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I am interested in the environmental impact of coffee and am therefore wondering whether a system exists for labeling the environmental impact of coffee. So not so much brands, such as Fairtrade, but rather if it is possible for the consumer to get information about how sustainable the plantation associated with the specific coffee product (beans, grounds or powder) is, and if there is a scale to measure it?

  • Isn't it also related with how you brew it? Where the heat comes from for brewing? Seems quite unlikely but very environmental-unfriendly: a psychopath may kill seals and use their bones to light up a fire to brew his/her coffee. Even, isn't it related to how you digest it? Did you burp or not after the cup? Final words: I think it is nearly impossible to measure (then quantize and label) the cumulative environmental effect of the final cup of coffee. Sustainability... This is even harder than classifying environmental effects as it also includes social and economical issues... – MTSan Nov 9 '16 at 13:01
  • The short answer is "No". You can only trust your local third wave roastery. The only thing that comes close to some label would be a european certificate for organic farming (not sure if there is a US equivalent and even less sure about other parts of the world). At least there you have some legal guidelines and you can make some educated guesses about environmental impact. However there is no scale or anything...who would measure these things on a farm level? Coffee is most of the times produced on small scale farms (Fair Trade alone represents 500k or so). It's absolutely impossible. – avocado1 Nov 16 '16 at 9:41
  • @MTSan I really feel that your situation presented is a bit far-fetched. I mean take organic meat for example: if you cook it in a fire of banned substance, then is it no longer organic? – Anthony Pham Jul 6 '17 at 15:35
  • @AnthonyPham Hi. I don't know what's far fetched. The question is "universal label for sustainability". I think, the question itself is far fetched. However, UTZ, rainforest alliance and fair trade have all visible problems. So... This, just by itself is a really hard issue. (This is why I prefer to not answer but discuss in comments, also.) – MTSan Jul 6 '17 at 22:41
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There is no universal label though there are various labels for coffee sustainability.

You can't really have an universal label as each of the labels have their own standards which have to be met and various coffee farms and producers follow certain ones. For example, in the Huffington Post, it mentions some of these labels:

  • USADA (or simply USDA): This is basically the United States' label for organic for various products (i.e meat and fruits) that is not limited to only coffee. It is quite strict (has certification agencies, checks for criterion not only during production but also distribution and packaging) as it

    Aims to promote and enhance natural soil activity and cycling of resources, which helps to create a rich and fertile substrate for the crop and maintain ecological balance by prohibiting use of artificially produced (synthetic) agrochemicals.

  • As mentioned by @avacado1, there is an European equivalent to the USDA, which is the EU Organic Program (note that the EU doesn't cover all of Europe). Source

  • Some companies like Starbucks have their own labels that guarantee their standards for their coffee:

    C.A.F.E. (which stands for Coffee and Farmer Equity) evaluates the economic, social, and environmental aspects of coffee production in order to ensure that Starbucks’s sources of coffee are sustainably grown. Starbucks collaborated with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a third-party evaluation and certification firm, to develop the guidelines for the program.

  • Rainforest Alliance Program: This is a more "natural" certification since:

    With this program, coffee is grown on farms where forests, rivers, soils, and wildlife are conserved and workers are treated with respect, paid decent wages, have proper and safe equipment, and are given access to education and medical care.

  • Bird Friendly Conversation: This label ensures that the coffee farms support the native and migratory birds that come over for a visit:

    The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) gives this certification to farmers in order to promote shade-grown organic coffee plantations that can play a key role in the conservation of our global environment and of migratory birds that find sanctuary in these forest-like plantations.


So as you can see here, the various labels not only have various standards and goals but have their own area jurisdiction as well, each trying to gain support based on what they are.

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I was at Ikea the ither day and noticed that their coffee is UTZ certified. I've never heard of this before so I looked into it.

"UTZ is committed to creating a sustainable, viable coffee market. How? Through an efficient certification and traceability program for socially and environmentally responsible coffee production that meets the needs of both producers and markets."

That's straight from their site. Check them out for more info: https://utz.org

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    I have checked this and also read a comparison with Fair Trade and Rain Forest Alliance. UTZ seems like it does not care for the usage of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Also, it does not care for supporting local populations. Thus, it is financially easier to have this certificate. One advantage is, they care about worker wages and ages. Mostly, this looks like an alternative (cheaper) certification. (Note: IKEA coffees are UTZ certified.) – MTSan Jul 5 '17 at 10:35
  • Ah ok, good to know. Kind of misleading, I would think you should care about chemical usage and support local populations to ensure a sustainable and viable coffee market. – Better Coffee Jul 6 '17 at 13:51
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I answered a similar question a while back on the following thread. Although it is slightly different, it may contain some information that is applicable, or you may be interested in.

Coffee Stack Thread

There is no universal sustainability grade for coffee plantations that I know of. Many times coffee comes from individual shareholders that don't own much more than a coffee 'garden', much less than a plantation. Because of this, it is basically impossible to assign a grade to all sources of coffee. Additionally, many coffee farms are far off the beaten track. There's a story in the link I posted that describes the difficulty in reaching some of these coffee plantations. Consider that most coffee is high grown, much of it between 1800 and 2000 meters in elevation. This is pretty much up in the mountains where large cities, significant infrastructure may be lacking due to the terrain.

From a roasters perspective, I am able to find lots of coffee coming from farms that focus heavily on sustainability, but they are typically microlots and they are typically quite expensive. Also as a roaster, it is to my benefit to tell the end consumer all about the farm and what they do for sustainability, because like you, a lot of individuals are interested in knowing that type of information. I would keep an eye out for specialty roasters and just go read the informational pages on their coffees and you should be able to find coffees very quickly that come from farms that focus sustainability.

One other tidbit of information.. There are certain countries that regulate the export of coffee in such a way that the majority of coffees are lumped into the same lots, and you lose all traceability. Ethiopia's ECX exchange is an example of this, and much of the Colombian coffee trade is regulated by the government. (there are microlots coming from both these countries so this isn't an 'avoid these coffees' warning or anything ... avoid Ethiopian coffee.... the horror!)

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