Is Rainforest Alliance Coffee Better Than Fair Trade Coffee?

There has been a lot of commotion with regards to coffee origins. Coffee lovers have become more conscious about the type of coffee they drink. As a result, coffee comes with different names, labels and certifications such as organic, natural, eco, and green, to bird-friendly, reef-safe, and cruelty-free, with additional certifications from the Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade International, Fair Trade USA, FSC, MSC and more!

Is your coffee brand certified by the Rainforest Alliance? Let’s find out more about Rainforest Alliance and how it differs from Fair Trade coffee. Which one is better?

The Rainforest Alliance Certified Seal

The Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization based in New York. Its mission is to conserve biodiversity by promoting sustainability in agriculture, forestry, tourism and other businesses. The Rainforest Alliance certifies coffee, as well as other products and services, when it is produced under certain standards.

When you see a green frog certification seal, it indicates that the coffee you are drinking is Rainforest Alliance certified.

Why use a frog? Frogs are known indicator species. The presence or absence of frogs in an area is a good indicator of environmental health. Frogs are found on every continent except Antarctica.

This green frog certification seal shows that a coffee farm has met the standards set by the alliance with regards to environmental, social, and economic sustainability.

How can coffee farms get the green frog seal?

Rainforest Alliance vs Fair Trade CoffeeIn order to become certified, farms must meet criteria set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), a coalition of leading conservation groups that work to promote sustainability agriculture.

The SAN standard encompasses all three pillars of sustainability—social, economic, and environmental. Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms are audited regularly to verify that farmers are complying with the SAN standard’s comprehensive guidelines, which require continual improvement on the journey to sustainable agriculture.

The SAN standard is built on these important principles of sustainable farming:

  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Improved livelihoods and human well-being
  • Natural resource conservation
  • Effective planning and farm management systems

Aside from maintaining a sustainable environment, coffee farms with the Rainforest Alliance seal also follow strict labor standards. According to Ethical Coffee, SAN standards generally follow United Nations and International Labor Organization recommendations. Farms must observe and implement local laws in terms of minimum wages and maximum work weeks and workers have the right to organize. Children under 15 cannot be hired and those under 18 must have parental permission. Work should not prevent them from attending school. Children are not supposed to operate machinery or work in dangerous locations. Such labor standards ensure that local people working in the farms live decent and sustainable lives.

Here are some coffee brands that are Rainforest Alliance certified:

  • Grumpy Mule Coffee
  • Swit & Dorla’s
  • Royal Cup
  • Kroger
  • McDonald’s
  • Art Coffee
  • Hurricane Café
  • Gold County Roasters
  • Shropshire Coffee
  • Kaslo’s Bean Roasting
  • Pilot Coffee Roasters
  • Toby’s Estate
  • Allegro Coffee
  • UCC Coffee
  • Narita Coffee
  • Hills Bros. Coffee
  • Windward Specialty Coffees
  • Café Depot
  • Bold Bean
  • Timothy’s
  • Transcend
  • Alakef
  • Silvestre
  • Humboldt Bay
  • Coffee Labs
  • Night Owl
  • Torke
  • Green Bean Coffee
  • Atomic Coffee
  • The Coffee Scoop

This is just partial. For a complete list, click here to know more.

What is Fair Trade coffee?

According to Fairtrade International, the international association of fair trade organizations, fair trade strives to support farmers to earn a dignified living from the coffee they produce. In addition, fair trade farmers are encouraged to diversify their sources of income, involve the next generation in the coffee business to assure the industry’s future, establish long-term relationships with traders, and to pursue their right to a fair share of the global coffee industry.

Fair trade also considers how coffee farming affects the environment and how farmers benefit from the industry. According to Ethical Coffee, fair trade standards encourage sustainable agriculture practices, but farmers do have some leeway. Most fair trade coffee is also certified organic, for example, but agrochemicals can be used by those not certified as organic. Farmers must also follow sustainable practices for disposing of hazardous and organic wastes, maintain buffer zones around bodies of water, minimize water use, and avoid erosion to conserve the soil.

The very basis for establishing fair trade is to set a minimum price for coffee. A guaranteed price keeps small farmers in business. It enables more families who rely on coffee farming to benefit from the sales of coffee beans.

In essence, coffee farmers under fair trade can submit their harvested coffee beans to a cooperative. The cooperative pays the farmer based on the fair trade price standard. This process protects the farmer in case of coffee price changes, weather problems, agricultural problems and even natural disasters.

Fair trade coffee facts

  • There are 812,500 small-scale coffee farmers organized in 445 producer cooperatives
  • Coffee farmers from 30 countries produce fair trade coffee
  • 80 percent of fair trade coffee are from South America (Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Nicaragua and Costa Rica)
  • Fair trade coffee farmers harvest mostly Arabica (milder but more expensive) and Robusta (stronger but less expensive) coffee beans

If you are wondering what coffee brands are fair trade coffee, here is a sample list:

  • Cafédirect – Ethics | Fair trade, re-invest ⅓ of profits, Location: London, UK
  • Equal Exchange – Ethics | Worker owned, fair trade, Location: St. Paul, MN
  • Higher Ground Roasters: Ethics | Fair trade, organic, shade-grown, Location: Leeds, AL
  • Grumpy Mule: Ethics | Fair trade, Rainforest Alliance, organic, Location: London, UK
  • DOMA: Ethics | Fair trade, organic, Location: Post Falls, ID
  • Stumptown Roasters: Ethics | Fair trade, organic, Location: Portland, OR
  • Rise Up Coffee Roasters: Ethics | Fair trade, organic, Location: Easton, MD
  • Pura Vida Coffee: Ethics | Fair trade, organic, shade-grown, Location: Tukwila, WA
  • Larry’s Beans: Ethics | Fair trade, organic, shade-grown, B Corporation, Location: Raleigh, NC
  • Café Mam: Ethics | Fair trade, organic, shade-grown, Location: Eugene, OR
  • Allegro Coffee Ethics | Fair trade, Rainforest Alliance organic, Location: Thornton, CO
  • Conscious Coffees: Ethics | Fair trade, organic, B Corporation, Location: Boulder, CO
  • Salt Spring Coffee: Ethics | Fair For Life, B Corporation, 1% for planet, Location: Richmond, British Columbia
  • Kickapoo Coffee: Ethics | Fair trade, organic, Location: Milwaukee, WI

Which is better: Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade?

Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade are both types of certifications. Both follow standards and regulations to ensure that coffee quality is maintained across coffee farms.

Under Rainforest Alliance, the main focus is environment sustainability and fair labor. The alliance ensures that coffee farmers follow sustainable environment standards.

Fair Trade coffee focuses on pricing standards and ensures that coffee farmers get their fair share in the overall coffee sales. At the same time, fair trade organizations provide a pool of funds that coffee farmers can access through its cooperatives.

Both certifications come with a price, but Rainforest Alliance requires a higher participation fee. This is offset by a higher-priced coffee.

In terms of taste, patrons of Rainforest Alliance certified coffee attest that its coffee brands taste better. They say that coffee is “organic” because coffee farmers rarely use pesticide. Since Rainforest Alliance follows a strict environmental guideline, coffee farms are well-kept and maintained, ensuring that coffee beans are at their best all the time.

Fair trade, on the other hand, is mostly composed of Arabica and Robusta coffee beans. There are also brands that sell organic coffee.

There are some brands that are both Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certified, but that does not mean that these brands are always better than the others.

I guess in terms of taste, both certifications ensure that coffee beans are of the best quality so these can yield optimum ground coffee beans, the very heart of any coffee drink.

But if you will dive into the ethical issues that surround coffee, each one of us will have a different moral judgment. If you are staunch environmentalist, then Rainforest Alliance will appeal to you. If you are human rights advocate, the Fair Trade certification might be your preference.

The choice is yours.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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