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Beginner’s Guide to Ethical Coffee

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By Matt Woodburn-Simmonds

Coffee is a luxury item, we don’t need it to live… Although I’m sure many people would disagree! And yet, the coffee industry has exploited those who produce our beloved luxury for years. These producers are systematically ignored just so we can have an affordable cup of happiness in the morning.

So, what exactly is ethical coffee? Should you even care about it? And, how can you find it?

This is the only guide you need to help you make ethical, sustainable choices every time you need that caffeine fix. Read on to dig into all of the different coffee labels to help you understand what they mean and what guarantees they do (and don’t) make. So, next time you are shopping you can be safe in the knowledge that you are getting the best quality coffee beans that protect the people who produce them.

This article may contain affiliate/ compensated links. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you. For more information please see our disclaimer here.

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What is Ethical Coffee or Ethically Sourced Coffee Beans?

As we become more aware of our purchasing decisions, it is increasingly important to ask questions of the coffee industry:

Where has our coffee come from? And, how was it made?

To ensure your coffee has been ethically sourced, you need to make sure everyone in the supply chain is fairly paid for their work. This includes those working on the farms all the way to the barista or coffee salesperson.

Plus, the environment and the long-term sustainability of the coffee farms must be a priority.

Now, this sounds pretty simple. But trying to find ethical bean coffee that meets all these criteria can be surprisingly difficult.

Why? Well, coffee labeling can be confusing:

There are a bunch of different labels that claim all sorts of things. And almost all coffee companies make claims about sustainability and paying a “fair” price for their coffee. So, it’s difficult to cut through the noise if you don’t know what to look for. But that’s what we’re here for.

Ethically sourced coffee in the hands of the grower/ farmer
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General Rules for Buying Ethical Coffee

Before we dive into the various coffee labels and what they mean, we’ll go through some general rules for buying your coffee. Whilst not an exhaustive list, it does serve as a good place to start.

1. Don’t Buy From Big Chains

Generally speaking, if you want the most ethical, sustainable coffee then you shouldn’t buy from big coffee shop chains.

These big coffee companies are looking to make as much money as possible for their shareholders, as all publicly traded companies have to do. This means the farmer’s well-being is lower down their priority list when compared to smaller companies.

Now, these big coffee brands aren’t necessarily exploitative. For example, Starbucks only sells certified Fair Trade coffee.

But, as a general rule, the coffee supply chains of these big companies won’t demonstrate the most ethical practices. Instead, you should seek out the best sustainable coffee brands that prioritize ethical coffee sourcing.

2. Pay More For Your Coffee

Nobody likes paying more than they have to and it’s a privilege to be able to. But, if your coffee beans are very cheap, then someone has cut costs somewhere. This most likely means that the farmers aren’t being looked after and the environment isn’t a priority.

It obviously costs more money to pay everyone fairly and to look after the local environment. And all these things eat into profit margins. So, the cheapest coffee is almost certainly causing damage somewhere.

But don’t find yourself sucked into the reverse trap:

Just because your coffee is expensive, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ethically sourced. A great example of this is Indonesian Kopi Luwak (cat poop coffee) which is the most expensive coffee in the world and is often the result of animal cruelty. However, a higher price tag is more likely to indicate both ethically sourced coffee and a better quality brew too.

3. Ask Your Barista if the Coffee is Ethically Sourced

If you have a favorite coffee shop, ask them whether their coffees are ethically sourced.

The top questions to ask are:

  • How is the coffee grown?
  • How does the coffee farm operate?
  • Where is your money going – how is the pricing put together?

A good coffee shop will have total transparency in its supply chain. Some might even have personal relationships with the farmers who grow the coffee.

This can give you a great insight into how invested they are in sourcing ethically grown coffee before you buy your favorite coffee beans for espresso or other coffee drinks.

Over the years, a focus on quality and traceability has become increasingly important. As we enter the “fourth wave coffee movement”, this importance is only going to grow.

Coffee shop barista making a pour over - the best person to ask if they serve ethical, sustainable coffee
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Which Coffee Labels Indicate Ethical Sourcing

There are a growing number of labels on coffee. Each one is designed to give you peace of mind that the coffee has been made with the needs of the farmers and the environment in mind.

Now all this is great, in theory, however, not all of the labels involve legally binding standards. Nor do they ensure the following of best practices through in-depth inspections.

The following is a list of all the labels you’re likely to see on your coffee. Sometimes they will be alone and other times they will be used in combination with each other, for example, Organic Fair Trade coffee. Dive in as we explain what all these terms mean and, importantly, what they don’t mean to help you on your ethical coffee buying journey.

Get the lowdown on the main ethical, sustainable coffee labels in this infographic
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Legally Defined Ethical Coffee Labels

Look out for any of the following labels on your coffee. Each indicates adherence to strict standards as defined by various governing bodies.

No, they are not perfect. And each one has its own focus and limitations. But you can at least rest assured that set requirements must be met before the label can be applied.

Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM & UTZ

These two certifications used to be separate but are now combined. You will spot a green frog on the packaging, identifying Rainforest Alliance Certified™ coffee (and other products).

The focus here is ecological, ensuring good agricultural practices alongside strict social and environmental criteria. This includes:

  • Placing requirements on the farm’s productivity
  • The coffee must be shade-grown
  • Conservation of biodiversity and natural resources
  • Efforts to improve the wellbeing of the farmers, workers, and their families

It’s also pretty decent protection against the exploitation of child labor.

The problem is that while Rainforest Alliance is absolutely a real certification with real requirements, the requirements aren’t particularly strict.

For one thing, coffee can be legally labeled as Rainforest Alliance Certified™ if only 30% of the coffee has passed testing. Which is pretty poor. The packaging does, at least, need to say that only 30% of the coffee passed certification. And it requires the producer to have a plan in place to increase this amount through a sustainable coffee business model, but still.

It also doesn’t require a minimum purchasing price for coffee. Nor does it actually do anything at all to ensure more equitable wages for farmers.

The UTZ certification worked to the same ecological standards. Although they didn’t specify that the coffee must be shade-grown which is now a requirement of the joint certification.

By combining these two standards, they reinforced the strict ecological requirements. But having this certification still doesn’t give financial protection to the coffee farmers.

Certified Organic Coffee

Of all the ethical coffee labels, organic coffees are the most commonly seen. Sometimes the bag of java will say just ‘Organic’, other times ‘100% Certified Organic Coffee’ or ‘100% Organic Arabica coffee’. 

Many assume that this terminology is purely a marketing ploy. But it’s not. Various legally binding standards must be met to become certified as organic. Government-accredited inspectors verify products carrying the USDA Organic seal (and other standards worldwide). They require that:

  • The farm uses no synthetic pesticides
  • A suitable plan is in place to prevent excess erosion (a real problem with coffee plants)
  • Sufficient distancing from non-organic plants so that non-organic fertilizers and pesticides won’t “accidentally” float over
  • The coffee roaster must not ‘contaminate’ organic coffee beans by using equipment that has previously handled non-organic coffee
  • Sustainable coffee packaging must be used, free from synthetic chemicals

All this is very good. But we would say it doesn’t go far enough. So, buying organic certified sustainable coffee is more of a foundation block.

Plus, it’s possible that coffee has been grown organically but isn’t certified as it is an expensive process to achieve and maintain. 

Psst.. Want to learn more about Organic Coffee? Check out our full guide here:

Fairtrade Coffee/ Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade Certified™ coffee is one of the biggest, most well-known certifications in the US. Internationally, the Fairtrade coffee logo indicates the same.

Although it’s important you check it’s Fair Trade Certified™ (or Fairtrade – one word, small t), not just “Fair Trade Coffee” (two words). Why? Only the former are legally defined and approved.

The price of coffee is volatile, dictated by the New York stock exchange. This can cause huge issues for small-scale coffee farmers. For example, a bumper crop in Vietnam can push down the price in Costa Rica where growing costs were higher. This forces the Costa Rican coffee farmer to operate at a loss.

Fair Trade Certified coffee, however, guarantees the farmer a minimum price ensuring they aren’t forced to sell at a loss.

There’s also a small Fairtrade Premium added to the price which allows farmers to invest in business or community projects.

Fairtrade International only works with co-operatives: groups of small-scale coffee farmers who work together to increase their combined market power. Whereas Fair Trade USA works with both co-ops and individual estates/ farmers.

Whilst the work of both organizations is undoubtedly a good thing, there are some shortcomings:

Firstly, it is expensive for coffee farmers to maintain the administration required to stay Fair Trade Certified. It’s also difficult for small farmers to join a co-operative. Therefore, many of the poorest farmers are excluded from the conversation. Additionally, there are concerns that the minimum price still isn’t enough and that the premiums aren’t actually reaching the farmers.

Fair Trade Certification also does not guarantee a fair wage to the farmworkers. So, slavery is still possible.

Therefore, buying Fair Trade Certified coffee is undoubtedly a good thing. But it isn’t the whole picture, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it is truly ethical coffee.

Bird Friendly Certified

This is a lesser-known coffee certification and label. But, Bird Friendly Certification is actually very robust.

So, what is Bird Friendly Coffee?

This certification comes from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. And, to qualify, it requires extremely strict adherence to shade-grown coffee guidelines – it even mandates a canopy height.

All Bird Friendly Certified coffees are also, by requirement, organic coffees. Therefore, you get a two-for-one on your ethically sourced coffee checklist.

Now, they could have named it something a little more helpful – the marketing department clearly had a shocker. But if you see the “bird-friendly certified” label on your coffee, you know the environment is being well looked after where your coffee is grown.

Bird Friendly is a legally binding certification for ethical coffee
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Other Labels that Indicate Ethical Coffee

Next up, are the coffee labels that have good intentions.

They are meant to convey that the coffee has been produced in a certain way, meeting certain criteria. But, unfortunately, there is no legal backing to these terms. So, in theory, anyone can slap them on a bag of coffee regardless of how it is made.

Now, we aren’t suggesting everyone – or even anyone – who uses these labels is acting unscrupulously. However, you should be aware that they don’t actually have to do any of the things they claim to do.

Shade Grown Coffee

Coffee labeled as Shade Grown, in theory, means that the coffee plantation is set up with various large, shady trees. These trees form a canopy over the shrub-like coffee plants.

So, why is Shade Grown coffee a great idea?

Well, it retains the natural character of the environment. This allows farmers to grow coffee without uprooting every other plant and animal in the area. It also helps retain moisture so coffee farmers use less water. Plus it keeps the soil in place to prevent erosion.

This all sounds amazing for ensuring sustainable coffees but it’s entirely theoretical. As there is not a legally binding definition, nor rules to follow, “Shade Grown” is more a descriptor of the farm than an actual guarantee of anything.

Direct Trade

Theoretically, Direct Trade refers to cutting out the middlemen. It also reveals that the coffee roasters have a personal relationship with the farmer. This, therefore, allows the farmer to take a larger cut of the profits.

In reality?

This phrase has absolutely no legal meaning – anyone can use it.

That doesn’t mean that the companies who do label as “Direct Trade” are lying or misleading. In fact, many of the best ethical coffee companies do. But even in the best-case scenario, the lack of a formal legal definition means that you are left with no idea what information you should take from the phrase.

So, while this is great in theory, more investigation is needed into any coffee brands that claim to sell Direct Trade coffee.

For truly sustainable, ethical coffee, it should be roasted in the same country as it is grown
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Limitations of Coffee Accreditation

Now that you have a good understanding of sustainable coffee labels, you may feel confident the good from the least ethical coffee companies.

Sadly, it’s not quite as clear-cut as that: All these certifications have limitations. For example, some don’t cover workers’ wages or they set the bar very low in terms of ethical business practices, making them more of a marketing stunt than a force for good in the world.

One important thing to remember is that it costs money to get – and stay – accredited:

So, imagine a small-scale coffee farmer in Costa Rica who wants to export their organically grown coffee to all of the biggest markets. To do so, they require certifying bodies from the US, EU, and Japan to visit every single year and give their seal of approval. In addition to keeping extensive records, this is very expensive.

As a result, many coffee farmers decide against getting organically certified. But, they still engage in sustainable organic coffee farming practices. Instead, they might engage in Direct Trade with other coffee companies to ensure the best price, allowing fair wages to be paid to all their workers and the ability to send their kids to university.

This is why transparency in the supply chain is the number one most important factor when buying coffee. Officially certified coffee labels are helpful for consumers, but their absence does not necessarily mean you’re buying non-ethically sourced coffee.

After all, what makes coffee sustainable – a label or the work behind the scenes?

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Where Can I Buy Ethically Sourced Coffee?

Once you start looking for it, you will soon discover how many conscious coffee options are out there. To help, we have rounded up just a few of our favorite ethical coffee brands that put sustainability at the top of their agenda.

Tiny Footprint Coffee

Tiny Footprint works exclusively with smallholder farmers who are not eligible to sell under the Fair Trade coffee label. But, what skyrockets them to the top of our list is they are not only an organic coffee company but they were also the first coffee company to become carbon-negative. In terms of doing things the right way, this is about as good as it gets.

They tick a lot of boxes: Direct Trade, Organic, Carbon Negative, Shade Grown, and often also Rainforest Alliance Certified. They are well worth checking out here.

Volcanica Coffee Company

Volcanica focuses on coffee that is grown in Volcanic regions of the world. They have an extensive range of coffees, many of which are Organic Certified or Rainforest Alliance Certified.

But, even the ones that don’t hold official ethical coffee certifications, are purchased through Direct Trade with the farmers. They have a transparent supply chain in their coffee sourcing so you can find high-quality, sustainable coffee from all your favorite coffee-growing regions.

Check out Volcanica Coffee’s range here.

Lifeboost Organic Coffee

Lifeboost’s website is one of the most “spammy” looking ones you’ll come across but, behind that, they are one of the best organic coffee brands around. Sourcing their coffee from a single farm in Nicaragua, they not only ensure organic, shade-grown practices but also support local projects. In addition to environmental protection, selling low-acid coffee is a big part of their mission.

You can give them a try for 20% off too which is a win-win. Just visit their website here, and enter BOOST20 on checkout (for orders over $100).

Equator Coffees

Equator coffees not only have a large selection of shade-grown, Organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified coffees but many of their coffees have charities attached to them. So, for every purchase you make, your money goes towards helping those in need. Visit their website to choose either a high-quality coffee blend or a single-origin. Or simply pick a coffee that supports a cause you believe in.

Spirit Animal

Spirit Animal sources only the best Honduran micro-lot coffee and they reinvest in those farms and surrounding areas. This allows the farmers to focus on sustainability and quality.

You’ll find fewer official certificates here than in other coffee companies. But their mission is to roast incredible Honduran coffee beans and work with the farmers directly. It’s a pretty good mission, ensuring that everyone involved in bringing you your morning cup is looked after now and in the future. And surely that’s what makes coffee sustainable?

Check out Spirit Animal here.

Out of the Grey

It’s rare to find the Smithsonian’s Bird-Friendly Certification but Out of the Grey has 3 coffees with this certificate, as well as many organic Fair Trade coffees. With a wealth of options, you can use their website to sort by certification so you know you’re buying coffee that looks after the planet.

Rainforest Alliance Certified and Bird Friendly Certified are just two of the legally binding coffee labels which indicate ethical coffee
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Final Considerations when Looking for Ethical Coffee

When buying coffee, there are certain questions coffee lovers always ask. Questions like how long ago was it roasted? What roast level is the coffee? And where does the coffee come from? All these questions are important for getting the best cup of joe as they impact the flavor.

However, to be an ethical coffee consumer, it’s important to ask one more question: Where was your coffee roasted?

Almost all premium coffee suppliers will proudly announce “roasted to order” or “roasted in-house” – great for coffee nerds who want to minimize the time between roasting and drinking. But, if you’re serious about changing the lives of those who grow your coffee, then you need an ethical coffee brand that roasts coffee at the source.

For example, in Brazil, nearly 25% of the population lives below the poverty line despite coffee being a huge export. This is because coffee is rarely roasted where it is grown. So, all the income from roasting and the associated jobs disappear overseas.

Paying farmers to roast their own coffee at just $0.50 per lb could leave $2.59 billion in Brazil per year. This would be $1.65 billion in Vietnam, $810 million in Colombia, and $660 million in Indonesia.

So, to ensure you buy truly ethical, sustainable coffee, the place of roasting should be a priority.

Having coffee roasters in the country of growth will make real change in coffee-growing nations. The economic boost will improve the lives of everyone there, not just the farmers.

Yes, it does mean paying more to ensure freshness. But honestly, even as massive coffee nerds, we would happily take slightly stale coffee in exchange for pumping billions of dollars back into the communities that need it the most. To us, that is truly ethical coffee purchasing.

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Matt Woodburn-Simmonds

Matt's coffee obsession started in 2006 when working as a Barista. A tendency to turn up to work hungover kickstarted his coffee journey which quickly turned into a love affair. As he moved on to work as a Restaurant Manager and Sommelier, the obsession continued to grow. Now, his passion is helping others to enjoy better coffee at home.

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