Understanding Coffee Labels and Certifications

Many coffee drinkers are increasingly interested in consuming coffee that is sustainable, ethically sourced, and processed without potentially harmful chemicals. While shopping, you’ll encounter coffees labeled “Fairtrade,” “fair trade,” “organic,” or “sustainable” amongst other descriptors. 

The terms “Fairtrade” and “fair trade” are sometimes used interchangeably, but don't actually have the same meaning. In this article, we’ll take a look at those differences, and we’ll also take a look at the Rainforest Alliance and USDA Organic labeling programs, and the meaning of the term “organic,”  all specifically within the coffee supply chain. Let’s dig into how this language is used in the coffee industry, and what you should know about buying coffee that carries one or more of these labels.

What is “Fairtrade?”

“Fairtrade” is a product labeling initiative, trademarked and owned by an organization called Fairtrade International. According to their website, the organization’s mission is “to connect disadvantaged producers and consumers, promote fairer trading conditions, and empower producers to combat poverty, strengthen their position, and take more control over their lives.”

In short - Fairtrade attempts to improve working conditions and sustainability for farmers and workers in the developing world. Obtaining the Fairtrade certification, however, takes time, money, and energy, which can ultimately result in more expensive coffee. Many great coffees are produced in alignment with the Fairtrade principles, but don’t carry the certification itself, due to the expensive process and its complexity.

Then, what about “Fair Trade?” 

Unlike “Fairtrade,” the term “Fair Trade” is a concept, as opposed to a specific certification. Applying for certification as Fairtrade incurs an expense and approval process, while anyone can use Fair Trade without payment or permission. 

Within our industry, Fair Trade coffee often means ethical sourcing of coffee, in which farmers and producers are properly compensated, protected from unfair actions like price gouging, protected from community harm, and protected from monopoly behavior.

What is “Rainforest Alliance?”

As with “Fairtrade,” the “Rainforest Alliance” is a specific certification that coffee roasters can pay to use. Products certified by the Rainforest Alliance are committed to protecting and improving the Earth’s forests (by fighting deforestation, for example) and climate, human rights, and the livelihoods of coffee farmers.

Rainforest Alliance coffees sometimes use a specific label, which is usually a green frog, on the product packaging after achieving certification in order to differentiate from non-certified coffees.

What qualifies coffee as “USDA Organic?”

“USDA Organic” means a product has been certified to the USDA Organic standards established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a government agency. USDA Organic, in addition to other standards, means that producers are using natural fertilizers, eco-friendly pest control, and farming processes that protect the soil and water. GMOs are not permitted, and neither are artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. All these standards are set in place with a goal of traceability from farm to store.

Klatch offers many coffees that are certified USDA Organic. These can be identified by filtering for “USDA Organic,” or by the blue and green “USDA Organic” icon seen on the product packaging in our cafe locations.

What if something is just “Organic,” Not USDA Organic?

You’ll also see the label “organic” used in the coffee industry. Unlike USDA Organic, the term “organic” has no specific certification process. Because USDA Organic is a trademarked term, and penalties exist for using it falsely, some coffee retailers instead choose to use the organic label on their coffees instead.

In the coffee industry, organic could mean produced without pesticides, with the use of natural fertilizers, using sustainable farming practices, some combination of the above, or other factors. When in doubt, ask! Your coffee roaster should be able to clarify what, specifically, they mean by the use of the term organic.

What if a Coffee Has Overlapping Certifications?

While many USDA Organic products are also Fair Trade, they are separate descriptors, and it’s possible for a Fair Trade product to not be USDA Organic, and vice-versa. Similarly, it’s possible for a specific coffee to be both Rainforest Alliance certified and USDA Organic, or Rainforest Alliance certified without USDA Organic certification.

Confused yet? Rest easy. Above all else, know that Klatch Coffee is committed to ethical and sustainable coffee under our Direct Trade model we buy straight from growers, cutting out the traditional middleman, which allows us to pay well above Fair Trade minimums, and encourages viable, meaningful partnerships and careers in specialty coffee agriculture.