The Sustainability of Coffee: Exploring Fair Trade, Organic, and Rainforest Alliance Certifications

By

Favy

on May 23, 2024

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Key Takeaways

  • There are a number of certifications for coffee producers, including Fair Trade, Organic, and Rainforest Alliance
  • Organic and Rainforest Alliance certifications require sustainable farming practices
  • Coffee clubs like Driftaway Coffee, Bean Box, Peace Coffee, and Omar Coffee all specialize in subscriptions that feature these certifications
  • You may also want to look for sustainable shipping practices and compostable packaging for the coffee.

When you first begin exploring the world of coffee, you may consider taste or cost your primary concerns. But as you learn more about how coffee is grown and roasted, other concerns may arise. Many coffee fans become quite concerned about the environmental and social impact of their favorite drink. While some farms growing the beans are damaging to the local forests and don’t pay fair wages to their employees, other producers are dedicated to doing better. Finding coffee producers that protect the world and the people responsible for getting the beans to your door is simply a matter of looking for the right certifications and knowing what they mean.

The Importance of Sustainability in the Coffee Industry

Sustainability is particularly important in the coffee industry because of the unique needs of the coffee plant. It’s sensitive to humidity, rainfall, and temperature, limiting where it can be grown. Coffee is generally grown in areas with rainforests or temperate forests. As worldwide demand for coffee grows, deforestation can occur which leads to the loss of plant and animal diversity. Yet coffee is also a livelihood for millions of people in the 80 tropical countries that grow it.

A number of certifications have been developed over the years to give you more insight into how specific beans are produced. By choosing products labeled as Fair Trade, Organic, or approved by the Rainforest Alliance, you can ensure you’re buying products that have sustainability in mind. Organic and Rainforest Alliance certifications are designed to tell you a coffee brand is working to protect the environment. The Fair Trade label indicates a commitment to supporting people, specifically smaller coffee farmers, by requiring growers to pay fair wages and follow certain labor practices.

Fair Trade Certification

While other common coffee certifications focus on the impact of growing the crop on the planet, Fair Trade certifications show that the company holds to certain trade principles. This ensures that you’re not buying from a coffee supplier that puts profits over people. These principles include a focus on long-term and direct trading agreements, in this case with the coffee growers themselves, and fair payments for all products. If you choose a Fair Trade certified coffee, you can be sure no forced or child labor is used to grow or process it. There are also principles regarding safe working environments, non-discrimination in the workplace, and reasonable working hours for the coffee producers. Even investment in community improvements is required as part of the criterion for this certification. There are over 120 different protections included under the Fair Trade umbrella that cover everything from social to environmental concerns.

You’re not the only one benefiting when you buy Fair Trade coffee. Coffee producers don’t have to resort to exploitative labor practices or damaging farming techniques because they’re guaranteed a fair price for their products. Fair Trade companies enrich their local communities and provide good jobs, not to mention staying productive longer through the use of sustainable labor and farming practices. The certification includes over 1.6 million workers and farmers as of 2024.

Organic Certification

Organic certifications are primarily focused on the growing practices used by the coffee producer. Slash and burn agriculture has widely been used in tropical areas to establish new coffee farms, but it destroys valuable rainforest and forest habitat. It also limits the long-term viability of the coffee farm, requiring the loss of further forest cover later. There are a wide range of requirements for organic certification. Many people are well aware that organic crops can’t be treated with pesticides, but they may not know that the certification also affects the fertilizers used and how weeds are handled.

Organic coffee farming practices protect water supplies from excessive fertilizer content and the algae blooms that can follow. It also creates a safer working environment for the farmers, harvesters, and processors of the coffee crop. Organic crops contain far lower chemical residues than their conventionally grown counterparts. This means even the leftover plant materials that are composted are safer for the environment on the whole. Other benefits of organic farming for coffee specifically include:

  • Reduced erosion and higher soil quality
  • Longer productive use of the same land, reducing deforestation in the future
  • Improved relationships with local pests and their predators, including birds
  • Reforestation opportunities with slow-growing trees that provide shade for a higher quality coffee bean.

There is limited research available, but drinking organic coffee may reward you with health benefits as well. Eliminating the use of most herbicides and pesticide chemicals produces coffee beans that transfer fewer unwanted contaminants into your cup of coffee. Since you might drink half a dozen cups a day for the rest of your life, there are plenty of opportunities for a cumulative effect from anything in the drink. Clean coffee beans may result in better health.

The criteria for organic certification are set at the national level by each country. In the US, coffee that is marked as organic must be grown without the use of synthetic chemicals as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or for any other purpose. Farmland must remain free of the use of those chemicals for three years prior to receiving certification. GMO seed can’t be used as well.

Rainforest Alliance Certification

The Rainforest Alliance covers both social and environmental concerns with its certification for coffee producers. The group aims to improve the lives of farmers and other people living in and around the rainforests of the world. However, they’re also concerned with preserving the plants and animals of the rainforest at the same time. To achieve this mission, they support farmers who protect and give back to the environment so they can earn a living without putting more strain on the world. There’s no need to choose between supporting people or the planet with this certification. It’s also compatible with both Fair Trade and Organic certifications, giving you a chance to find products that qualify as all three.

The Rainforest Alliance manages the certification process and requires all producers and farmers who want to use their program to sign a binding agreement. There is an extensive set of requirements known as the Sustainable Agriculture Standard that coffee farms must meet to qualify. The standard includes hundreds of individual requirements, ranging from the pay for workers to how much of the farm’s ground is allowed to stay bare at any given time. All of the criteria are designed to reduce erosion, control fertilizer runoff, protect natural habitats, and encourage greater social equity and justice.

In addition to boosting biodiversity around the coffee farms, certification standards from the Rainforest Alliance can improve the local economy and build new opportunities for farmers to grow. The organization supplies members with support in the form of training, marketing resources, and more to help them succeed once they’ve achieved sustainable practices. By supporting coffee producers that are Rainforest Alliance certified, you can build sustainable development that helps families around the world take care of themselves without harming the environment around them.

Using Coffee Clubs to Find Sustainable Beans

Coffee clubs and monthly subscriptions are a great way to try new types of coffee. They’re designed to seamlessly deliver a certain amount of coffee beans to your door every month, or even more often with some clubs. While you can sign up for a subscription with no particular certification, many top coffee clubs provide options for Organic, Fair Trade, and Rainforest Alliance certified beans. Choosing a coffee club with a focus on sustainable or environmentally grown beans allows you to enjoy every cup of coffee without worrying about the long-term effects of your morning habit.

Signing up for a subscription or club makes a lot of sense if you’re a coffee lover also concerned about sustainability. If you choose a monthly delivery that’s centered around a certification, you’ll find plenty of new growers and roasters that you didn’t know about. You’ll have new options for ordering your favorites for larger volumes of sustainable beans you can share with friends. You won’t be limited to just a few blends or single origin beans when you have a partner on your side always looking for new varieties to mix it up. Your subscription can expand your horizons and give you new experiences without requiring you to compromise your dedication to protecting the environment.

These coffee clubs have numerous advantages when sourcing sustainable beans for you. First, they can verify that the certifications the producer holds are up to date and correct. There’s no need to worry that you’re buying a bag of coffee that isn’t really Organic or Rainforest Alliance certified. Second, they’ll order a large enough amount to supply you and everyone else with multiple packages if you enjoy it. If you order from niche producers on your own, a blend or bean may go out of stock before you get a second taste. Finally, coffee clubs work with local roasters so your beans aren’t prepared until right before shipping no matter where they come from. That ensures the freshest possible cup of coffee.

There are a number of popular coffee clubs currently offering options for Rainforest Alliance, Organic, and Fair Trade certified beans. While it was once a niche focus for subscription services, it’s far more common as a feature today. Equator Coffees provides a curated subscription service with weekly to monthly delivery options. It’s all Fair Trade and Organic certified, ensuring your coffee habit supports regenerative agriculture. Driftaway Coffee is another popular option that provides Organic and Fair Trade options as part of its subscription service. Some of their farms are also 100% women operated and their packaging is compostable as well. Omar Coffee offers a range of monthly coffee subscriptions that focus on specific countries while providing only Rainforest Alliance certified beans. Peace Coffee was one of the first coffee sellers in the US to focus on Organic and Fair Trade beans, and it’s not surprising that many of their varieties are also Rainforest Alliance certified. Finally, Bean Box is a great option for coffee with all kinds of sustainable certifications. No matter what kind of delivery schedule you prefer or your budget for this kind of subscription, there’s an option that also offers extra certifications. Shop around and sample a few of these monthly clubs to determine which coffee subscription is right for you.

Summary

The coffee industry is a fragile one due to the constant threat of climate change, plant diseases, and roving pests. Using sustainable agricultural practices helps protect the environment while also increasing the chance that coffee will continue being available in the future. Choosing to buy coffee beans that have Organic, Fair Trade, or Rainforest Alliance certifications can make a surprisingly big difference in the lives of the people who produce the beans as well. It’s a great way to become a responsible consumer and take part in supporting economic growth that doesn’t require a negative impact on the world we all share.

If you’re unfamiliar with the many options for sustainable coffee, starting out with a coffee club is the best way to get started. You can test out plenty of great blends and single origin beans from places like Ethiopia, Columbia, Kenya, and Sumatra. Experiencing the flavor and richness of Organic coffee may convince you it’s the only way to go. Learning more about the benefits of Fair Trade arrangements for coffee growers can motivate you to drink more coffee that’s certified for it as well.

Make sure your coffee club subscription is supporting sustainability throughout the supply chain. In addition to these important certifications, you may want to look for a company that focuses on carbon neutral shipping methods, compostable packaging, and low waste production methods like roasting on demand. You’ll get a quality cup of coffee and a great deal while also supporting the farmers who grow your beans.

About the Author

For All Your Favorites

Favy

For All Your Favorites

Favy offers comprehensive reviews and comparisons of our favorite products and brands.

Favy offers comprehensive reviews and comparisons of our favorite products and brands.