Sustainability Standards: More Complex For Coffee Than Wine

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Leading sustainability standards for coffee are truly international and used worldwide.

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

 Part I: Sustainability Standards For Coffee – With Hidden Agendas


The coffee sector looks up to the wine sector for several reasons – including the wine sector’s long and prestigious history, the sensory descriptions, the sophisticated branding with use of terms like terroir, and the (sometimes) high prices.

While the coffee sector can no doubt learn a lot from wine, there are also areas where the wine sector has reason to admire coffee – and sustainability standards is one of them.

Sustainability standards are in several ways more complex for coffee than for wine, especially in terms of developing the standards, training, compliance, and monitoring.

This is certainly not to say that it is easy for the wine community, but here are four of the reasons.

 1. Worldwide standards and national standards

The leading sustainability standards for coffee are used worldwide with conditions for all partners being the same, apart from a few deviations under special circumstances.

The most widely used standards (also called schemes or programmes) are Organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified, and the Global Coffee Platform with its 4C Code.

Comparable programs in wine are usually for one country or one region only. Among the many organizations and standards are Certified Sustainable by the Austrian Winegrowers’ Association, California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Sustainable Wine South Africa and Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand – just to mention a few.
These wine standards are all developed in-country and the participants have themselves decided on the rules. How high shall we set the bar?  The wine community also has the advantage of having all participants nearby or at least in the same state or country, and they usually speak the same language.

It should be said, though, that many of the wine standards lean on the ‘General Principles of Sustainable Vitiviniculture – Environmental – Social – Economic and Cultural Aspects’ from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), and the ‘Global Wine Sector Environmental Sustainability Principles’ set up by the International Federation of Wine and Spirits (FIVS).


Leading sustainability standards for coffee are truly international and used worldwide. Most standards for wine are national.


2. Long and complex value chain

The value chain in coffee is longer and more complex than in wine. As all parties in the chain have to participate in and comply with the standard this means that:

  1. Many producers (mostly smallholders) living in remote areas are involved
  2. Many stages of physical transformation need to be controlled
  3. Most of the partners (owners of the coffee) do not know each other
  4. The many partners in the chain from seed to final cup are far from each other – sometimes 10,000 km or more

As an example, it is a major task to assess, train, monitor and inspect a Ugandan cooperative’s five thousand smallholders who live in scattered locations and speak four different languages. The five thousand smallholders produce less than 1% of all coffee in Uganda and Uganda produces 2% only of the world’s coffee.

3. Geographical spread in blends

Most roasted coffees are blends prepared with input from different parts of the world. The blends may be based on coffees of two or five or more origins, which adds to the complexity. Wine may also be a blend, but usually with fewer varieties and the grapes come from the same estate or at least the same region.

This component of the complexity in the coffee chain has required Rainforest Alliance to sometimes have to indicate, for example, that 40% or more of this coffee is Rainforest Alliance certified. The statement may refer to one out of three coffees in a blend.

4. Participants’ education

Smallholder growers in Honduras, Rwanda, Indonesia and many other countries usually have less access to information and have had a shorter education than most grape-growers, winemakers and others in the wine business.

Some sustainability training in coffee is therefore set up with illustrations rather than written manuals. The 4C standard uses a red-yellow-green color code for compliance with various practices on the farms.

A Brazilian manual explains best practices on coffee farms in a series of cartoon-like illustrations without using one single word. The manual enables farmers with limited education to learn best practices. The illustrations are of general interest for all coffee farmers and not only for those who adhere to sustainability schemes.

Shown here is an example from the Brazilian manual’s two dozen best farm practices. The manual is produced with support from the Daterra coffee group and Fundação Educar DPaschoal:

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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@hotmail.com 

Learn more about sustainability in the coffee industry.

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