Coffee Labels Decoded

Feelings of being overwhelmed by all those food product labels, seals, and certifications seem to be a common occurrence these days.

In a world where perception is the reality, it seems most food manufacturers are doing their best to convince you their product is the most environmentally conscious, socially aware, and healthiest you’ll find.

And they use all sorts of certifications to stand behind their claims.

Plenty of labels are slapped on products that don’t really mean much at all. But if you look closely, there are several that actually means a lot. Knowing which labels to pay attention to and which ones to ignore is an important factor in helping you choose which products to buy. Deciding which labels matter will be based on your personal preference and your priorities.

This is especially important when it comes to choosing which bag specialty coffee to throw into your cart. There are many respectable certifications coffees carry that can be identified by their label. Choosing which ones are most important is entirely up to you.

USDA Organic


Probably the most popular label found on coffee bags, the organic certification, can be both a positive and a negative depending on the coffee producer.

For many large coffee growers, pursuing a USDA organic certification is well worth the hoop jumping necessary to meet the strict guidelines required for certification. It ensures unwanted pesticides are not used in the process of cultivating coffee.

For small lot farmers trying to scrape a meager living together each growing season, USDA Organic certification is impossible. Not only can they not afford to pursue all the red tape required to become certified, they also can’t afford the pesticides this program aims to eliminate in the first place.

So, buying coffee from small lot farmers most likely means you are getting organic anyway, just without the certification.

Fair Trade Certified


Fair Trade certification is a little more controversial than USDA Organic.

The bottom line, however, ensures that coffee farmers, some of the poorest farmers in the world, receive better compensation for their product than they normally would. Fair Trade requires farmers to group together in cooperatives (co-op) in order to participate in the program. As a co-op farmers’ interests are being protected through the power of numbers.

But, at the same time, small lot farmers who would rather trade directly with a broker or roaster lose the option of doing so by joining a co-op just for the price protection. Some would also argue that through the fair trade program prices are artificially kept at a certain point to ensure farmers are being paid fairly.

They’d argue that sometimes, the quality of the coffee doesn’t warrant the price fetched. Others argue the program gives the farmer a fighting chance to scrape by a living for their family.

Rainforest Alliance


Rainforest Alliance is an organization that works together with other stakeholders including farmers to preserve the natural habitat of the rainforest while still promoting the production of goods that come from these areas.

Coffee bags that carry the rainforest alliance certification signify that the coffee comes from growers who have been successful in cultivating coffee within the rainforest without disturbing the environment itself.

This means no contribution to greenhouse gases, no use of dangerous pesticides, and no displacement of rainforest wildlife. Rainforest certification is very hard to achieve, so purchasing a bag of rainforest alliance certified coffee will ensure you are buying a very environmentally conscious coffee.

Smithsonian Bird Friendly Program


Created by the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute Migratory Bird Center, the bird-friendly program aims to protect migratory songbirds all over the world by preserving their natural habitat.

Over 70% of deforestation occurs as a result of agricultural practices. With bird-friendly certification, farmers learn to grow and cultivate their coffee shrubs within the natural canopy of the forest instead of destroying it.

Additionally, certified farmers use farming practices that prevent further destruction of the environment and shade trees in the area, thereby protecting the migratory birds and providing a natural pesticide by keeping birds in the area to combat pests.

Smithsonian Bird-friendly certified coffee is a bit harder to find, but they do have a directory of roasters on their website that will get you hooked up with bird-friendly coffee.

Direct Trade Certifications


Many independent roasters trade directly with small lot farmers all over the world. They do this for many reasons.

Some roasters feel that cutting out the middleman, the coffee broker, allows them to get a better deal on coffee while also ensuring the small lot coffee farmer is paid fairly.

Some roasters find fault in many of the larger certification programs. By dealing directly with the farmer, roasters are able to see the environmental practices the farmers are employing and the quality of their cultivation methods firsthand.

Often, broker purchased coffee comes from cooperatives of hundreds of smaller farmers, all with their own quality assurance standards and cultivation practices. By dealing directly with the farmer, roasters are allowed to differentiate the nuanced differences in flavor and quality from farmer to farmer.

No matter what the certification, purchasing a bag with any of the above labels ensure you are buying from a roaster that is concerned with ethically traded coffee. With the dire state many poor, a small lot of coffee farmers find themselves in, concern for preserving the environment almost always takes a back seat.

Farmers also often have little to no control over the prices they can fetch for their coffee. Working with organizations that provide these certifications or trading directly with a roaster ensures ethically grown coffee and better prices for farmers.