Do you wonder what sustainability really means? Sustainability refers to production practices that protect and preserve our natural resources – the land, the environment, the people. The chief aim is to provide sustainable lives for farmers, their families and communities. Achieving this goal involves close attention to three major elements – economic, environmental and social.

sustainable coffee

The U.S. coffee industry defines sustainable coffee as coffee that is grown and traded in a way that ensures that future generations can be sustained economically, environmentally, and socially through its production. That means that coffee is bought and sold based on the free trade model, is produced with adherence to the individual country’s labor rules of law, and is grown and processed using environmentally sound agricultural methods.

The U.S. coffee industry supports environmental, social and economic sustainability and initiatives that increase these goals. Countless individuals, companies, scientists, government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also take the commitment to sustainability very seriously and have enacted many safeguards and programs for that purpose.

Labels, alliances, certification and more, much more…

Over the years most everyone – coffee producers as well as consumers – has become much more focused on sustainable practices in growing and producing coffee, including keeping a watchful eye on the environmental impact of coffee on our land, the socioeconomic needs of the farmer and the biodiversity of animal and plant species. So from ensuring a fair price and healthy working conditions for the farmers growing the crops, to protecting the resources necessary for producing tomorrow’s coffee, a number of organizations have evolved to encourage and monitor ethical, agricultural and quality standards.

Many manufacturers sponsor a variety of environmentally friendly activities or campaigns that tie in with their commitment to sustainable production. As a result, a number of technical terms and eco-labels have sprung up. They can be confusing. Here’s a run-down of several key terms, certifications and movements you should know about.


Fair Trade CertifiedFair Trade – The idea of “fair trade” was developed to reduce poverty in coffee-producing communities by promoting long-term partnerships between producers and consumers.

Producers receive a minimum set price for their crops, financial and technical support, health care, safe working conditions and educational opportunities for their children. In turn, consumers receive quality goods whose production propels thriving societies, preserves renewable resources and protects our environment.

Organic – Organic coffee is produced without the aid of artificial chemical substances, such as certain additives, pesticides or herbicides. There is a great deal of misuse and overuse of the term.

Shade Grown Coffee – Although coffee plants require shade to grow and produce, some varieties were cultivated to adapt to sunlight. But the methods needed for their cultivation were not environmentally friendly and deforestation ensued. Now shade grown coffee is becoming more popular; its location under the forest canopy supports many species of animals, migratory birds, insects and plants.

Certifications & Programs

Fair Trade Certified – These products receive third-party certification. Manufacturers pay a premium for the right to use the Fair Trade label. The premium is used by producer organizations for social and economic investments in the community. The program aims to help the small farmer.

4C Association – The 4C Association is a community within the international coffee industry that works “to improve the economic, social and environmental conditions in coffee production and processing to build a thriving, sustainable sector for future generations.”

The association promotes sustainability within the coffee industry through their 4C Code of Conduct, which provides baseline sustainability standards for the production and trading of green coffee. Members work with development agencies and other partners to help coffee farmers become more resistant to climate change and to slow its pace.

Rainforest Alliance CertifiedRainforest Alliance – Even if you haven’t heard about the Rainforest Alliance, you’ve probably heard about the rainforests: tropical havens that form rich protective environments for a number of exotic species of plants and wildlife.

For years coffee was grown in such lush forests. Then in the 1970’s, some agronomists began promoting the deforestation of these areas and substitution of closely packed coffee bushes. Coffee crops burgeoned, but at the expense of the forest, the soil and the wildlife. What’s more, pesticides on the plants and crops contributed to the pollution of nearby water sources.

The Rainforest Alliance mandates a code of ethics in business dealings and serves to protect the environment and wildlife. Certification supports improved farm management, negotiating leverage and access to business opportunities.

Some shade grown coffee bears the seal of the Rainforest Alliance, and the Audubon Society also markets a brand of its own which bears the Rainforest Alliance seal.

UTZ Certified – This designation is part of a worldwide standard designed to promote responsible farming and sourcing for products including coffee, tea, cocoa and more. It establishes a Code of Conduct for sustainable and professional coffee growing that requires socially and environmentally appropriate growing practices and farm management.

Scratching the Surface

Although there’s a lot more to the key terminology used in responsible farming, production and marketing of coffee, those definitions should give you a good start!

Other commitments and efforts by manufacturers

Beyond supporting environmental standards and earning the right to use official certifications that connote high standards in the farming and production of coffee, many individual manufacturers show their commitment to sustainability in additional ways.

Some make painstaking efforts to reduce waste in the materials used to produce and package coffee products, like biodegradable or refillable cups; reduced water consumption systems for coffee processing; adherence to all rules and regulations on emission controls for coffee roasters; the sponsorship of campaigns to promote the protection of bird species; the reuse of coffee pulp as organic fertilizer; the underwriting of scientific studies to identify innovative improvements to the coffee roasting process; the promotion of consumer contests to reward novel ideas to reduce the environmental impact of coffee production; and the design of enhanced home brewing systems.