Deciphering Coffee Labels

Is it even possible to have an ethical cup of coffee? Some labels have more meaning than others.


Any grower that wants to sell coffee labeled as organic has to follow protocol set by the National Organic Program and the United States Department of Agriculture regarding fertilizer and pesticide use and land management practices. After harvest, the beans must be processed in a certified facility before shipment. And unless the roaster is also certified, the coffee is not supposed to be labeled organic.

How Meaningful Is It? No one thinks pesticides are good for them. But if your roaster isn’t certified, your coffee isn’t truly organic. If you drink decaf, it might be worth buying. Most coffee is decaffeinated using toxic solvents, but organically decaffeinated coffee is processed with water or carbon dioxide.

Fair Trade

If a label mentions “fair trade,” it doesn’t mean anything. If a label has a “Fair Trade Federation” logo on it, that means the coffee company is a member of that association, not that the coffee itself was produced using international fair trade standards. If the label says “Fair Trade Certified™,” it means the coffee has been certified by TransFair USA, the only group that certifies fair-trade products in the U.S.

The agency’s standards require the coffee to have been grown by small-scale producers that are “democratically organized” as co-ops or unions. The farmers receive a guaranteed minimum price that varies depending on the coffee and country, with an extra premium for organic beans. They are supposed to adhere to fair labor practices and sustainable agricultural practices.

How Meaningful Is It? Somewhat. There’s a lot of debate as to whether fair trade is as fair as it claims to be. For instance, a 2006 Financial Times story documented fair trade farms in Peru paying seasonal workers less than that country’s legal minimum wage. Critics also question whether the minimum price is high enough. Still, FTC coffee is likely to be at least slightly more ethical than conventional beans.

Direct Trade

In real terms, “direct trade” means roasters buy the beans directly from a specific farm, as opposed to via an importer. But the two largest companies that promote it, Intelligentsia and Counter Culture, claim direct trade goes above and beyond FTC.

Both companies do pay at least 19 to 25 percent above the FTC price for coffee, but their claims on top of that are vague. Intelligentsia, for example, says the grower must be committed to “healthy environmental practices” and “sustainable social practices.” No specifics are offered; they say their coffee buyer travels to every farm to check out the conditions. Counter Culture says it works to “encourage ecologically responsible cultivation methods” and “assess social practices and working conditions.” While Counter Culture has partnered with an outside company for third-party certification, the four points that are certified are not specifically environmental or labor-related.

How Meaningful Is It? It’s likely to be more ethically produced than regular coffee, but when it comes down to it, you’re still taking a company that’s trying to sell you something at its word.

Shade-Grown/Rainforest Alliance/Bird Friendly®

Coffee is a shrub. In the wild, it grows in the shade in forests, much like rhododendron here. Plants that have been modified to tolerate sun have much higher yields but require clear-cut farmland­—bad for rainforests, bad for birds. Anyone working towards sustainable coffee farms encourages shade-grown practices, but the phrase itself doesn’t mean anything on a label. However, Rainforest Alliance and Bird-Friendly certified coffee both require 40 percent of a farm to have shade cover with varying plant diversity. Bird-Friendly certification requires the farms to be organic. Rainforest Alliance certification does not, but does claim to promote workers’ rights.

How Meaningful Is It? Bird-Friendly coffee is some of the most environmentally friendly coffee available but isn’t widely distributed. Coffee can carry the Rainforest Alliance label but have as little as 30 percent certified beans; look for 100 percent Rainforest Alliance beans.

© 2010 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 9

clarkannae writes:

I would like to address your comment about the Rainforest Alliance allowing products to carry the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal with 30% certified content.

The Rainforest Alliance does allow companies to use the green frog seal if a minimum of 30% of the product’s contents comes from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms, but the company must clearly display this fact on its packaging. We feel companies should be acknowledged for these commitments as 30% certified content from a multi-national brand (for example) still has a huge impact on wildlife and workers.

However, this is only a starting point. From there we do try to work with that company to move it to 100% as soon as practicable. Sometimes this can take time because the supply (in quantity and coffee regions) doesn’t always meet the demands of large companies right away. By doing this we are both helping to increase the demand for Rainforest Alliance Certified commodities and working to increase the supply. What matters to the Rainforest Alliance is the impact on the land and workers. So a company buying 30% of 100 tons has more of an impact than one buying 100% of 10 tons. What is important is that every ton of Rainforest Alliance Certified product used is helping farmers and farming communities to better protect their environment, provide decent wages to their workers, and provide the communities access to education, healthcare and decent housing.

carig writes:

I appreciate your comment, clarkannae. Had I more space, I would have delved more deeply into the Rainforest Alliance's structure; however, as it was, I felt lucky to be able to keep the few sentences I had.

Rodney_North writes:

I've worked in the Fair Trade, organic coffee co-operative(for for 15 years and think this is a pretty good summation (especially given the little space you had to work with) but I've a few corrections and extra resources to offer.

* There are now TWO Fair Trade certifiers. The 2nd one is IMO (see )

* While you're right that the Fair Trade Federation does not certify specific products their standards are strict and meaningful. It is difficult for a company to become a Federation member unless they're truly committed to importing coffee (& other items) on Fair Trade terms. And tho' we at Equal Exchange are Federation members we don't happen to use the Federation logo ourselves. Yet some of our competitors (like Cafe Campesino) do and we think its a label shoppers can rely on.

* It is often said that "Direct Traders pay X% more than Fair Trade", but it'd more accurate and useful to say "Direct Traders pay X% more than the mandated Fair Trade FLOOR prices". This matters as when the global coffee market is up (as it has been this year) Fair Trader importers ALSO pay X% more than the Fair Trade floor prices. So Direct Traders are not in fact paying more than Fair Traders.

* A group of coffee importers has put out a useful comparison of the different ethical/eco labels see

* There are many books and studies that document the significant benefits delivered by Fair Trade - see

carig writes:

Thanks for all the info and links, Rodney. I'm sure our readers that care about these issues will appreciate them.

watts writes:

Nice article Cari...quite succinct. There are a few things I feel are worth adding to give more insight into what it is that Direct Trade means in context. For starters, Direct Trade is not a program or certification scheme in the sense that some of the other labels mentioned here are. The reason is simple--there is not currently any consistent industry-wide standard for what Direct Trade signifies and no list of requirements that are followed uniformly by companies using the term. Today there are dozens or more roasting and importing companies around the world applying the phrase to their purchasing practices, but the unfortunate truth is that for every legitimate application one can find several examples where the term is being misused. And among those really doing it right there can still be substantive differences in approach, based largely on the individual value systems of the owners and staff (the issues that they care most about) and the resources at their disposal. The reality is that Direct Trade, as it was originally conceived, is both difficult and costly to operate and requires a degree of commitment that takes years to really achieve. To understand what Direct Trade is (or what it is meant to be) it is probably best to look at its origin.

The term Direct Trade was conceived back in 2003 in an effort to represent a specific approach to working with coffee farmers and a specific philosophy that informed and guided our efforts to create an effective and sustainable model for coffee sourcing and coffee quality development. At the heart of it lies a fairly simple principle: roaster and farmer collaborating in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way to create great tasting coffees that are fully traceable, highly differentiated, and definitively sustainable as measured by current social, economic, and environmental indicators.

Several concepts follow directly from this mandate, and build upon themselves in a logical way. To be truly collaborative there must exist a significant, substantive relationship and feeling of partnership, which can only be achieved when there is real trust and understanding between both parties. To achieve such trust and understanding requires patience and is only possible if people actually spend significant time together...a relationship is not built in a day, and cannot be very meaningful without regular personal contact. This is where the travel necessity kicks in--it is not possible to operate DT as we know it without extensive and regular travel to spend time at the farms every single year. It also follows that there must be transparency in the chain of custody for each coffee; without absolute transparency it is difficult or perhaps impossible to really attain the kind of trust and sense of partnership that transforms a simple buyer/seller dynamic into something more powerful and reliable. (continued in next post...)

watts writes:

If coffee quality is the target there are economic considerations that are unavoidable. Simply put, to create better coffees means spending more on their production at just about every step. It makes no sense to improve coffee quality if there is no improved return, and given the relatively slim historical margins few farmers or millers would take the risk of increasing their costs without knowing that there were reliable premiums awaiting them once the harvest was ready. For this reason we have to be prepared to pay more for such coffees, and to do so consistently. Hence the 25% above FT, which is really just a reference point. In practice the premiums we pay usually range from fifty to two-hundred percent above the FT minimum. Fair Trade is the most recognizable standard in the industry today, and it serves as a very useful reference when explaining our purchasing standards to the public--that’s why we include FT standards as a comparison when talking about Direct Trade. (continued in next post...)

watts writes:

When it comes to environmental and social standards, there are certain things that have traditionally been problematic in coffee production and we focus especially on those that make the biggest impact. Water waste and the pollution that can result when it is not dealt with properly is is perhaps the number one concern, so we always start there. Reckless degradation of existing ecosystems or habitats so as to create high-density full sun monoculture plantations is another detrimental practice that has arisen in coffee production in the past, and we avoid working with farmers who do not see the problem with this. On the social front, low wages for seasonal pickers doesn’t work either. Not only is it unsustainable from a community perspective, that sort of approach to minimizing production cost is a major obstacle to attaining quality. We monitor these things, and will not choose to work with farmers who cannot understand the need to support the people that make the harvest possible and pay them rates that encourage better quality work.

How do we know that the farmers we work with are adhering to these principles? That’s yet another reason why regular travel and time spent on the farms themselves during harvest season is crucial to the model. There is no substitute for eyes on the ground. We could perhaps hire a local agency or certifier to go to a farm and run through a checklist, but the reality is that I feel much more confident when it is our own staff that makes these assessments. The certification game can be a real racket sometimes. That’s not to say certifications aren’t good or are patently unreliable--they play an important role in the industry. They cover a whole lot of ground and service a very large swath of the industry, providing a degree of assurance for buyers who cannot spend the time themselves or whose volumes make it impossible to monitor things on their own--but are not nearly as relevant when looking at acute situations where there is long-term, active collaboration between roaster and producer. And there can be crossover...many of the farms and farmer organizations we work with are already being certified by other groups--Fair Trade, RFA, Utz Kapeh, Cafe Practices--which is good, but we choose not to advertise that in most cases because it distracts from the message we are trying to send about the value of DT and the role of sensory quality in differentiating coffees. (continued in next post...last one, I promise ;)

watts writes:

The point made at the end of your DT analysis is a valid one. In the best of worlds, all companies purporting to source coffee using a Direct Trade model would be by default doing the work required to make it valid. They would be motivated by personal ethics, visions of a more sustainable industry, a desire for better quality and a sense of social responsibility rather than seeking only marketing gain. It is certainly true that there are some companies out there mislabeling their coffees as Direct Trade, either because they don’t really get what it means or because they are intentionally greenwashing their products. But that’s the way of the world--if something appears to have a sales or marketing value there always will be those who seek to take advantage irresponsibly, driven by nothing more than an interest in financial gain. Even the large certification companies have to deal with this...cheaters exist in every stage of the coffee supply chain, and there are farms and farmer groups out there with certifications that they really shouldn’t have. But that doesn’t invalidate the certification programs, as I’m sure that in the majority of cases the compliance is legit. It’s just a recognition of reality--we live in a large world and absolute control over a program, a concept, or a philosophy is probably not something that can be had. Yet there is a solution: consumers can, if they choose, take the time to look past the label for evidence of substance. They can ask questions when things are unclear. Our collective Spidey-sense/BS meter is actually pretty powerful. As a wiser man than me once said, “You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time”. (continued in next post...3000 characters translates to fewer words than I had supposed..)

watts writes:

More often than not, a little bit of time spent on Google or a perusing a company’s web site will help an interested consumer distinguish fact from fantasy. I actually put a full scan of my passport on our website at one point just for the people who wanted to go through and see all those stamps. We usually provide a whole lot of background on each coffee we sell--all it takes is a few clicks to access photo galleries, farm data, and personal accounts of farm visits. And at some point, it does make sense to put some faith in companies (at least those that are privately held--public ownership has a way of changing the rules of the game) that appear to have a substantive track record, the same way we put faith in some leaders who have earned our trust through their actions. The snake charmers will come and go, and occasionally we may get mislead. But by cultivating a reasonable dose of skepticism, paying attention and seeking detail beyond the sloganeering consumers will succeed in finding the products they want to support much more often than they fail. Blind support for ANY label should be reserved for the careless or the unwise. I encourage coffee drinkers who care about farming conditions, environmental stewardship, and high quality to pay less attention to the sustainability catch-phrases that are becoming a dime-a-dozen in specialty coffee and instead spend their energy looking for evidence of substance behind the label. Most of the time it is easier than one might think to gain an informed opinion about how serious any given company is about their quality and sustainability claims, just by poking around on the internet for a while and by asking questions. And I would submit that you can usually start with price...that can serve as a useful initial litmus test. Running a serious Direct Trade model is not cheap, and solving the numerous sustainability issues at the farm level always requires some additional investment and results in higher production costs. Maximizing quality on a farm means even further increases in cost. For these reasons you should expect to pay more if you are looking for a genuinely better coffee that hits all the marks in the sustainability checklists. If something sounds too good to be true it usually is, right? Specialty coffee is no different. If the cost on a coffee advertised as being of great quality, sustainable, fair, farm friendly, bird friendly, earth friendly...and so only marginally above the costs of a commercial coffee that makes no such claims, you probably have reason to be wary.

thanks for listening,


Geoff Watts
Intelligentsia Coffee

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