You’ve probably noticed them before on certain bags of coffee—but what do those tiny certification logos actually mean?
Do they make a difference? Are they worth paying attention to?
Those little logos can tell you a lot about how the coffee in the bag was grown and processed, and can give you some insight into the ethics and sustainability of the farm, cooperative, and the roaster.
It's important to remember that not all coffee farms or cooperatives can afford to get certified, and that certification, by itself, is not always a guarantee of quality coffee. In the end, it's up to you to decide what criteria are most important to you when choosing coffee.
Here’s a breakdown of 5 of the most common coffee certifications you're likely to come across—and what they actually mean:
1. Fair Trade Coffee
This certification indicates that the coffee was produced according to fair trade standards, which aim to improve the lives of farmers and workers by ensuring them a fair price for their coffee.
For example, Fair Trade USA requires that farmers receive a minimum price for their coffee, as well as an additional premium that can be used for community development projects.
2. USDA Certified Organic
The white and green “USDA organic” seal is one of the most recognizable and trusted certification labels in the United States. In order to be certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the coffee must be grown 95-100% without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
Any farm can claim its produce was grown organically—which is why the USDA began certifying organically-grown crops. Getting the USDA certified organic seal is famously tough—it requires passing strict inspections and maintaining detailed records.
Because the annual reviews and inspections are so strict, and getting USDA certified costs money, there is some talk that getting certified organic is out of reach for smaller coffee farmers. Nevertheless, it is a widely recognized (and very reliable) indicator that the coffee was produced organically.
3. Rainforest Alliance Certification
This is the frog logo you'll see on some coffee bags, and it indicates that the coffee was grown according to the Rainforest Alliance's standards for sustainable agriculture.
The Rainforest Alliance certification is somewhat similar to fair trade, in that it maintains a set of standards for how coffee is grown and processed. However, the focus of this certification is more on environmental sustainability, specifically in terms of protecting forests and wildlife habitats.
Coffee farms that are certified by the Rainforest Alliance have to meet strict standards for protecting biodiversity and managing water and soil resources.
It’s very important to keep in mind that absence of this certification doesn't mean the coffee wasn't grown sustainably, or in harmony with the local environment. However, when you see the frog logo, you can be 100% confident that the coffee was produced sustainably and with respect for the environment.
4. Café Femenino Certification
The Café Femenino Foundation supports women coffee farmers around the world. The Café Femenino certification label guarantees that the coffee was grown, processed, and roasted by women.
This certification also indicates that a portion of the sale price of the coffee goes back to support women-focused initiatives such as health care, education, and leadership development programs.
It's important to remember that not all women-grown coffee is Café Femenino certified, but you can be sure that any coffee with this label was produced by women farmers.
5. Bird-Friendly Habitat/Shade-Grown Coffee
It might surprise you to learn that Bird-Friendly Habitat coffee has some of the strictest, most robust growing standards of all the coffee certifications.
Bird-friendly or shade-grown coffee is grown under the canopy of taller trees, which provide natural shade and protection from harsh weather conditions. Shade-grown coffee farms are typically more biodiverse than sun-grown farms, and are better for the environment overall.
The certification for shade-grown coffee was developed by ecologists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. To get this certification, the production area must have a minimum of 40% foliage cover, a canopy approximately 40 feet high (or higher), and several layers of vegetation made up of at least 10 woody species.
These are just some of the requirements, there are also standards about everything from weeds and leaf litter (they both need to be present) to fencing and water buffer zones. (And on top of all those requirements, the coffee needs to be certified organic as well!)
Maintaining these coffee certifications, let alone multiple certifications, requires a lot of work on the part of farmers and roasters—and in some cases, it requires money as well. (There's a reason you'll rarely, if ever, find all of these logos on a single bag of coffee.)
The next time you buy coffee beans or grounds, keep an eye out for these certifications to be sure you're getting a cup of joe that is not only delicious, but also ethically and sustainably produced. Just don’t rule out coffee from smaller farms and roasters that might be lacking some certifications—sometimes, they're doing things right, too, even if they don't have all the logos to prove it.
- First Colony Organic Fair Trade Whole Bean Coffee, Rainforest Blend
- Barrie House Morning Ritual Fair Trade Organic Ground Coffee