Sustainability in Coffee: Certification

Transparency Reports

In this post, I’d like to dive in to what I mentioned previously as a good indicator of a coffee’s sustainability: certifications. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a certification and corresponding label that could simply tell us whether a coffee is sustainable or not? The good news is that certifications related to sustainability do exist. The bad news is that no one certification covers all the aspects of environmental, social, and fiscal sustainability. The chart below is my attempt to make sense of the most common coffee certifications.

Environmental

Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Water Conservation Y Y Y Y
Soil Conservation Y Y
Integrated Pest Management Y Y
Ecosystem Conservation Y Y Y
Wildlife Protection Y Y
Waste Management Y

 

Social

Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Community Relations Y
Working Conditions Y Y Y
Occupational Health Y Y

 

Fiscal

Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Guaranteed Quality Premium Y
Guaranteed Price Premium Y Y
Transparency Y

 

* Topic is addressed, but is either not required for certification or not measured/quantified.

 

I’ll be the first to admit that this chart is a massive oversimplification, but I hope it illustrates my main point: No one certification indicates a sustainable coffee. While it’s true that a coffee could theoretically get to “yes” in every category by obtaining multiple certifications, the reality is that certifications have costs. The supply of certified coffee is much greater than the demand, so producers aren’t guaranteed a premium, even if they meet all of the criteria.

Individual drawbacks aside, certifications do offer benefits. Each of the certifications in the chart invokes a third party (i.e., not the buyer or the seller) to audit the operations of the farm, cooperative, or association of farmers seeking certification. This independent verification not only authenticates the operation, but also brings a level of scientific and technical expertise not possessed by most coffee buyers. Finally, though they may be imperfect, certifications allow consumers to compare the relative sustainability of products at a glance, which is extremely valuable.

In short, for Counter Culture, certifications are a good place to begin when assessing a coffee’s sustainability. Visits to producers and cooperatives help fill in some of the gaps left by certifications, as does developing supply chain relationships—which can help to facilitate information sharing.

In the coming months, we’ll be field testing an environmental scorecard from our friends at Root Capital that should help us to develop a more nuanced understanding of our understanding of sustainable coffee.

Up next: what it means to be a sustainable roaster.

–Meredith