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Tea and Coffee Certification Schemes 

Josie Wexler compares different certification schemes in the coffee and tea industries to see which ones we can trust.

At a global level, about 17% of tea is certified Fairtrade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance, or Utz, and about 25% of coffee is certified by these or similar schemes.

Fairtrade

Fair trade isn’t a protected term (unlike e.g. organic) so you have to be careful – those certified by the Fairtrade International standard will be written as a single capitalised word and carry the symbol that looks a bit like the yin/yang.

Image: Fairtrade logo

This standard is unique for its focus on pricing. Some of the reason for that is historical – it was stepping into the void left by the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989. The agreement had regulated how much coffee each country was allowed to export, stabilising prices and keeping them reasonably high. It was partly a product of the cold war: the US was frightened that Latin American coffee producers would turn to communism if they were too immiserated by low, volatile coffee prices. Its collapse led to a huge drop in coffee prices which threw many coffee farmers into poverty.

Volatile prices are very destructive for poor farmers, as it means they cannot know when planting crops what the price will be at harvest, and they cannot insure themselves against risk like bigger players. Fairtrade thus has a minimum price that must be paid when the market price falls below it, as a safety net. It also has a fixed premium that must be paid on top of the market price.

To complement this, regulations were added. To get certified, a producer must show that it is meeting certain social and environmental standards. It can then attempt to sell its produce at the Fairtrade price, if it can find a buyer.

That last point is a bit of a snag, however, and a common cause of confusion. Being certified Fairtrade does not mean that producers are selling their produce as Fairtrade. Certified tea producers on average only manage to sell around 7% of their tea on Fairtrade terms. The average across all products is about 40% for small farmer organisations, and 20% for estates. This has generated criticism, because producers need to recoup the certification cost and, in the worst cases, failure to sell much at the Fairtrade price may eliminate any benefit they get from being certified.

Fairtrade certifies both estates and cooperatives of small farmers, although ‘cooperatives’ does not necessarily mean small. The Fintea Growers Co-operative Union, for example, a tea growing coop in Kenya, has over 12,000 farmer members.

The Fairtrade premiums are currently set at US $0.50/kg tea, and $0.20/lb coffee. The market prices, meanwhile, are at around $2.60/kg tea, and $2/lb coffee. So currently the tea premium is around an extra fifth on top of the market price, and the coffee premium about a tenth.

The coffee price fluctuates more wildly that the tea one and has much more frequently gone below the Fairtrade minimum price. The premium is to be spent on community projects and, in the case of coops, how it is spent is supposed to be decided democratically.

Rainforest Alliance (and Utz)

Rainforest Alliance is a more modern certification scheme which is now much bigger than Fairtrade and in the last few years has absorbed UTZ, another similar scheme.

Logos: Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Alliance is purely focused on policing production and doesn’t have any fixed pricing structures, with the single exception of cocoa. However, guaranteeing higher standards, if it works, should naturally cause prices to rise, since the improvements inevitably have to be paid for.

However, any scheme that relies on policing alone is dependent on being able to pull it off. And many studies have cast doubt on how rigorous the policing of all these schemes really is.

Thus we consider Rainforest Alliance to be a weaker scheme and reward it with only half a mark, while Fairtrade certification gets a full mark.

Fair for Life

Logo: Fair For Life

Fair for Life was launched in Switzerland in 2006. It has received praise for its comprehensive social and environmental requirements, it certifies the whole company group, rather than single brands, and it also certifies producers and manufacturers in developed countries, which Fairtrade does not. And it is very transparent, publishing a summary of all of its assessments on its website.

However, it is like Rainforest Alliance in that it doesn’t have fixed prices. It does have a premium and a minimum price, but they are negotiated between buyer and seller. It says that the premium is typically 10% on top of the market price.

Organic

Logo: Soil Association

For a crop to be marketed as organic in Europe, it must be grown using organic production methods according to European legislation, which prioritise techniques such as crop rotation, biological crop protection, green manuring and composting, and it cannot use manufactured pesticides or fertilisers. The growing and processing sites are audited at least once a year.

The Soil Association standard does also contain a few lines on workers’ rights, saying that the employer should adhere to the core standards of the International Labour Organisation, although this isn’t the focus.

While Indian tea tends to be grown with a lot of pesticides, all Kenyan tea is basically pesticide free because the high altitude and the strains used inhibit pests naturally.

Logo of Ethical Tea Partnership

The Ethical Tea Partnership

The Ethical Tea Partnership is an industry group that was set up in 1997. It used to work as a certification scheme and conduct audits, but it has, in recent years, shifted direction and instead says that it aims to “tackle complex deep-rooted issues that cannot be addressed sufficiently through certification alone”.

Its members include Unilever, Typhoo, Tetley, Twinings, Taylors of Harrogate, Lavazza, Douwe Egberts, Starbucks, Teapigs, Whittard, and Yogi.

Direct trade

Direct trade is a term used for the purchase of higher quality, specialist produce through long-term relationships with producers, rather than buying indirectly from traders. However, there is no agreed definition.

It is rarer in tea than coffee as the variability of the tea crop means that buyers want to vary blends to keep a constant taste. In order for it to be convincing though, it really should name the producers they trade with.

The arguments in favour of direct trade are that long-term relationships with buyers give producers security, and that producing higher quality crops can benefit the local community through the need to take on extra labourers and to treat them reasonably to get good work.

Direct trade claims are not normally externally certified, although Fairtrade and organic products can be ‘directly traded’ too.

Logo of Bird Friendly Habitat certification - by the Smithsonian. Outline of two birds over canopy of trees.

Bird Friendly

Bird Friendly is a certification created by the Smithsonian in the US, an institution created by the US government in the 19th century.

Bird Friendly coffees are organic and shade-grown, meaning the coffee is planted under a canopy of trees, rather than grown on full sun monocultures which generally give higher yields and are easier and cheaper for farmers, but exert a heavy cost on biodiversity.

For more on how shade-grown works, see our coffee guide.

Cartoon drawing of fat man in suit holding oversized Starbucks takeaway cup and pouring contents into his mouth, with some drops falling on miniature people below.
Cartoon by Mike Bryson for ECRA

Starbucks C.A.F.E.Practices

Starbucks has its own, in-house coffee label, called C.A.F.E. Practices (Coffee And Farmer Equity Practices). It is similar to Rainforest Alliance in that it just polices production, there is no price regulation, although it claims to pay premium prices for premium produce.

The scheme has been criticised. In particular, slave labour has been found on Brazilian plantations ‘certified’ to Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices standards in the past few years.

There is an argument that in-house labels are confusing for consumers – you would expect a label to indicate independent assurance, not to just be a company’s own corporate responsibility scheme. Having endless labels also devalues the concept and doesn’t allow for much rigorous analysis of each one. The best place to hide a bad pebble is on a beach.

How good are any of these schemes?

There is nowadays a pretty broad consensus that, as the Coffee Barometer put it: “the results of academic studies indicate that the implementation of VSS [Voluntary Sustainability Standards] is not an adequate solution to improving the incomes and livelihoods of smallholder farmers.”

However, criticism generally comes with the qualification that standards like Fairtrade do do something. We therefore still recommend looking out for the best Fairtrade brands (see our guides), but bearing in mind that the job isn’t done.