Healthy Planet: Sustainable Coffee Labels

November 02, 2010

Americans love their coffee.

Here’s a quick reference of designations and certifications to help you sort out those messages the next time you find yourself in the coffee aisle:

Fair Trade Certified – The newly renamed Fair Trade USA oversees strong promotional efforts to consumers and businesses through awareness campaigns, media and on-product labeling. Its mission is to support a better life for farming families in the developing world through fair prices, access to direct trade, community development and environmental stewardship. Fair trade is traceable from roaster to producer. Price differential* vary by coffee. The washed Arabica differential is a minimum of $1.25 per pound plus a $0.10 per pound social premium. There’s also an extra $0.20 premium if the coffee is also certified organic.

Rainforest Alliance – You’ll see this designation right on the label as well. Here, the mission is to integrate biodiversity conservation, community development, workers’ rights and productive agricultural practices to ensure comprehensive sustainable farm management. RA undertakes both business-to-business and consumer marketing, communications, and media outreach. It’s traceable from roaster to producer. Alliance Certified™ program works with farmers to control costs, increase production, improve crop quality, build up their workforce, foster community cohesion, manage their valuable natural resources and protect the environment. Certification helps farmers learn how to negotiate for themselves and compete in an increasingly complex and globalized marketplace.

Smithsonian Bird-Friendly (Shade-Grown) –In 2000, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center launched the shade-grown coffee certification program to promote the growth of sustainable coffee. Coffee grown in the shade of tree canopies, rather than on land cleared of other vegetation, provides a habitat for a number of species, including migratory birds. In addition to birds, shade coffee plantations provide habitat for orchids, insects, mammals (such as bats), reptiles, and amphibians. Shade-grown coffee is given the Smithsonian's Bird Friendly label if the growing conditions meet certain criteria. The coffee must meet organic standards, canopy height, foliage cover, and number of bird species, among other criteria. Price differential* is $0.05-0.10¢ per pound (sometimes more, depending on coffee and producer/buyer).

Utz Certified – This on-product label guarantees that coffee is grown on farms that use agrochemicals properly, where workers and their families live in adequate housing, have access to healthcare, schools and training, and that their labor rights are protected. The goal is to empower farmers with professional coffee-growing and marketing techniques, so they can access more markets and develop better relationships with their buyers. It’s traceable from roaster to producer following supply chain roles. Price differential* noted as $0.05¢ per pound average for Arabica: $50 per metric ton for Robusta, based on quality and market drivers.

4C Common Code – This is not product claim or seal, although you might notice an on-package membership statement. An inclusive business-to-business membership driven organization of coffee farmers, trade and industry and civil society; its members work jointly towards improving economic, social and environmental conditions through more sustainable and transparent practices for all who make a living in the coffee sector.

*Pricing differentials sourced from the SCAA Sustainability Council Comparison Matrix (2010)