Walk into a supermarket or a local grocer and you will see products lining the shelves. Some have flashy labels, some more natural looking. Others will have little official logos attached to the labels stating the product is “Organic Certified,” or it is part of the “Rainforest Alliance” or that it is a “Fair Trade Certified” product. But what do these logos and labels really mean? Do only the best products have these labels? What if you like a product that does not have this certification does that mean it’s bad?
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common labels that are found on coffee bags.
Rainforest Alliance Certified
You have seen the little green frog happily perched on the corner of coffee bags in the grocery store before, but what does he really symbolize? For a coffee farm to become Rainforest Alliance Certified they must comply with a list of standards put into place by the Sustainable Agriculture Network, a nonprofit organization which incorporates a few other alliances such as The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Instituto de Manejo e Certificação Florestal e Agrícola (Imaflora), and NEPCon.
The Sustainable Agriculture Standard is made up of ten principles set up to protect the farms, growers, and consumers. These principles include: 1) Social and Environmental Management System; 2) Ecosystem Conservation; 3) Wildlife Protection; 4) Water Conservation; 5) Fair Treatment and Good Working Conditions for Workers; 6) Occupational Health and Safety; 7) Community Relations; 8) Integrated Crop Management; 9) Soil Management and Conservation; 10) Integrated Waste Management.
Coffee farms must meet at least half of the non-critical standards of the list, and all of the critical standards set forth in the criteria, obtaining a total final score of at least 80% compliance for their products to be certified with the Rainforest Alliance.
Below is a list of the more notable critical versus non-critical standards that a coffee farm must adhere to:
|Preservation and protection of natural ecosystems||Ecosystem conservation|
|Prohibits hunting and trafficking of wild animals||Wildlife protection|
|Wastewater management system||Water conservation|
|Avoid mixing of certified and non-certified products||Integrated crop management|
|Soil conservation and management|
Social and Occupational Standards
|Prohibits forced labor||Fair treatment|
|Prohibits child labor (usually under the age of 15)||Good working conditions|
|Minimum wages||Occupational health and safety|
|Right to unionize||Community relations|
|Safe, disease-free, hygienic housing (where applicable)||Free of harassment, sexual abuse, and physical/psychological mistreatment|
|Access to safe drinking water||Access to education for school-age children living on farm|
Coffee Growing Standards
|Only an approved list of pesticides used||40% Tree Cover|
|Workers must be properly trained and protected in the use of approved pesticides||At least 12 different tree species|
|For a more extensive list of standards visit: Sustainable Agriculture Network|
Fair Trade Certified
Fair Trade Certification for products started out of the desire to create a partnership between producers, traders, businesses, and consumers by the Dutch company Solidaridad in 1988. The original vision was to oppose the exploitation of coffee growers around the world. In 2002, the FAIRTRADE Certification was launched internationally by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) in supermarkets with the intent to simplify exportation practices as well as create recognizability and consciousness for the trademark.
Ideally, the Fair Trade system was started to create a minimum price for the worth of coffee that would allow coffee farms to pay their workers a decent minimum wage so they could pay for basic needs like clean water, housing, education, and health care. However, the set prices of coffee within the Fair Trade system does not always guarantee these things that many Americans take for granted. Often times the set minimum price for coffee is so low that coffee farmers still cannot earn a livable wage, let alone afford things beyond the basic necessities of life. Another hardship that coffee farmers face, when adhering to the Fair Trade Certification standards, is that if a direct trade business were to offer the coffee farmer more than the minimum price for the coffee, they could not accept that price, as the farmer is locked in to the agreement with the FTC. Many coffee roasters feel that coffee farmers deserve far more monetary value for their coffee than the Fair Trade organization places on the product. A good majority of the beans cultivated from these farms are of premium quality, but are valued at lower due to the standards set forth by the Fair Trade Certification. Fair is fair, but oftentimes, a name can be deceiving.
If it says it is organic, it must be better than other products, right? Typically Organic Certified means that the product, coffee in this case, was grown without the use of pesticides or other chemicals, but there is more to it than that. The Organic Certification process is a multistage process that incorporates not just the coffee farm on which it was grown, but also the production process, how it is stored before importation, all the way to the coffee roaster. Every coffee farm must be inspected over the course of many years, initially three years, but then for every additional year they are in the program.
Each country has its own certification standards. To be designated as Organic Certified in the United States, the coffee beans must align with the U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for organic production. What that means is, the coffee farm on which the coffee was grown and harvested must grow the product free of synthetic pesticides or other prohibited chemicals for the length of three years. They also must adhere to sustainable crop rotation so the land does not fall victim to erosion, to prevent soil nutrient depletion, and control the spread of pests. For coffee roasters, it means they must go through a rigorous inspection process which can often take months or years, in addition to being required to purchase specific equipment for the roasting and packaging of products that are deemed Organic Certified.
Anyone who has visited a coffee farm or researched the origins from which their coffee is derived will know that many coffee farmers maintain their business in a rural and poor area of their country. To apply for Organic Certification is an expensive and prolonged process. Many farmers cannot afford pesticides or chemicals to combat pests so their crops are grown naturally, which means they cannot afford the expensive certification costs to deem their coffee as “Organic.” In many cases, farmers are just oblivious to the fact that such a certification even exists, so they carry on growing, harvesting, and selling their coffee as their families have done for generations.
Basically, what this comes down to, is that just because a product does not have the official USDA Organic Certified logo attached to it, it does not mean that it isn’t organic or that it isn’t quality, it just means the grower or producer could not afford the costs to have their goods “certified.”
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