Sustainable Coffee Certifications

sustainable coffee certifications and labels

In this post, we offer a brief overview of the most popular coffee certifications and labels in order to help you make an informed decision when purchasing.

We've created a second article for information on Direct Trade and Fair Trade and how they compare with the labels below. View it here.

Organic Coffee

Organic coffee is grown in harmony with the biodiversity that surrounds it. It should support the growth of nature and nurture its soil. It should not in anyway harm the environment around it.

Organic certification labels differ per countries. The most common label is USDA (United States of Agriculture Department). In Canada, we can find the label “Canada Organic.” Standards often consist of the following:  

  • Seeds are not genetically modified (No GMOs)
  • No artificial pesticides
  • Organic fertilizer only (often key to enriching the soil over the long term)
  • There’s a restricted use of chemicals
  • No Sewage Sludge

     canada organic coffee

Rainforest Certified Coffee

The Rainforest Alliance is an NGO that operates in over 70 countries. It's “committed to working together to achieve our mission of conserving biodiversity and ensuring sustainable livelihoods.”

The Rainforest Alliance is not only based on environmental stewardship but also on management, community implication and fair labor practices. The Rain Forest Alliance works with the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) to provide a rigid list of criteria. It is a scored-based certification relying on the evaluation of the aforementioned criteria. These include:

  • Water pollution
  • Soil Erosion
  • Reducing threat to wildlife and humans
  • Farm management
  • Conditions for workers
  • Collaborations between farms and conservationist
  • Percentage of coffee grown in shade 

The Rainforest Alliance has two different labels. They have a tag for fully certified and a tag for only 30% certified. This allows farmers that are working towards creating a better farm to benefit early from their sustainable initiatives and practices. At this stage, they’re required to produce a five-year plan on how they will reach full certification. 

rainforest alliance certification coffee

Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center – Bird/Shade Grown Coffee

The Washington National Zoo created the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), which in turn created the SMBC Certification. It promises a 100% organically grown coffee in a tree and bird friendly environment. They hope to reduce the number farms clear cutting their lands in favor of sun-grown coffee plantations (which often requires the use of pesticides). They help protect birds, local wildlife and they fight against deforestation.

Before acquiring a SMBC certification, farms must first be qualified as organic. Further requirements include having over 40% of their coffee grown in natural shade created by trees.

They are the only certification to offer 100% organic and shade grown coffee certified by third party inspection. Additionally, companies that sell the bird-friendly coffee contribute 0.25$/pound to the SMBC research and conservation center. 

SMBC Bird friendly coffee certification



UTZ Coffee Certification

UTZ’s slogan is “Better Farming, Better Future." Similar to the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ covers a range of criteria including management, habitat protection, transparency, and traceability. Each step of the product's journey is logged into their Good Inside portal to allow buyers and seller to know exactly where their coffee comes from.

The organization operates through two sets of guidelines: the code of conduct (growing and harvesting) and the chain of custody (covering everything after the product has left the farm and until it hits the shelves).

UTZ is now used in over 100 countries worldwide.

Why buy certified coffee? 

These certifications cost us (the customers) more but do not add perceivable value. The coffee does not taste better or last longer. At this point in time, there’s also no proven case that coffee grown without pesticides is healthier. 

Furthermore, with increasing variability in climate, many farmers seek to protect themselves with pesticides as it can (in the short run) help coffee grow in harsher conditions.

So why buy certified coffee?

The cost of non-organic coffee does not take into consideration the depletion of soil (which will most likely have an impact on production in future years) or how pesticides affect the health of the workers. These certifications, although not perfect, provide a clearer picture of the true cost of coffee. In that sense, buying coffee with one of these certifications is a step in the right direction to help provide a better future for the next generations of coffee farmers. By increasing demand, we can increase supply.

But remember, getting certified isn't free...

To be certified by any of the above labels, the producers have to go through third party testing. This can be time-consuming and expensive for smaller farmers and co-ops.

Unless they receive financing, these farms can rarely apply for these certifications. In consequence, smaller coffee farms have little incentive to go through the hurdles of becoming growing organically since the will not be able to negotiate a better price without the certification. Thankfully, Direct Trade coffee is working towards solving this problem.


Like this post? Like coffee? Well maybe, just maybe, you'll enjoy our coffee travel mugs. You can check them out here. We think their pretty but the coolest part is that 10% of all sales are donated to our not-for-profit partner Cup for Education to help develop education in the poor rural coffee communities of Latin America. Oh, and they keep your coffee warm for, like, a really long time.