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Is Coffee Sustainable? Learn what these 3 big certifications mean for you, farmers, and the planet.

Is Coffee Sustainable? Learn what these 3 big certifications mean for you, farmers, and the planet.
Gladys's husband and son unload coffee cherries Gladys's husband and son unload coffee cherries
Fair trade coffees and direct trade coffees aim to make coffee production a viable livelihood for farmers in the dozens of countries where coffee is grown. Fair trade is not a single, stagnant solution; it is an evolving model (really a set of models) designed to advocate to for people who have, in the past, not been able to sustain themselves by growing coffee. Fair and direct trade work towards financial sustainability for growers, but how can sustainable agriculture help make coffee more fair to the environment? Coffee is a perennial crop, meaning the same coffee tree produces fruit for multiple years. It’s a stretch to think that your morning latte comes from the seeds of little red cherries grown on a leafy tropical plant, but the reality is that coffee does in fact grow on trees. Like any other crop, coffee grows better with fertilizer and requires inputs to protect it from pests and plagues in the forms of insects and fungi. The fertilizers, insecticides, and fungicides used to boost and protect coffee and the herbicides used to control weeds around coffee trees can fall within a wide range of toxicity. Sustainable coffee farming is similar to sustainable agriculture in general in that its goal is to keep coffee trees productive without dousing them with chemicals that will destroy soil and nearby water sources or poison other flora and fauna. Several certifications exist to assure consumers that coffee is produced in ways that account for the long term environmental health of coffee farms.

Rainforest Alliance:

Rainforest is a New York-based non-profit that sets certification standards based on maintaining holistic biodiversity in accordance with the very stringent principles of the Sustainable Agriculture Network. Various auditing agencies check farms of all shapes and sizes against these standards. Rainforest is comprehensive in its concern for individuals, communities, and ecosystems. Rainforest is different from organic because organic certification requires the complete absence of agrochemicals and chemical fertilizers, while Rainforest permits the use of those with low toxicity. However, organic certification does not require that farmers manage their waste products responsibly, whereas Rainforest does. There is no guaranteed premium for Rainforest certified coffee, but there is always some small price differential that makes it to producers. Rainforest Alliance certification not only requires producers to use low toxicity products, plant trees and diverse species of natural barrier plants on the property, ensure protection of water sources, and impeccably manage waste, it requires producers to keep organized documentation of all of the above. Certifications require lots and lots of paperwork. Getting a farm certified can come down to whether or not a single piece of paper has been saved to present to auditors or was lost in the shuffle. Rainforest Alliance has the reputation among Latin American farmers for being the strictest. View Rainforest Alliance standards.


Organic coffee production must adhere to mandates dictated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The requirements to be USDA certified organic are essentially a long list of products that cannot be used. Farmers are required to submit proof of the approved products they have used to fertilize and control pests. The same accredited organizations that audit for Rainforest Alliance certification also often audit for organic. It is common for farms to be dual certified. Usually, if a farm is organic it is not a stretch to have it Rainforest Alliance certified, or vice versa. All certified organic farms must undergo a "transition period" during which no agrochemicals are used to that the soil can return to its "natural" equilibrium. This sort of limbo period can be an additional challenge to producers, who lose money on decreases in production from suddenly loosing profits and who have not yet been certified in order to receive premiums. View USDA Organic standards. There are plenty of farms that are organic or otherwise sustainable that do not earn certifications proving so. This has to do with logistics or money or both. Farms can be intensively managed as organic with chemical-free fertilizers and pest/plague control inputs, or they can be de facto organic because producers don't have the resources to buy expensive inputs. The balance of moisture levels, hours and intensity of sunshine, and initial soil fertility make certain places more apt for organic farming and others near impossible locations for organic production. Read The Ins and Outs of Organics: Demystifying Production.

Bird Friendly:

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute offers Bird Friendly certification to farms that are already certified organic and meet additional regulations to ensure they offer habitats for migratory bird species. View Bird Friendly Standards. All certified coffees have an added layer of oversight. This layer is a thick slice of bureaucracy that requires paperwork, chains of custody, signed documents, and legal seals of approval. Whether all this positively impacts farmers and the environment is the million dollar question. The people who work at these organizations swear it does, and sometimes I’ve seen evidence that supports it. Farmers are of mixed opinion, ranging from passionate supporter to vehement anti-certification. Like everything with coffee, it varies from country to country, mountain to mountain, and farm to farm. In When Coffee Speaks: Stories from and of Latin American Coffeepeople producer Gladys Araque of La Pradera, Antioquia, Colombia describes the pride she feels in producing a clean product in harmony with her surroundings and how she is even prouder that her farm has multiple certifications as external corroboration of the work she and her husband do to produce sound coffee.
Gladys, left, with her farm in the background Gladys, left, with her farm in the background
“As one becomes more educated, with trainings and workshops, in these steps, you start to see that final product improves. These have been five years where people are saying, “Oh look, you’re certified,” but to us it’s not really about—like I said—“Money, money!” Rather it’s about learning and then being able to apply it to your very own soil, to your very own cafetales, your trees. That’s what’s carried us. Perseverance on one hand and on the other hand because we like it. We like living in nature, and we like doing things well in order to see the positive results. We get to be very proud. People ask us, “How do you do it?” And we’re always thinking, more than anything, about the client. The person who’s going to drink it, whether it’s you or someone else. I have the peace of mind that this coffee is well made. This is fundamental, not thinking about money, rather about whether or not people like it. That they can drink it and say, “What delicious coffee! How did they make this?” And that it’s as natural as possible. That it doesn’t have many chemicals; that’s the idea. We don’t like to use anything that will harm the soil. The most difficult is to get people to understand the importance of taking good care of things. It’s hard for everyone to understand. To get people to understand their own worth and to value what they do is very, very hard. Certifications make very harsh criticisms—unfortunately—some of those were of our own neighbors. Our very own neighbors don’t want to be a part of what we wish everyone could work together towards. This part has been hard. Everything else has been doable, but for people to understand has been hard. We started as one hundred families, and at the end there are seven of us certified. Only seven families out of a hundred. So it’s very sad. We’d like everyone to be a part of the journey that is so wonderful. But, unfortunately, this is what hurts us the most. The biggest success is to feel so satisfied knowing that people who drink our coffee are drinking it with all the guarantees that what we’re doing is as low impact as possible. We’re not lying. It’s true what we’re doing. It’s a coffee that’s created with lots of work and lots of love. We really are working towards something bigger.” – p. 278
"To protect the soil is to protect great wealth"
"To protect the soil is to protect great wealth"
Coffee is...
Coffee is...
"With sound agricultural practices
"With sound agricultural practices we will have quality for our coffee and well-being for our families."
Coffees certified as sustainable are not perfect, but they do serve as a way to capture the attitudes of producers like Gladys who dedicate their lives to preserving a balance with nature and share those values with likeminded consumers. Stay tuned for the next post explaining Shade Grown Coffee. All photos by Rachel Northrop. See more at whencoffeespeaks.com.