University of Florida

What Is Certified Coffee?

Coffee isn’t just something that perks you up in the morning—it’s also one of the most important commodities in the world. Coffee is produced by about 50 countries, making it a cash crop critical to various economies. With so much coffee production and consumption, an increasing number of people are becoming interested in learning the social, environmental, and economic aspects of producing coffee. This has led to different certification processes that address consumers’ concerns.

What Does Certified Coffee Mean?

Certified coffees take one or more aspects of sustainability into account. This means the coffee was grown in a healthy environment, is economically viable for farmers, promotes fairness among farmers and workers, or all three aspects. Additionally, certified coffee meets all guidelines set by coffee growers and is verified by a certification organization.

Certification Programs

There are many certification programs with different objectives, but generally they all share the following features:

  • Certification provides economic incentives to farmers. (Distributors pay premiums for certified coffee, giving farmers more income).
  • Because certification guidelines are satisfied during production, the way a coffee is produced is being certified.
  • Before a coffee is certified it must be verified by an inspector from an independent certification agency. Farmers or farmers’ associations can pay for an inspection.
  •  The certification process is voluntary for farmers.

International Coffee Certification Programs

  • Organic – Organic certification prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals used in agriculture. Organic standards are verified during production, as well as processing and handling.
  • Fairtrade – Fairtrade is an approach that aims to improve the market access and strengthen the organization of small producers. This approach also seeks to improve the livelihood of these producers by paying them fair prices and providing stability in trade relationships. Fairtrade certification is only given to farmers’ associations and cooperatives rather than individual farmers.
  • Rainforest Alliance – Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee is grown on farms located where forests, soils, rivers, and wildlife are conserved. Furthermore, workers are respected and paid decent wages, have safe working conditions, and have access to education and medical care. This coffee must be grown under tree’s shade.
  • Bird-Friendly– This certification promotes shade-grown organic coffee, which plays a role in conserving trees for the environment and birds that migrate.
  • UTZ – Meaning “good” in a Mayan language, UTZ requires farmers to grow coffee with care to benefit their local communities and environment. This involves training employees on health and safety procedures, as well as using pesticides correctly. UTZ’s environmental goal is to reduce the use of water, energy, and pesticides.  
  • Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices– Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) ensures that Starbuck’s coffee is sustainably grown by evaluating the economic, social, and environmental aspects of its production.
  • 4C– The Common Code for the Coffee Community, or 4C, addresses social, economic, and environmental standards for everyone involved in coffee production—from farmers to exporters. 4C-certified coffee is primarily found in Europe, but is expanding to United States’ markets.

Because there are so many options available, it is important to keep your price limit and priorities in mind before you choose a certified coffee. Visit the websites of various certification programs to ensure you are paying for a product that falls in line with your concerns.

Adapted and excerpted from:

G. M. Lentijo and M. Hostetler, Evaluating Certified Coffee Programs (WEC306), UF/IFAS Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department (02/2011).


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