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Sustainable Coffee Production - Certifiers



A lot of people like to buy Fairtrade products or think that coffee traded directly with producers is beneficial to increase farmers’ income and recognition but do you actually know the difference between all the existing certifications and what exactly Direct Trade stands for?


This article aims to help consumers learn about these different programs and concepts in order to take them into account when buying coffee ;)


Some of you might know that coffee is the second major traded commodity in the World, right after oil, therefore it has always pioneered sustainable initiatives since it provides livelihood to over 100 million people in its production and processing, which are essentially concentrated in developing countries.


By the way, when I say sustainable initiatives I mean the certifiers and other initiatives aiming to improve sustainability in the international coffee supply chain.


What are the Certifiers?


The biggest certifier organizations present in the coffee market are: Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, 4C Association, UTZ and Organic. Private programs such as Nespresso AAA and Starbucks C.A.F.E. practices are also significant.


Basically, all of these certifiers require Supply Chain actors (producers, traders, roasters, etc) to follow Standards, usually through a Code of Conduct, in order to be recognized as a member. These standards include parameters related to sustainability (environmental, economic and social) and changes in the processing model, such as traceability; compliance to these standards is checked by an independent third-party (through Audits) that verifies properties and assures that product and production are in conformity with the requirements.


To join one of the initiatives supply chain actors, mainly farmers, have to make investments to adapt the property and pay for the Audits (usually once a year). This is a big challenge since adjustment prices can be quite high and certified coffee supply surpasses demand, only 27% of certified coffee was sold as such in 2014, resulting in not so good premium prices paid for producers that invest in the field. But on the other hand, with adapting their farm, farmers learn better farming practices that help them cut costs and increase productivity, for example with better pesticide, electricity and water usage. 


Why do these Certifiers exist?


These Standards exist to address Beyond Compliance regulations; they aim to be the means for farmers, traders and retailers to show consumers they take more actions to increase product sustainability than national law requires. Since regulations in Coffee Producing Countries are not always perfect or necessarily followed.


Some of these requirements are, for example, exclusion of child labor, payment of minimum wage for all farm employees, improvement of water and energy use, record keeping etc. It is important to mention that certified coffee is not directly related with quality increase, although it can be a result of better property management skills.


After the program is implemented, producers and retailers can differentiate their product to consumers, usually with a label in the package, and assure they are providing coffee that was produced according to certified sustainable standards.


What is the difference between all of them?


Although they all have similarities and all of them assure better farming practices to increase sustainability, each of these certifiers has a special focus:


- The 4C Association is considered an entry level standard; it has less strict rules with the objective to achieve a bigger share of the mainstream market and to serve as a first step towards getting a more rigid certifier such as the Rainforest Alliance or UTZ.

- The Rainforest Alliance has its focus on maintaining biodiversity and environmental practices to preserve the environment.

- UTZ focus on property management, teaching farmers to have a better understanding of their farm and improving their entrepreneurial skills.

- Organic certification is a national level certification and its norms can vary from country to country but usually it focuses on the way coffee is produced and certifies organic farming.

- And finally, Fairtrade focus on giving small farmer cooperatives a minimum premium price for their coffee.


I will write more about each certifier in other posts.


Are they effective?


There are many doubts regarding the effectiveness of certifiers, I personally believe they are not perfect and there are still a lot of challenges to be faced by certifiers but they are an effective way to somehow regulate MAINSTREAM international coffee production and trade. Especially since many times they help farmers reduce costs by improving their property management skills.

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