Certifications give consumers insights into where their coffee comes from. But with so many certifications out there, figuring out what each one means can be challenging. Here's a short guide to help you understand the major coffee certifications—and what getting certified means for our client businesses and coffee farmers.
What is coffee certification, exactly?
Good question! A certification is a seal verifying that coffee is grown, produced, or sold in a certain way. These can take the form of Voluntary Sustainability Standards, in which an independent third party certifies coffee growers, or a self-assessment, in which a retailer sets its own standards. Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, and organic certifications fall under the former; Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices and Nespresso AAA are the latter.
Got it. So what’s the difference between each of the certifications?
All coffee certifications claim to hold coffee growers and businesses accountable to a set of social and/or environmental standards. However, different seals have varying levels of rigor and emphasize certain practices more strongly. Here’s a breakdown of three of the biggest independent certifiers in the United States:
• USDA Organic: To be certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture, a coffee farm must refrain from using banned substances—including most chemical fertilizers and pesticides—for at least three years. This certification also enforces earth-friendly agricultural practices that preserve biodiversity and promote soil health.
• Fair Trade: While it considers environmental sustainability, this certification focuses primarily on farmer livelihoods. Fair Trade-certified coffee is guaranteed a minimum price independent of the coffee price set on the Intercontinental Exchange. It also fetches a premium that coffee businesses must invest in projects that benefit the entire community, such as education, health, food access, or infrastructure improvements.
• Rainforest Alliance/UTZ: These two major certifiers recently merged, and are in the process of developing updated standards that address both social and environmental factors. This certification is process-oriented, meaning that farms must demonstrate that they’re working toward a set of sustainability goals rather than hitting certain benchmarks. In a shift from previous guidelines, individual farmers will now have a greater say in determining the goals they must meet to become certified. By designating “Improvement Pathways” that take the context of individual farmers into consideration, these certifiers aim to give producers a greater voice in defining their own paths toward success.
Dora Lisa Carrión Gómez and another member of the APROCASSI cooperative with a bag of Allegro's Café la Dueña coffee. This line of coffee is produced entirely by women (including women from APROCASSI's women's group) and is certified organic and Fair Trade.
Why don’t all farmers and businesses pursue certification?
Coffee can be produced responsibly without being certified. Many coffee growers produce their coffee in a way that complies with certification standards, but are unable or choose not to pursue certification.
For both farmers and businesses, a lack of demand for certified coffee presents a major obstacle. If demand is insufficient, buyers will purchase less certified coffee than farmers have grown—meaning that those farmers must sell coffee at lower prices even if it meets certification standards. Because of the production criteria that certifiers impose, certified coffee often costs more for farmers to grow. If farmers can’t sell that coffee for a higher price, their net income will take a major hit.
For producers who can get certified, what are the potential advantages?
When there is sufficient demand, producers can earn a higher price from buyers. When the trading price of coffee is low—like it is today—the higher prices fetched by certified coffee make a huge difference for farmers who squeak by on razor-thin margins.
Additionally, when they’re properly enforced, certifications promote positive social and environmental impacts in farming communities. If a certification encourages a farmer to use earth-friendly agricultural techniques on her farm, she’ll ensure her soil remains healthy and nutrient-rich. If a cooperative manager invests a Fair Trade premium into a new clinic, school, or grocery store, the whole community benefits.
Root Capital makes sure that leaders like Rahmah (on right) have the resources they need to get their businesses certified and comply with certification standards.
What does Root Capital do to help coffee businesses attain and maintain certification?
First, we train businesses in the skills they need to become certified—and make the most of their certification once they do. For example, we train our clients to use mobile technology that helps technical teams gather data more efficiently during farm-level inspections. Instead of using pen and paper to collect survey results from farmers, they rely on a tablet and cloud-based software. Technicians can gather detailed information from farmers, upload it into a central database, and use it to assess farm performance across their entire grower base. They can then use that data to inform business-level decisions.
In addition, the core credit and training we offer helps businesses grow and strengthens their internal structures. A well-functioning coffee business can more effectively comply with standards if it chooses to pursue certification; even if it doesn’t, it provides farmers steady incomes and expanded opportunities.
For example, four years ago, Root Capital became the first lender to offer credit to INCAFESAM, a coffee cooperative in Veracruz, Mexico. Consistent access to finance, enabled by support from the Walmart Foundation, has allowed INCAFESAM to more than double the number of farmers from whom it buys coffee. Additionally, Root Capital has provided the enterprise with tailored, on-site capacity building, including in mobile technology. With this training, the cooperative is better able to source and manage farmer-level data that’s critical for maintaining their Fair Trade and organic certifications. In a region where the average farmer’s income is less than $4 per day, the price premiums guaranteed by these certifications can make a huge difference for INCAFESAM’s 560 farmers and their families.
Certification isn’t a silver bullet that will end the troubles of coffee farmers. But when well-functioning businesses can leverage certifications effectively, they promote responsible agricultural and business practices that benefit entire farming communities.