Turn on the television or open a newspaper, and you would be hard-pressed not to find information on ‘living green.’ The green movement has embraced the global coffee marketplace and captured the attention of consumers like never before. From sustainable coffee production practices to eco-friendly coffee products and water conservation, ‘going green’ is causing specialty coffee businesses to take notice and change the way they’re doing business.

A Growing Trend

Consider this statistic: According to the National Coffee Association, nearly eight out of ten Americans drink coffee. It’s clear that coffee is one of America’s favorite beverages. And as coffee continues to heat up sales at coffeehouses across the nation, consumers are taking notice of organic, certified organic, and sustainable coffee programs.

Although there is still the consumer that just wants “a cup of joe,” most consumers expect more from their coffee and are willing to pay more for it. Today’s consumer knows the difference between “commodity” coffee (i.e., from a can at the grocery store) and specialty coffee, and vote with their dollars for what they drink.

But what exactly do the terms sustainable, organic, certified organic, direct trade, and direct relationship, mean to producers, retailers, and consumers alike? And what effect are these ideologies having on the industry as a whole?

Reykia Fick, media relations manager at Fairtrade International says that any effective approach to sustainability must start with people. “For Fairtrade, we start with the position of the farmer. For farmers to continue to feed the world into the future, they need to earn enough to have a decent livelihood and reinvest into their farms,” Fick says. “They need to farm in a way that respects their local ecology so their fields will stay fertile. They need to build strong businesses and reinvest in their communities to strengthen their position and attract the next generation to farming.”

So how do organic and Fairtrade labels coincide within the coffee industry? “Organic” and “Fairtrade” are two different but complimentary certifications that can be run parallel or separately. As Fick explains, organic certification means that agricultural methods to protect the environment have been undertaken in the farming of a crop. While Fairtrade  International has requirements for sustainable farming techniques, empowerment and improving the livelihoods of farmers and workers is the core aim of Fairtrade.

For producers who lack resources, improving their economic situation through Fairtrade International can be a prerequisite for gaining organic certification. “Fairtrade delivers benefits to small-scale farmers such as stable prices and funds for development,” Fick says. “This brings the stability and investment thousands of producers have needed to convert to organic. Once organic certified, Fairtrade farmers and workers benefit from higher prices for many products.”

According to Bill Fishbein, founder and president of The Coffee Trust, the various commercial certifications and non-commercial efforts are all part of the effort toward sustainability. “That said, commercial certifications are limited, as conditions of the trade are steeply tilted in favor of merchants over producers and commercial interests are not necessarily always consistent with community interests. Commercial interests are always looking to ensure a fluid line of supply. This is not a bad thing, and certifications help to establish a price that warrants a consistent supply chain. However, having a fluid line of supply as a priority for commerce is not necessarily consistent with a community’s priority for its own development.”

Direct Ties

Marilyn Dryke with the Cafe Femenino Foundation, says that direct trade was a marketing term that was created to help roasters sell coffee. “Though a few roasters may have the knowledge or ability to buy and import their own containers of coffee, most roasting companies rely on importers and exporters to get their coffee here and to hold the coffee until they are ready to buy it and roast it,” Dryke says. “With the term ‘direct trade’ people may be lead to believe that the seller is buying and importing the coffee directly from a coffee farmer or a cooperative.  So from our perspective it is a confusing term that is loosely used.  There is no verification system for this concept.”

George Kim, coffee quality manager at Caffebene defines direct trade as the process where the buyer and the farmer agree upon certain standards and processes—from production to cultivating, harvesting, drying, and such. The buyer is directly involved in the process.

“The trend is shifting away from buying coffee beans in bulk through distribution companies. Rather, roasters are going directly to the farmers after surveying the soil and the environment of the farm,” Kim says. “People believe this truly insures the quality of the beans. Also, roasters use this unique story as a way of marketing, informing the consumers how and under what conditions the beans that they are drinking were harvested.”

In Korea, Caffebene has a direct relationship with the Ipanema farm. All coffee beans produced from this farm are only exported into Caffebene in Korea. “The reason for doing this is to have a story with a specific farm that produces the coffee just the way we want,” Kim says. “There are no third parties involved. We certify the quality ourselves. As it is only imported to Caffebene Korea, we can guarantee the quality.”

So how is the term “direct relationships” different from “direct trade”?

Dryke says that “direct relationships” also is a marketing term that was developed to help move coffee. “Roasters can work with their importers to actually go and meet the farmers they work with, and a few have the ability to actually buy a full contain in order to import themselves,” Dryke says. “Some importers may also market their coffees as direct relationship, and probably many of them actually do have direct relationships, but there is no specific criteria attached to this term, so it is a loosely used term with some companies or individuals using it as they wish.”

While industry experts may have differing opinions about the terminology surrounding sustainable practices within the coffee industry, certifications are key tokens that ensure standards and criteria are annually substantiated so that consumers know the claims that are being made are true and verified.

“With these certifications the expectation is that the coffee or other products will actually generate higher incomes for the producers who are having their coffees certified,” Dryke says. There are loans and funds available for farmers who which to go through a certification process, or the cooperative or export companies can also help the farmers with the certification process.”

Most certification organizations are also willing to assist in this process even though they may not be providing funding.  Consumers have a choice whether to buy a certified product, which are generally more expensive because of the cost of the certification and even the production and processing can be more expensive.  “Today we see more organics on mainstream store shelves, which would indicate that consumers are growing more and more willing to pay the extra cost to assure that they are getting a product with the verification that assures them the product is organic or fair trade or whatever the certification is for,” Dryke says.

Economic & Social Impact of Sustainability

Brent Toevs, CEO of Marley Coffee says that sustainability in the coffee market encapsulates a combination of economic and social impact. According to Toevs, economic sustainability involves the use of various strategies for employing existing resources optimally so that a responsible and beneficial balance can be achieved over the longer term. Environmental sustainability involves the maintenance of the factors and practices that contribute to the quality of environment on a long-term basis. And social sustainability involves the ability of a community to develop processes and structures that not only meet the needs of its current members but also support the ability of future generations to maintain a healthy community.

And it’s the role of many nonprofits within the industry to oversee the sustainability of the coffee industry, its practices, and its producers. Experts agree that non-profits within the coffee industry have a vital role to play in building a more sustainable coffee sector, while taking into consideration the economic and social impact that sustainability has on the people and their products. “We can act as a platform for farmers to tell industry what they need to have sustainable livelihoods and deliver the supply businesses need,” Fick says.

Nonprofits also have an invaluable role to play in supporting companies to do business in a better way. For example at Fairtrade International, they have built an alternative way to do business, based on principles of fairness in trade. “We have developed this over the years with the input of countless partners, from farmers and workers on down the line to importers, brands, retailers and consumers,” Fick says. “By working with Fairtrade, businesses can live their values, invest in the people and the sustainability of their supply chain, and be recognized for their good work via the Fairtrade mark, the world’s most recognized and highly trusted ethical label.”

Fishbein stresses that responsible non-profits are not limited to commercial interests. “They focus on community priorities, such as but not limited to, education, health care, food programs, alternative incomes and helping local communities take control over their own future. However, while nonprofits may be able to help a community chart its own course, which may include strengthening its capacity for commercial production, non-profits are outside of the commercial process and should steer clear of interfering in established commercial relationships,” Fishbein says. “While both have essential roles to play in the effort toward sustainability at origin, neither by itself is anywhere close to achieving sustainability. That can only be achieved over the long run—and it will be a very long run—as long as each respects the value of the other and neither think they have discovered all of the answers.”

Brent Toevs, CEO of Marley Coffee, says that there are many nonprofit NGOs contributing to sustainability measures in coffee growing regions throughout the world. For example, the WaterWise Coffee Initiative backed by the NGO TechnoServe creates a low-cost, sustainable solution for treating wastewater produced as a result of wet milling coffee in the Sidama region of Ethiopia. “By installing natural grasslands near the site of coffee mills, WaterWise is able to protect the water quality of the Kolla River for both the producers and the nearby residents,” Toevs says.

Also, the nonprofit Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA), a consortium of global organizations led by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), is developing and applying scientific metrics to understand sustainability impacts at the field level. COSA’s stated purpose is to measure sustainability and its mandate is to achieve “a credible set of common global measures for agricultural sustainability along the three balanced principles (environmental, social, and economic).” The unanimous International Coffee Organization endorsement of the COSA program notes that COSA builds management capacity with local partnerships in producing countries to facilitate an understanding of the effects (costs and benefits) of the many sustainability initiatives.

Other key nonprofits and industry-specific organizations that play a key role in the sustainability efforts facing the industry including Grounds for Health, Café Femenino, Coffee Kids, Sustainable Harvest, Coffee Cares, Food for Farmers, Puebla a Puebla, and the Coffee Trust, to name a few.

In the case of the Café Femenino Foundation, they are focused on helping women to achieve human rights through grant programs that focus on health, education and income diversification.

“It is up to the producers to tell us what they need in order to improve their lives and their family’s lives for the future,” says Gay Smith, founder of Café Femenino Foundation. “Ensuring that there is food to eat after the harvest to prevent malnutrition in the children, or clean water to drink. Educating the children through new schools, libraries or books. All are part of a system that will sustain the coffee farmer into the future.”

Without this type of support, children will leave the coffee farm to look for other type of work because they see how difficult life is on a coffee farm. Additionally, the abuse and abandonment of children and women will continue without some type of intervention, as will the poverty cycle. Seventy-five percent of the world’s coffee is produced by small coffee farmers working on ½ acre to five-acre farms.

“The work of the foundation is crucial to the sustainability of the small coffee producers, and more and more companies are starting to see the importance of this work or work like the foundations’,” Smith says. “Our industry needs to look at ways that we can all contribute to a more equitable coffee value chain.”

Definitions & Certifications

Certified Organic: In order for coffee to be certified and sold as organic in the United States, it must be produced in accordance with U.S. standards for organic production and certified by an agency accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. requirements for organic coffee production include farming without synthetic pesticides or other prohibited substances for three years and a sustainable crop rotation plan to prevent erosion, the depletion of soil nutrients, and control for pests. Source: Organic Trade Association (

Organic: Organic coffee is grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment. Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture. Third-party certification organizations verify that organic farmers abide by the law. Source: Organic Trade Association (

Sustainable: Sustainable farming within the coffee industry implements practices to minimize water consumption and to clean the water used. Water from the fermentation tanks should never be returned to rivers or lakes, but rather filtered naturally through the earth and then used for coffee irrigation. A sustainable farm gives back as much to the land and people as it receives.  It seeks independence from non-renewable resources, using renewable resources when possible. Sustainable farming also minimizes pollution, takes steps to care for the environment, and cares for its employees. Source:

Fair Trade: Fair Trade certification focuses on labor and trade standards to provide small-farmer co-operatives a guaranteed price above the conventional market. Not all Fair Trade CertifiedTM coffee is necessarily organic. However, Fair Trade CertifiedTM does require strict environmental stewardship such as prohibiting the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the most hazardous pesticides. Fifty nine percent of all Fair Trade CertifiedTM coffee imported into the United States in 2008 was certified organic. In the United States, transactions must be audited by TransFair USA to use a Fair Trade CertifiedTM label. Certified organic producers of Fair Trade coffee receive at least $1.55/lb.Source: Organic Trade Association (

Direct Trade: Direct trade is a term used by coffee roasters who buy straight from the growers, cutting out both the traditional middleman buyers and sellers and also the organizations that control certifications such as Fair Trade and Bird Friendly. Direct trade proponents say their model is the best because they build mutually beneficial and respectful relationships with individual producers or cooperatives in the coffee-producing countries. Source:

Direct Relationship: Relationship coffees represent a unique, grassroots opportunity for coffee drinkers to contribute toward the success and development of coffee-producing communities in third-world countries. For example, the Coffee Roasters’ Alliance supports and “adopts” specific farms and cooperatives through Relationship Coffee programs. These programs uniquely develop a “close-touch” platform designed to establish a direct relationship between coffee drinkers and the communities that grow their coffee. Relationship Coffees offer the potential for generational prosperity within coffee-growing communities. Source:

Rainforest Alliance: The Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal is an internationally recognized symbol of environmental, social and economic sustainability that helps both businesses and consumers do their part to ensure a brighter future for us all. In order for a farm or forestry enterprise to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification, or for a tourism business to be verified, it must meet rigorous standards designed to protect ecosystems, safeguard the well-being of local communities, and improve productivity. The Rainforest Alliance then links these farmers, foresters and tourism businesses to the growing global community of conscientious consumers through the green frog seal. Source:

UTZ: UTZ Certified stands for sustainable farming and better opportunities for farmers, their families and our planet. The UTZ program enables farmers to learn better farming methods, improve working conditions and take better care of their children and the environment. Source:

4C: The members of the 4C Association have developed the 4C Code of Conduct, which sets social, environmental and economic principles for the sustainable production, processing and trading of green coffee. The 4C Code has a moderate entry level, including the exclusion of ten Unacceptable Practices, and commits participants to continuous improvement. Source:

Equal Exchange: Equal Exchange’s mission is to build long-term trade partnerships that are economically just and environmentally sound, to foster mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers and to demonstrate, through our success, the contribution of worker cooperatives and Fair Trade to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world. Source:

Cup of Excellence: Cup of Excellence is the most prestigious award given to a fine quality coffee. The level of scrutiny that Cup of Excellence coffees undergo is unmatched anywhere in the coffee industry. All of the Cup of Excellence award winners are cupped at least 5 times (the ‘Top 10’ are cupped again) during the 3-week competition. During this selection process, thousands of cups are evaluated, tasted and scored based on their exemplary characteristics. The prices that these winning coffees receive at auction have broken records and proven that there is a huge demand for these rare farmer identified coffees. Source:

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