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Which Coffee Certification Is Better for Growers, Roasters, and Coffee Lovers?

Posted by Jeanne Eury on

Consumers have become increasingly aware and conscious of where their food comes from and the conditions under which it was grown. Organic coffee consumption has increased significantly over the last decade, but coffee remains one of the fastest-growing segments of the organic market. Coffee lovers are faced with choices that can seem a bit confusing when trying to purchase coffee that is grown on a farm using organic farming, pays its farmers a living wage, and tastes good. The three widest categories for how coffee is grown and harvested, and by whom, are organic, Fair Trade, and direct trade. Additionally, many Fair Trade and Direct Trade farms are certified organic or use organic practices but aren't certified. Grab a cup of coffee and let us share the similarities and differences to help you make the purchases that best align with your practices.

What is Organic Coffee?

Many people believe that organic and Fair Trade are essentially the same thing.  Strictly speaking, Fair Trade has nothing to do with organic farming. It refers to fair labor practices and ethical business practices rather than the actual farming processes.

“Fair trade is about making sure that people who work in developing countries have a fair wage and decent working conditions,” said Andrew Jones, director of the Fairtrade Foundation.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic farming as "a production system that integrates cultural practices with biological systems in order to sustain the soil, water, air, biodiversity, animal welfare, worker health."

However, Growing numbers of Fair Trade farmers are also certified organic farmers because they believe that the certification process is a way to ensure their products meet higher standards.

A recent NCA’s National Coffee Data Trends Report survey reports that 44% of coffee drinkers are more likely, or much more likely, to buy coffee that is certified as organic.

In order to qualify for organic certification, a farm must meet certain guidelines set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These rules require farmers to grow crops without the use of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. Farmers also cannot apply these chemicals within 100 feet of streams, lakes, ponds, wetlands, or watercourses. They must also maintain an area known as a “certificate of compliance” where they can store records of what was used during the growing season.

By definition, organic coffee is farmed under an agricultural system that meets a series of environmentally friendly conditions: the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides is banned, and the crops must be grown promoting the conservation of soil fertility, improving the health of the ecosystem and boosting biodiversity.

Outside a Fair Trade contract, producers can use the certification to negotiate a better price for their coffee.

Organic Coffee: No chemicals in fertilizer, washing, or drying

Conventional coffee crops can be exposed to over 200 known pesticides, making them among the most heavily chemically-treat­ed crops in the entire global agriculture industry. Organic farms can only use natural fertilizers. For coffee farmers, natural fertilizers can include composted manure and other organic matter that is spread on the soil to improve its fertility. Organic farming has been practiced for thousands of years in many parts of the world without using synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The coffee beans we eventually brew are actually the seed pods from the coffee plant or tree. There are between 25 and 100 different types of coffee plants in existence right now. Harvesting organic coffee beans is more time-consuming than conventional methods because they're harvested by human hands. Using manual picking as opposed to a mechanical picker allows you to harvest beans from the pods when they are actually mature which means you get a better flavor out of them.

 Processing organic coffee beans includes a thorough washing process to remove dirt and any other unwanted material from the harvest. No chemicals are involved in the washing or drying of the beans either. The lack of chemical interference and naturally rich soil also produces beans that are higher in nutrient-rich antioxidants.

Organic Coffee: Better for the Environment

Organic farming also requires less water than conventional methods, which means it conserves precious resources. An added benefit, it isn't polluting any water sources with the runoff from the pesticides, insecticides, and other chemicals used in non-organic farming. This is especially important in areas with limited water testing or filtration for citizens.

Discharges from coffee processing plants represent a major source of river pollution. Ecological impacts result from the discharge of organic pollutants from the processing plants to rivers and waterways, triggering eutrophication of water systems and robbing aquatic plants and wildlife of essential oxygen

Conventional Coffee is usually grown in direct sunlight for the majority of the time, this tends to damage the plants’ roots and increase the use of chemicals and the need for valuable water. Additional problems with conventional coffee production are the clearing of land, deforestation, and the extinction of animals due to habitat destruction.

Organic Certification for Coffee Growers: Barriers to Entry

There is no single, international set of standards for organic coffee. In the US, standards are dictated by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the USDA. Organic certification is a costly and time-consuming process that small coffee farmers in developing countries cannot afford. There are many different standards for organic certification, so it's often hard for farmers to know what they need to do or how much they'll need to spend on getting certified.

In addition to the cost of certification, the farmers have to invest in required training, which can also be very costly. They also must schedule several inspections from a certified inspector which can take years as many inspectors are paid based on the size of the farm they are inspecting. In this way, larger farms will always take precedence over smaller farms seeking certification. Organic operations are certified by private, foreign, or State entities that have been accredited by USDA. These entities are called certifying agents and are located throughout the United States and around the world. Certifying agents are responsible for ensuring that organic products meet all organic standards.

The process is also time intensive and many small farmers are shouldering much of the work of their farm themselves. Taking time to find an inspector and have him actually begin the process is only one of the pre-certification requirements. Farmers need to prove they are not using any chemicals or pesticides on their crops for at least three years before they can be certified as "organic". In addition to this, they also need to show documentation proving where they got their seeds from and how they were planted.

These and other steps make organic certification a high-cost and time-consuming process, often unattainable by small coffee farmers. even though many of them are using organic methods.

Are Fair Trade and Direct Trade Coffees also Organic?

Some Fair Trade coffee is not organic, but it is estimated that 50% to 80% of Fair Trade coffee is. Fair Trade certifications and Organic certifications share some similarities. Fair Trade standards require strict environmental sustainability requirements, but organic standards go even further by requiring environmentally sustainable farming methods.

What Is Fair Trade Coffee?

Around the world, billions of people grow, pick, dry, sort, package, sell, and ship their own coffees. But because most of these coffees come from developing countries, and so much of an economy depends on them for survival, there has been a growing movement of conscientious people who want to fairly support the most marginalized members of the global supply chain.

The Fair Trade movement works to create stability and an opportunity to thrive for coffee industry workers. They implement sustainable agriculture techniques, promote community growth, and development, and ensure fair labor practices that prohibit the use of forced or child labor. Coffee sold through a Fair Trade organization also makes its coffee grower and producers pay a minimum price, higher than the commodity price of coffee.

Fair Trade helps to ensure that workers receive a decent income and working conditions. Prices are calculated based on the cost of production, not the market value.

Fair Trade Movement

The Fair Trade movement is a response to the growing demand for Fair Trade goods and services. It has grown from about 20 countries in 1990 to over 60 today. The United States was one of the first countries to adopt Fair Trade policies, but it is now joined by many others around the world. There are several organizations (such as Fairtrade America, Fairtrade International, and Fair Trade Certified) that certify coffee as Fair Trade. Certification shows that the farmer or worker received fair pay for their work.

In 1962, the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) was formed.  Every five years, a new round of talks takes place, where each country can propose changes to the rules. After the 1983 Round of talks, however, disagreements arose between the ICA and the International Coffee Organization, the governing body of the ICA. The Fair Trade Certification program was introduced in 1988 and gave certifications to products that had been produced under certain guidelines. Since then, the Fair Trade movement has grown significantly, and today, Fair Trade is run by Fairtrade International or FLO. FLO also oversees the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO), which provides certifications for various goods including bananas, flowers, tea, and sugar.

How Does Fair Trade Work?

Fair Trade is a collaboration of producers, merchants, and organizations with the aim of creating a positive impact on the daily lives of individuals. This impact is achieved through fairness at every stage of a product's life cycle, from its origin to its final destination. The standards of Fair Trade strive to enhance both human well-being and ecological sustainability. International Fair Trade organizations establish strict standards to uphold their values and principles.

Fair Trade Certified farmers must meet strict criteria to become certified. They must have been farming for at least five years, they must use organic methods on their land, and they must sell all of their products directly to consumers through retail stores or other channels. In addition, they must agree to abide by certain standards in order to be certified.

 Fair Trade Coffee Farmers Have Wage Consistency

The Fair Trade Minimum Prices for coffees are determined based on a global average cost of production costs. If the market prices fall below the Fair Trade Minimum Prices, producers who offer their products on Fair Trade terms have an assurance of receiving at least the minimum prices for their goods. When markets are good and the market prices are higher than the minimum prices, then producers can charge more than those prices. Fair Trade is the one mainstream business practice that guarantees a minimum pricing level to help farmers during difficult economic periods.

Fair Trade Coffee Helps the Environment

Sustainable farming practices help limit harmful environmental impacts and promote healthy ecosystems. Agrochemical pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not allowed on Fair Trade farms. By protecting the land and wildlife, Fair Trade farms help prevent future climate change.


Fair Trade Certification for Coffee Growers: Barriers to Entry

For starters, Fair Trade isn’t a certification governed by just one company or organization. Fair Trade USA, World Fair Trade Organization, and Fair Trade International are just three examples of organizations with certifications and a mission that is very similar. But each of these groups uses different Fair Trade standards, varies in the types of products they certify, and have different regions or countries they cover. This alone can be problematic for rural farmers to navigate.


What Is Direct Trade?

Direct Trade is a straightforward process, relationship buying at its best. Direct Trade is selling products directly to the buyer without multiple 'middlemen' which can elevate pricing and create distance between the production and processing of a product or service and the buyer. Direct trade gives each company the ability to decide what they want out of their relationship with the farmers.

What is Direct Trade Coffee?

Direct Trade Coffee is coffee obtained when the coffee beans are purchased directly from producers/farms, who receive fair prices for their crops. Think of this as shopping at your local farmer's market and taking the time to visit the farms to see how they run things. Conscientious and professional roasters (like Confident Coffee Roasters) seek out farmers and farms who most often meet or exceed qualifications needed for organic and/or Fair Trade certifications but are unable or unwilling to meet the financial and bureaucratic hurdles to become certified.


Direct Trade Coffee Can Produce a Higher Net Profit for Farmers

As little as 10% of the retail price of the coffee you buy actually goes to the farmers who grew it. Direct trade means that there is just one person in between you and the product. Therefore, much more of that price goes directly to the producers than if you were buying from an intermediary company. Because they don't have to invest large amounts of resources into product certification, they're able to retain more of that revenue. Direct Trade is a great way to help support local economies while still enjoying high-quality coffee.

Direct Trade Coffee Farms Are Constantly Reviewed by Their  Customers

As an example, a Fair Trade renewal audit is conducted during the third year. If the renewal audit is concluded successfully, a new certificate is issued and the farm has little oversight for the next three years. However, a reputable direct trade seller establishes a personal relationship with their farmers.  That relationship and their personal knowledge of the farming practices of their growers. motivates them to work with the farmer to improve their methods, ensure their w

Confident Coffee Roasters works in a hybrid model where a portion of our coffees come from direct trade relationships with the farmers themselves and the others are sourced from the most respected importing companies in Specialty Coffee. This guarantees the farmers are being paid fair prices for their work which allows them to reinvest in their communities.

In addition to this we donate a part of our proceeds to help with projects at the farms like the new childcare facility at Finca Zalmari in Costa Rica.



Photos from a recent trip to meet with our farmer suppliers, meet with their families and workers, and help with the new childcare facility.


Direct Trade Can Lead to Better Beans

Direct trading enables smaller farmers who produce high-quality goods to individually negotiate better deals for their goods than they would receive from their Fair Trade Co-op. Having this advantage allows them to focus on producing good quality rather than quantity alone.

Direct Trade Coffee: Fewer Financial and Bureaucratic Barriers

Since a reputable and experienced Roaster will have high standards and place a premium on receiving high-quality coffee, grown sustainably, using organic methods if they prefer, and from farmers paying fair and often higher wages than Fair Trade Farms, direct trade farmers are spared the cost and intense process of certifications. However, most roasters only purchase from farmers that use high-quality practices.

Other Certifications for Coffee Farmers

Rainforest Alliance Certification and UTZ

Rainforest Alliance and UT Z certify organic products. These two certifications are great ways to ensure that the products we buy are environmentally friendly.

Bird-Friendly Coffee

Bird-friendly coffee attempts to help protect native birds' habitats. This type of coffee is grown under trees and bushes, rather than in open fields, and stops the need for deforestation. Coffee grown in shade under tree canopies is better for the environment because it protects indigenous plants from extreme conditions and slows their extinction.


Which Type of Coffee Certification Label, or Type, is Better?

Organic, Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and other certifications or labels aren't meant to be competitive, they just offer differing options for purchasing coffee. And all sustainable sourcing helps preserve our environment while providing jobs for local farms and communities.

As roasters and consumers have more ethical and sustainable options available than they ever have. There are opportunities for coffee drinkers who want to support socially responsible farmers and consume delicious, sustainable, and ethically grown coffee.

Coffee Certifications Direct Trade Coffee Fair Trade coffee Organic Coffee

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