Pt. I: Sustainability Standards For Coffee – With Hidden Agendas

Farmer with hat looking the coffee plantation field

Changing from conventional to more sustainable practices

By Morten Scholer, former UN advisor and author of the recent book Coffee and Wine: Two Worlds Compared 

The following post is first in a two-part series 


Almost half of all coffee is produced under one of the recognized sustainability standards. That’s 70 million bags, or four million metric tons.

However, only around a third of sustainably recognized coffee is eventually traded and labelled as sustainable – a discrepancy that is being addressed by all parties involved in attempts to reduce the gap.

The leading consumer-facing sustainability standards for coffee are Organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and UTZ Certified.

Each of these standards accounts for an estimated 2 to 4% of the world’s traded coffee. (Some coffees are double-certified or even triple-certified, so the percentages cannot just be added up.)

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Coffee sun-drying in Honduras. Credit: Sean Hawkey, Fairtrade 

Coffee complying with the 4C Code makes up 7% of the world’s traded coffee. The 4C Code is an ‘entry-level’ code aimed at business-to-business supply-chain transactions so there is no 4C Code label on the coffee packs purchased by the end consumer. The standard was originally developed by the 4C Association in Germany, and is now operated by the Global Coffee Platform and the Coffee Assurance Services.

Nespresso’s AAA, Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices and Keurig Green Mountain’s Responsible Sourcing Guidelines are private label in-house standards. They have self-established criteria that are published and members are verified by third parties. These in-house standards are in many ways comparable with those of Rainforest Alliance and UTZ, and in addition also include criteria for the quality of the coffee.

Starbucks’s C.A.F.E. Practices (Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices) were set up in 2003 with support from Conservation International and Scientific Certification Systems. Close to 100% of Starbucks’ coffee complies with the standard. The coffee farms are inspected by SCS Global Service, using a 200-point scale. Some of Starbucks’ coffees are also certified Organic, Fairtrade, or Rainforest Alliance.

This table is an overview of the leading sustainability standards for coffee. It is a bit simplistic, but for comparison at a glance it may be useful:

Leading Sustainability Standards For Coffee


Changing from conventional to more sustainable practices has great merit.

In some cases, the most important values in such coffee standards turn out to be the learning by doing and the bookkeeping of new routines – combined with the guidance and inspections that come with these.

Here are two examples:

1. Increased productivity.

Adopting a methodical approach and good bookkeeping forces the producers to be aware of their practices, which again leads to improvements.

Changing old habits and registering new routines often result in higher productivity although this is not so much the case for organic farming where the yield often drops – at least in the initial years.

Based on new habits the productivity (bags per hectare) will often increase after a few years. And that may even be with reduced inputs in the form of land allocated, time spent and fertilizers used, and without compromising on quality.

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Coffee farmers in Uganda at farmer field school. Photo: UTZ

2. Traceability and transparency give answers to the question Who did what, where and when?

Traceability is the ability to verify the history of a product by means of documents or other recording of hard data.

Transparency is the ability to see through a collaborative trail or process – getting answers to sometimes delicate questions in an open and honest way.

Coffee trading houses, roasters and retail chains ask many questions when they source their coffee, enabling them to provide convincing answers to roasters, retailers, end consumers, journalists or whoever may ask. Sustainability-certified or verified coffees are fairly ‘traceable and transparent,’ and some buyers search for them for that reason – sometimes more than for the actual sustainability status and the seal that may come with it.

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These observations were made by me during implementation of sustainability programs, primarily in Africa. Such explanations came from both cadres in cooperatives and international buyers of green beans at origin – in some cases with an undertone of ‘Let me tell you the real reason why we like this sustainability standard.’ And that’s fine – so we should maybe talk about ‘supplementary agendas’ rather than ‘hidden agendas’.

Stay tuned next week for Pt. II: Coffee sustainability standards –  more complex for coffee than for wine


Morten Scholer was a senior adviser on coffee trade issues at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland for fourteen years (1999-2013). He was co-author and coordinator of ITC/UN’s extensive The Coffee Exporter’s Guide.  Morten’s new 330-page book Coffee and Wine: Two Worlds Compared is a technical juxtaposition of the two products and the two sectors. The book was published in October 2018 by Troubador Publishing Ltd. Morten can be contacted at mortenscholer at hotmail.com.

Visit the NCA Sustainability Showcase for more examples of the work coffee companies are doing at origin

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