’t a type of certification since there are no criteria that need to be met outside of buying directly from the farmer. It can also be costly to meet these standards, especially for smaller coffee roasters. This is because they need to handle all the delivery costs to get the beans to their facility, as well as deal with any issues along the way.

For larger roasters, this may not be such an issue, especially if they are already established and making a decent profit, so can justify the extra financial burden.

Carbon Neutral

Carbon Neutral certification is given to businesses that don’t add to the growing issue of greenhouse gases in our already over-polluted environment. There are no set guidelines for this certification that are recognized internationally, though there are some standards that must be met to obtain it.

To be Carbon Neutral certified, the company in question is required to submit their coffee or other products for a Life Cycle Analysis. A third party then looks at every step of the coffee production, from bean to bag, to verify the carbon emissions used in each of those steps. The final report details the carbon dioxide emissions for the whole process to ensure they are meeting the set standard to gain their certification.

Like many of the other certification types available, this one focus more on the environment than the wages and conditions farmers and laborers are working under. Those who do gain this certification are usually mindful of the people involved with the process, though, making sure everyone is paid and treated fairly.

Final Thoughts

In the past, when buying a cup of coffee at your local café or brewing a pot at home, you may not have considered where those beans came from and how they were produced. These days, there is a lot more thought put into the food and beverages we ingest since consumers are as concerned with the environment, the farmers, and the workers all involved in the production process as they are with the coffee’s flavor.

That’s why so many companies are looking into coffee certifications. They tell their customers that their coffee comes from organic or sustainable farms that treat the environment with respect. Some of the certifications also ensure that the farmers and their laborers are treated fairly and are earning a decent wage. Though it may not change how much you enjoy the coffee, it can give you some peace of mind as you sip your favorite brew.


Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
Dedicated to understanding, conserving and championing the grand phenomenon of bird migration
Becoming a Certified Operation | Agricultural Marketing Service
Certifiers are responsible for making sure that USDA organic products meet all organic standards. There are five basic steps to organic certification
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