Coffee Certifications: The Ultimate Guide for 2023

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Have you ever wondered what those labels on coffee bags really mean? In this article, you’ll discover the secrets behind coffee certifications and how they help protect our planet and the people who grow coffee.

By learning about these certifications, you’ll be able to make smarter choices when buying coffee, making a positive difference for everyone involved. Get ready to explore the world of coffee certifications and become an expert in no time!

What Is A Coffee Certification?

A coffee certification is like a special sticker that tells you if the coffee you’re drinking is good for the planet and the people who grow it. It shows that the coffee was made in a way that helps nature, treats farmers fairly, and makes sure that everyone can enjoy a better cup of coffee.

Certifications are kind of a shortcut. They’re there to try and help you make a better, easier purchasing decision.

Certified coffees consider one or more aspects of sustainability:

  • the coffee is grown in a healthy environment
  • economically viable for farmers
  • promotes fairness among farmers and workers
  • Or all three aspects.

No single certification covers all the aspects, but each of the five major certifications addresses at least one crucial aspect of coffee growth, production, and sale.

What Is The Best Certification For Coffee?

There is no single best coffee certification since some of these certifications overlap. What is important to consider is that the coffee has one or more certifications that are important to you.

According to James Hoffmann, “I can’t really say that any one of these certifications is somehow better than the others, but there might be one that fits me personally better than the others.” (1)

If a coffee brand has the classic triple certification of Fairtrade, USDA Organic, and Rainforest Alliance, that is an indication that they are buying coffee in a responsible way. A triple certification might be the closest to having the “best” coffee certification today.

Types of Coffee Certifications


  • Importance: Ensures fair treatment of workers, fair wages, and increased market visibility for coffee farmers.
  • Criteria: Increased market access to farmers, fair wages, improved labor laws, and advocacy for partnerships.
  • Our top Fairtrade coffee pick: Volcanica Coffee Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Organic

“Fair Trade is not just a shopping decision; it is a vote for a better world.” – Unknown

When you see the Fairtrade logo on a coffee package, such as on the best Volcanica coffees, you know the people who grew the coffee got a fair price for their beans.

Fairtrade certification (2) is about ensuring coffee farmers get paid fairly for their hard work. This helps them take care of their families and make their communities better.

USDA Organic

  • Importance: Ensures coffee is environmentally friendly and grown without harmful pesticides or chemicals.
  • Criteria: No chemicals or prohibited substances during the growing process. The soil must be chemical-free for three years. Coffee is grown at a distance from non-organic crops and with no unnecessary erosion.
  • Our top USDA organic coffee pick: Intelligentsia Coffee: Peru La Conquista

“Organic farming outperforms conventional systems with regard to building, maintaining, and replenishing the health of the soil, which is the key to regenerative agriculture.” Rodale Institute (3)

Organic certifications show that coffee is grown without using harmful chemicals like pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. This is better for the environment and the people working on the farms. Organic farming can also lead to healthier soil and more resilient crops.

Rainforest Alliance

  • Importance: Focuses on sustainability, fair wages, and environmental responsibility in the coffee industry.
  • Criteria: Biodiversity conservation, labor rights and fair wages, conservancy of natural resources, and responsible farm management. Farms must meet a minimum percentage of these requirements.
  • Our top Rainforest Alliance coffee picks: Volcanica Costa Rica Coffee, Original, Tarrazu

The Rainforest Alliance certification (4) focuses on protecting the environment and supporting farmers. This certification helps make sure that coffee farms use eco-friendly practices that protect forests, water, and wildlife.

When you see the green frog logo of Rainforest Alliance, you know the coffee is good for the environment and the people who grew it.

Bird Friendly

  • Importance: Protects the habitat of migrating birds. Promotes shade-grown coffee, reducing water consumption and preventing soil erosion.
  • Criteria: Organically grown coffee, shade comprising ten woody species (mostly native), 40% shade coverage, and 12 meters high trees/plants after pruning.
  • Our Top Pick for Bird-Friendly Coffee: Peet’s Coffee Organic Yosemite Dos Sierras

“Bird Friendly certification protects birds and habitats through the hard work of 5,100 Bird Friendly farmers in 11 countries growing 34 million pounds of coffee annually.” (5)

Bird Friendly coffee certification is all about protecting birds and their homes. To be certified as Bird Friendly, coffee farms need to have lots of trees, tall canopies, and a variety of tree species. This creates a safe place for birds to live and thrive.

UTZ (now part of Rainforest Alliance)

  • Importance (before merging in 2018): Emphasized transparency of coffee production and traceability of coffee beans.
  • Note: Some coffee brands still maintain their UTZ seal but are gradually transitioning to the Rainforest Alliance certification.

Coffee Company Programs

Besides certifications, some big coffee companies like Starbucks have their own buying programs. They buy a lot of coffee, so it’s important to know what they care about when getting their coffee, how they source their coffee beans, and how do they treat farmers.

Why are they even in this article, then? Because there’s a lot of crossover between the certifications and programs here.

As you will soon learn, Nespresso’s AAA program was developed in cooperation with the Rainforest Alliance, so there is a lot of overlap in certain areas.

Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices

Starbucks has a program called Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices that focus on ethical sourcing of their coffee beans.

“As a business leader, my quest has never been just about winning or making money. It has also been about building a great, enduring company, which has always meant striking a balance between profit and social conscience.” – Howard Schultz (6)

This program helps ensure that farmers follow responsible farming practices, take care of the environment, and treat their workers fairly. Starbucks uses a point-based system to verify that the coffee they buy meets their standards.

Transparency and Support

Starbucks also requires that the prices they pay for coffee beans are transparent, meaning everyone involved in the coffee supply chain can see where the money is going. This helps make sure that farmers are paid fairly for their hard work.

Additionally, Starbucks supports farmers, helping them improve their farming methods and work towards more sustainable practices.

Quality and Sustainability 

Starbucks is committed to offering its customers high-quality coffee while focusing on sustainability. The company only buys arabica coffee beans, known for their superior taste compared to other coffee beans.

By investing in sustainable farming practices, Starbucks aims to protect the environment and ensure a stable supply of coffee beans for the future.

Financing Their Programs 

Starbucks has issued Sustainability Bonds to fund its sustainability efforts, with the latest one being a $1 billion bond.

The money raised through these bonds supports their C.A.F.E. Practices program and other sustainability initiatives, ultimately helping farmers adopt more environmentally friendly practices and improve working conditions.

Encouraging Positive Change 

Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices program is designed to promote positive change within the coffee industry.

By setting high standards for their coffee sourcing and offering support to farmers, Starbucks hopes to inspire other companies to follow suit, leading to a more sustainable and ethical coffee supply chain.

Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program 

Nespresso has developed the AAA Sustainable Quality Program in partnership with the Rainforest Alliance to ensure the quality and sustainability of their coffee.

This program focuses on improving coffee farmers’ practices, environmental conservation, and enhancing the well-being of farming communities.

Quality and Variety 

Nespresso is dedicated to offering its customers a wide range of high-quality coffee flavors. They source both arabica and robusta coffee beans, which allows them to create diverse and unique blends for their customers to enjoy.

Farmer Support and Education 

The Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program provides farmers with training and support to help them improve their coffee cultivation practices, resulting in better quality coffee and increased productivity. By investing in the education and well-being of coffee farmers, Nespresso aims to create a more sustainable and fair coffee supply chain.

Environmental Initiatives 

Nespresso’s commitment to sustainability extends beyond its coffee-sourcing practices. They are continuously working to reduce the environmental impact of their products and operations, such as by increasing the recyclability of their coffee capsules and reducing their carbon footprint.

Nespresso’s Impact on the Coffee Industry 

Nespresso’s efforts to promote quality, sustainability, and ethical practices in the coffee industry serve as an example for other companies to follow.

By demonstrating that high-quality coffee can be produced responsibly and environmentally friendly, Nespresso is contributing to positive change within the coffee industry.

Specialty Coffee and Certifications

The Role of Quality Premiums

Specialty coffee companies prioritize high-quality beans and often pay premiums above the prices set by certifications like Fairtrade.

These premiums are meant to reward farmers for producing exceptional coffee and to encourage improvements in cultivation practices.

While paying premiums for quality can lead to better coffee, it’s not always clear if this approach is more beneficial for farmers compared to certification systems.

The impact of these premiums on farmers’ livelihoods and the sustainability of the industry remains a topic of debate.

Challenges in Integrating Certifications

“Specialty coffee seems to have rejected certifications and is often a little disparaging of them.” (1)

Some specialty coffee farms may be too large or employ too many people to be eligible for certain certifications like Fairtrade. This means that even if a farm produces high-quality, ethically sourced coffee, it may not meet the specific requirements of a certification.

In some cases, a coffee farm might have additional certifications, but the supply chain may not maintain that certification. As a result, consumers might not be aware that the coffee they’re buying comes from a certified farm.

Specialty coffee customers often don’t demand certified coffee because there’s usually not much overlap between specialty coffee and certifications. This lack of market pressure makes it less likely for roasters, importers, and producers to pursue certifications.

Benefits of Certification Frameworks for the Industry

  • Certification frameworks can provide valuable guidelines and standards for specialty coffee companies to follow, helping them improve their ethical and sustainable practices.
  • Some specialty coffee companies produce sustainability reports, which could benefit from incorporating elements of existing certification frameworks. This would help create a more consistent and transparent approach to assessing and reporting sustainability efforts in the specialty coffee industry.
  • By adopting and promoting certification frameworks, specialty coffee companies can contribute to a more sustainable and ethical industry, ensuring a better future for coffee farmers, the environment, and coffee lovers alike.

V. Comparing Certifications and Programs

Key Differences Between Coffee Certifications

  • Fairtrade focuses on ensuring fair prices and working conditions for farmers, as well as investing in community development projects. The certification also encourages producers to improve coffee quality, but it doesn’t guarantee high-quality beans.
  • Rainforest Alliance emphasizes environmental conservation and sustainable farming practices. Unlike Fairtrade, this certification does not have specific quality requirements for coffee beans and considers quality as part of the negotiation between buyer and seller.
  • Organic certifications prioritize environmentally friendly farming practices that avoid synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While organic coffee can be delicious, the certification does not guarantee exceptional taste or quality.
  • Company-specific programs like Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices and Nespresso’s AAA Sustainable Quality Program focus on securing a steady supply of high-quality coffee beans while also aligning with the ethical expectations of their customers. These programs typically include elements of social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Coffee Certification

  • Goals and priorities: Different certifications emphasize different aspects of sustainability and ethics. Consider which aspects are most important to you or your business when selecting a certification.
  • Quality requirements: Some certifications have specific quality standards, while others do not. If the taste and quality of coffee beans are crucial factors, choose a certification or program that aligns with your preferences.
  • Size and structure of the farm: Some certifications may have eligibility requirements based on the size of the farm or the number of employees. Make sure the chosen certification is appropriate for the farm in question.
  • Market demand and consumer perception: Depending on the target market, consumers may have preferences or expectations for certain certifications. Consider which certifications are most recognized and valued by your target audience.
  • Costs and benefits: Certifications often require investments in time, resources, and money. Carefully weigh the potential benefits of certification against the costs to ensure it is a worthwhile investment for your business or personal preferences.

The Future of Coffee Certifications

Innovations and Trends in Certification

  • Holistic certifications: As the coffee industry evolves, there is a growing trend toward certifications that encompass multiple aspects of sustainability, such as environmental, social, and economic factors. These certifications aim to provide a more comprehensive approach to ethical coffee production.
  • Greater consumer awareness: As consumers become more educated about the impact of their purchasing choices, they are increasingly seeking out certified products that align with their values. This growing demand is driving innovation and the development of new certifications.
  • Collaboration between certifications: In the future, we may see more collaboration between different certification bodies, sharing best practices and working together to achieve common sustainability goals.

The Role of Technology and Traceability

  • Blockchain technology: Blockchain technology can be used to enhance traceability and transparency in the coffee supply chain. This allows consumers to access detailed information about a product’s origin, production practices, and certifications.
  • Digital platforms and apps: The development of digital platforms and apps allows consumers to easily access information about coffee certifications, making it simpler for them to make informed decisions when purchasing coffee.
  • Remote monitoring and verification: Technological advancements, such as satellite imagery and remote sensing, can help certification bodies monitor and verify compliance with their standards more efficiently and accurately.

Addressing Climate Change and Sustainability

  • Climate-smart agriculture: As the impacts of climate change become more apparent, certifications may place greater emphasis on climate-smart agriculture practices. These practices aim to increase the resilience of coffee farms to climate change while also reducing their environmental footprint.
  • Carbon sequestration and offsetting: Certifications could incorporate requirements related to carbon sequestration or offsetting, promoting practices that help to mitigate climate change by capturing or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Focus on regenerative agriculture: Regenerative agriculture aims to restore and enhance the health of ecosystems and soils. By emphasizing these practices, certifications can contribute to the long-term sustainability of the coffee industry and the planet.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the coffee certification system?

Certified coffees consider one or more factors of sustainability. This means that the coffee was either cultivated in a healthy environment, is economically feasible for farmers, fosters fairness among farmers and workers, or that it meets all three criteria.

What does 30% certified coffee mean?

In order to obtain the coveted label on a bag of coffee, it is essential that a minimum of 30% of the coffee beans within the container originate from a farm that has been certified by the Rainforest Alliance.

The remaining percentage could include coffee sourced from undisclosed farms or conditions, lending an air of mystery to the brew.

What is fair trade certification for coffee?

Fair Trade-certified coffee has been checked at every step of the way to make sure it meets certain labor and environmental standards.

What are the FDA requirements for coffee?

The FDA says that coffee can’t have any harmful contaminants, like mycotoxins, or dirt, like mold or bug infestation.

In addition to these rules about labels and quality, the FDA also limits the use of certain additives in coffee.

Final Thoughts on Coffee Certifications

After reading this article hope you learned a lot about coffee certifications and how they make a difference in the world. By understanding these labels, you can make better choices when buying coffee, helping the environment, farmers, and their families.

Not only will you enjoy a great cup of coffee, but you’ll also feel good knowing you’ve made a positive impact. So go ahead, share your knowledge with your friends and family, and together, let’s make a better future for coffee lovers everywhere!


  1. James Hoffmann, Coffee Certifications Explained
  2. Fairtrade International
  3. Rodale Institute, Farming Systems Trial (FST) Brochure
  4. Rainforest Alliance
  5. Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center: About Bird Friendly Coffee
  6. 13 inspiring quotes on leadership and success from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz,