fair trade organic coffee

Just when you think coffee couldn’t possibly get more complicated, here come the certifications: Fair Trade, Fair-Trade—which is actually different from Fair Trade, good grief—direct trade, organic, shade-grown, Smithsonian Bird Friendly, Rainforest Alliance, Utz Certified, 4C, Non-GMO…the list actually goes on and on (and on, and on). It’s hard to know which labels are feel-good, which are taste-good, and which, if any, are both. Here, we’ll break down a few of the most commonly seen certifications that get applied to coffee, and explain the difference they’ll make in your cup, in addition to the reason they typically take more from your wallet.


One of the most common questions that gets asked about coffee certifications in general is what requirements need to be met to achieve the mark, and, ultimately, why a producer or producer group would go through what often can seem like the rigamarole it takes to earn that stamp. First and foremost, it’s important to understand that certifications are all voluntary, and they don’t simply earn farmers more money (though that is ultimately the goal for most of them, either directly or indirectly), but they also typically cost growers both time and money to achieve.

Signed, Sealed, DeliveredThe Best Coffee SubscriptionsIn most cases, there will be a lengthy list of specifications that accompany the assignment of a particular certification, and we’ll go over those in detail as we discuss some of the most commonly seen marks. It’s not simply enough for a producer to say, “Oh, sure, I definitely do (or don’t do) these things on my farm.” Instead, the farm owner or the manager of the association will need to do extensive research into what the certification policy dictates, make any necessary changes to ensure their practices match up with the dictums of the certification or certifications, fill out paperwork to register their property and their product, and then submit for very rigorous auditing and inspection not only simply at the initial approval stage, but also for the duration of the certification’s shelf life, so to speak. Typically, inspectors and auditors will have a regular or semi-regular schedule during which they will want to see paperwork, in addition to proof of practices from the grower and/or grower association or cooperative.

The process very often costs real money and can be a heavy up-front for a producer with no ultimate guarantee that they will eventually be rewarded with the certification, if they fail to meet the requirements. Furthermore, in some cases it can also be quite lengthy—transitioning to organic certification, for instance, is a multi-year process—and if there are changes to farming habits or husbandry, that can also come with a period of reduced crops, which in effect costs the producer even more.

That is all to say that while certifications are never going to be absolutely water-tight perfect ways of protecting either farmers or consumers from the concerns of the market and the global coffee industry, they are almost never pursued lightly, and often do carry great weight and meaning to producers.

Now, let’s explore the basic principles behind some of the big ones.

Fairtrade, or Fair Trade—yes, there is a slight difference

Not to be confused with “free trade” (which basically means trade without any restrictions or tariffs), this is a certification formally introduced in 1997 by an organization formerly known as Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, or FLO, and now called simply Fairtrade International; it was inspired by a Dutch mark known as Max Havelaar, which was an early mark named for the eponymous character in a novel about exploitative Dutch practices in the coffee growing areas of the Indonesian colonies. The principles of the Max Havelaar mark, which were designed to prevent abuse and exploitation of laborers in coffee, inspired similar sorts of initiatives in Europe and the United States, and today, Fairtrade International certification is applied to products across myriad industries, from coffee and chocolate to flowers, bananas, honey, cotton, and more, and includes organizations in Africa, Asia, and Mesoamerica.

Contrary to popular belief, Fairtrade was not necessarily established simply to ensure farmers or producers an arbitrarily higher price for their products, and it is not, in that sense, a charity: Instead, the main focus of the Fairtrade mark has been to support smallholders and small craftspeople around the world whose individual output is limited in quantity, which prevents them as individuals from having broad market access or leverage, as well as access to affordable resources. Instead, great effort was made to encourage smallholders to band together and form democratic cooperatives or formal organizations, which would then allow the members of a group to simulate an economy of scale, pooling their resources and information while also creating a larger market presence for their combined products.

To incentivize this formalization of organizations and associations, Fairtrade guarantees a base price for certified growers that will always be above the given market rate (known as the C-Market), which remains a substantial protection for farmers in a volatile market. FLO also makes stipulations against ecologically irresponsible farming practices (though it does not require organic certification, there is an additional premium for FTO, or Fair Trade Organic, products), as well as labor regulations regarding children and forced labor.  The mark has raised awareness around the efforts of small producers, and managed, through various marketing efforts, to put faces to the laborers behind your morning coffee, which appealed to consumers who felt they were making socially responsible decisions by purchasing coffee with this certification. Fairtrade International also acts as a go-between, connecting buyers and sellers as a way of sustaining the certification and attempting to make sure that all certified member organizations make the most money possible by selling under the mark, rather than putting their products on the conventional market to simply move stock.

Since 2004, Fairtrade International has comprised two complementary but independent organizations: FLO-CERT, which is the auditing and inspection arm of the mark, and FLO, which does more of the producer and buyer support through standard-setting and marketing. Things do, of course, get a little sticky: There is a difference between Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA, as the latter resigned its membership of Fairtrade International in 2011 and has been operating as a fully independent certifying and marketing body ever since. While the formerly-known-as TransFair USA was founded in 1998 almost alongside FLO, the organization decided to break off in order to pursue certifications not simply of democratically organized grower’s associations, but also small independent and private farmers who are unaffiliated, as well as other groups of non-landholding laborers. Similar products come under the Fair Trade USA mark—coffee, cocoa, honey, produce, flowers, cotton, etc—but coffee is the most recognized and the most popular. However, the basic premise still stands: Farmers who are certified Fair Trade are guaranteed a premium above the base market level for the products they sell under the certification.

The TL;DR here is that whether your coffee is Fair Trade- or Fairtrade-certified, there is a premium attached to it that is designed to incentivize producers to do good and responsible work, to make efficient and beneficial decisions about pooling or acquiring resources, and to offer some degree of price stability in volatile economic times.

Direct Trade

Even stickier is this term, which—unlike Fairtrade and Fair Trade—does not have any third-party certification, validation, or standard regulations built in, though the honor system does tend to run rather deep with it. “Direct trade” is a buying principle that is credited in coffee to three midsize-to-large roasters in the U.S.A. who undertook initiatives in the early 2000s to develop long-lasting, trust-based, and stable buying relationships directly with producers. The three roasters in question—Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, N.C., and Stumptown Coffee in Portland, Ore.—each had a slightly different set of standards and requirements for what constituted “direct trade,” but the philosophy was roughly the same: By sourcing and negotiating coffee sales and contracts directly with the producers or with the producers’ very close involvement, the roasters were able to offer more price transparency, provide long-term stability for the farmers who knew they would have a buyer for their product (or, in some cases, assistance if the harvest faced particular unavoidable obstacles like natural disaster, climatic change, or pest outbreaks), secure the same coffees year after year, and, of course, price premiums for quality, among other things. In some cases these “direct trade” relationships also encouraged producers to pursue things like organic certification, and they fostered experimentation and innovative techniques thanks to the type of partnerships that were espoused.

As word spread about these roasters and their buying principles, other companies began to label their coffees “direct trade” as well; since there is no national or international certification officially bearing this name, the term is kind of a free-for-all and up for a vast spectrum of interpretations. (Note: Counter Culture Coffee does have its Direct Trade–labeled coffees audited and verified by a third-party agency.) Additionally, contrary to somewhat popular belief, direct-trade coffees do not necessarily “cut out the middle man”—meaning exporters and importers, who are still a significant part of the supply chain in many cases—but rather ensure that the pricing a farmer receives is negotiated openly, with responsibilities for the additional costs required to process, mill, package, store, ship, and transport the coffee clearly defined.

The additional cost to the consumer for direct-trade coffees are built into the nature of the relationships, in that the roasters are (theoretically and ideally) absorbing more risk from the producers in order to create more farm-level and mill-level stability, and the price also implies a quality standard that the roaster and producer have agreed upon that makes the direct-trade partnership mutually appealing. Other standards and requirements will vary; when in doubt, ask your roaster what they mean when they use this mark.


While the generic word “organic” means simply “derived from living matter” or “containing carbon,” in the world of certifications, organic has more specific—and complicated—implications. While the use of and subsequent backlash against man-made chemical inputs (namely fertilizers and pest/disease control measures) has been in practice since the mid to late-19th century, the standards, regulations, and certifying objectives that define the “organic” we know today were established in 1967. Different countries will have a degree of variance to the materials, products, and techniques that are acceptable in order to achieve organic certification—Japan’s organic certification is considered more stringent than the USDA’s, for instance—the basic tenets are the same: No harmful chemical pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizers, and very strict water-purification and waste-disposal practices. Farms and producers are audited regularly, as are consuming companies and bodies. In order to be completely and legally certified “organic,” coffee needs not only to come from an organic-certified producer, but also be handled by exporters and importers who carry certification themselves, as well as roasted by a company that is also audited and awarded the mark. (In other words, beware things that say “organically grown” rather than “organic certified,” and be especially skeptical of anything that claims to be organic if it doesn’t have the USDA’s official stamp or seal.)

The extra cost for consumers here is not necessarily due to quality of the product—that is to say, there’s no guarantee that the coffee will taste any better than a non-certified one—but rather is built in as the cost of doing ecologically responsible, risky, and in some cases downright difficult work, as farming organically can make a crop more vulnerable to pests and diseases, and can sometimes decrease annual yield. What you are paying for, however, is the peace of mind that you’re doing right not only by Mother Earth, but also by the farmers and farm laborers who might otherwise be breathing in clouds of chemicals, drinking tainted waste water, eroding the quality of their soil, and contributing to an unsustainable dependence on manufactured and heavily pollutant inputs in order to maintain their livelihoods. (Note: The term “conventional” is simply used as an opposite to “organic,” and implies that there were no precautions taken to ensure that the coffee or other agricultural product was sown, grown, harvested, processed, or treated without man-made chemical inputs.)

The Bottom Line

There is a lot of jibber-jabber about what certifications “count” and which ones might be hogwash, and generally speaking it’s actually safe to say that each one of these and all of their close and distant cousins are on a mission to do something right, be it by providing price protection, ecological protection, or trying to create some kind of stability in a volatile market.

The fact of the matter is that no certification—like no coffee itself—is perfect, but most can be trusted as promises of good faith. The real question becomes what you, the consumer, want to invest in when you’re buying your bag of beans or plunking down money while a barista pours you a drink. And hey, if you just want to invest in that latte (and maybe a tip), that’s perfectly okay. These certifications make their mark, and you make your own. Just drink the coffee.

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Erin Meister (you can just call her "Meister") is both a longtime journalist and a coffee professional with nearly two decades' experience. She has written about food, coffee, film, travel, music, culture, and celebrity for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Rachael Ray Every Day, Saveur.com, Time Out NY, Chickpea Magazine, Food & Wine's FWx.com, BUST magazine, Barista Magazine, and more. She is the author of the brand-new book "New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History (The History Press, 2017)".
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