Coffee certification today – What do they mean?

In an ideal world we would purchase coffee from trustworthy sources to guarantee quality but also to be sure that the farmers who grow and pick our coffees make enough money for a decent life. Allowing them for example, to send their kids to school.

At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, Humanity started to realize the impact of mass consumption on the environment. Since then, the agri-food industry has generate tones of labels and certifications to reassure consumers of production standards. All claiming their appearance of fair trade or sustainable developments. Almost 40 years later, there are a huge array of labels in use. Hence this attempt at clarification.

Ethiopian Landscape Coffee farmers

The coffee chain needs transparency

“Organic”, “Fair Trade”, “Ecocert”, “Rainforest Alliance”… There are so many labels displayed on coffees that it has become difficult to understand what we are really buying. What do they really mean? How do they impact farmers lives in coffee producing countries? And how do they impact on coffee prices?These are some of the questions we have investigated explaining also our commitments to help make the coffee chain more sustainable for coffee farmers and ensure best quality for coffee drinkers. First of all, there is a distinction to make between fair trade and sustainable development. Farmers who pay for Fair Trade certification are guaranteed a minimum price for their coffee – which can never fall below market price – and an extra premium to invest in their communities.

Very often, retailers see Fair Trade as an opportunity to increase prices for consumers in order to generate more profits. In addition, the Fair Trade scheme guarantees a minimum price for farmers, but not a minimum quality – so a Fairtrade labelled coffee can often be of poorer quality. Market prices can often be above the minimum guaranteed price via the Fairtrade label, as coffee buyers buy based on quality at market price. Therefore, Fair Trade does not provide long-term security to help the poorest people earn a better living; if market prices rise for example, they do not benefit them. Profits are often concentrated only around certain carefully selected producers whose production grows to the point of being able to compete unfairly with their neighbors.

Fair Trade has been accused by many of being an example of the Western society feel-good system that delays the modernization of developing economies through a simple marketing technique. Here is an article, about this unfair part in the Fairtrade concept.

In sustainable development, the goal is: better remuneration for better quality. In fact, all the benefits of a better price are re-invested in education, training and tools to increase higher product quality so the entire chain from beans to cup can use less intermediaries. Furthermore, workers are employees, people are respected, environment is preserved, premiums are used to finance community projects and solidarity, instead of competition between farmers and producers. Although the approach seems to be the same, the results are more tangible and with greater traceability, so we know exactly where our beans came from.

Understanding some labels:


Began in 1991, in France. Control and certification body specialising in the certification of products from organic farming. Joined “Bio Partenaire” in 2009.
In 2009, the Bio Partenaire reference framework dedicated to fair trade and the ESR reference labels (Controlled Responsible/Fairtrade or Solidarity by Ecocert) .
Operates in 90 countries.

Bio Partenaire

Is first of all composed of Bio Equitable which started in 2000, and which is a French company.
Grouping 20,000 producers into 18 organizations.
And composed of Bio Solidaire created in 2007, which is the first fair trade label for North-North trade relations (USA/EU). It brings together 300 producers in 17 organizations.
Bio Partenaire is an association created in 2002, bringing together SMEs in the organic and fair trade sectors, 26 companies and 65 producer organisations – 20 300 producers.

Fair Trade Max Havelaar

Began in 1988. First fair trade label, created by a Dutch development agency, Solidaridad. The most famous in the world.
Since 2005, not only cooperatives can benefit from the label but also individual producers.
Responsible consumption label.
Since 2010, 50% of producers have been involved in the governance of representative and decision-making bodies.

Rainforest Alliance

An NGO founded in 1986, it launched its first sustainable forestry programme in 1989. Led to the creation of the first label managed jointly by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and the Rainforest Alliance. 39 certified raw materials (coffee/cocoa/tea/banana/rooibos…).
Certification awarded for 3 years. Physical and documentary traceability. Present in 101 countries, 77 million hectares certified.
Membre Alliance ISEAL, is the global membership association for credible sustainability standards.

UTZ Certification

Inaugurated in 1999, in Guatemala and in 2002 in the Netherlands. From 2018 together with Rainforest Alliance. Desire to promote sustainable quality for coffee but later opened up to other raw materials. Operates in 34 countries, 1.5 million hectares certified. Physical and documentary traceability. Developed a code of conduct for coffee cultivation based on the EUREP-GAP “Good Agricultural Practices” (series of traceability and food safety standards, at the global level, for agricultural and aquaculture production).

4C Association

Common Code for the Coffee Community, effective 2006.
2004-2006: definition of the rules for producers, traders and industrialists.
290 members (producers/traders/industrials/civil society representatives-NGO unions)
Documentary and physical traceability required.
Certified raw material is green coffee beans.
Member of the ISEAL Alliance, is the global membership association for credible sustainability standards.

At Jones Brothers Coffee we have chosen Direct Trade & UTZ

Richard Jones picking coffee cherries Abakundawa women's coffee cooperative

– UTZ Certified –

“We believe it is the fairest certification programs with the correct intentions for the sustainable development” – Richard Jones

We are using UTZ Certification for our Premium coffees because it is part of a sustainable vision, without being exorbitant for small producers.
UTZ uses two ways of acting: adaptation and mitigation (to reduce the negative impact).
There is no artificial price manipulation; a fair price is defined, with few intermediaries as possible.
Most importantly, UTZ allows for an improvement in operating techniques with training programs for farmers; a desire to increase working conditions and environmental preservation.
Through these programs, UTZ encourages an increase in the quantity of materials produced, which allows a better profitability.

What UTZ did for coffee farmers production processes:

Producers are trained to better manage their production and reduce their environmental impact.

set up irrigation and water treatment systems in order to reduce and recycle water consumption. Waste water can also be transformed into renewable energy, used by families for their stoves or agricultural machinery.

adapt to climate change to reduce impact on environment.

use compost for better soil fertilization, or biogas-digesters. For example, in Honduras, water has a reduce contamination level by 81.6% thanks to this method.

plant shade or windbreak trees in heavy rain, such as banana or avocado trees. This permaculture system brings diversity to the crops and also allows farmers to obtain income from other production.

keep records of rainfall.

Help in the organization of better exchanges between farms.

– Direct Trade –

What does Direct Trade mean?

Direct Trade is used exclusively for Specialty coffees, this is how we source our “Specialty coffee” ranges.

Mainly used by coffee roasters, Direct Trade is a real relationship between the producer and the buyer. It is a fairer alternative of Fair Trade, Why? This type of relationship establishes a real ethic in business that are mutually beneficial, there is more transparency and respect.

Direct Trade eliminates the limits of Fair Trade by:

paying a higher price to farmers

linking these premiums to specific standards of quality

generating additional trust and transparency in the supply chain through personal relationships (price negotiation / information exchange)

eliminating the costs of being a member of a Fair Trade company .

There is a direct connection without intermediaries, which means that the value created is shared more equally between the two parties. In direct trading both parties depend on each other. Moreover, It allows an increase in quality, links business success to social progress, encourages education and training to create wealth in a sustainable, long-term, independent way and by their own means. Importantly, this is not charity!

What are the benefit for us and our coffees?

The main benefit, as small independent coffee company, is to be able to create direct business with farmers, or cooperatives which we come to know personally and to be able to understand the type of organisation the farmer has. Specifically, the usage or not of pesticides and GMO’s, the working conditions for migrant workers, water waste management and usage of shade-trees.

Rwanda women in coffee