If you rely on labels for information about a product’s environmental impact and fair trade policies, you should know that certain claims on coffee packaging labels are essentially meaningless: Terms including “ethically/sustainably farmed,” “shade grown,” and “direct trade” lack any legal definition or industry standards. But you can rely on certain seals to indicate the conditions under which coffee was grown. Charlotte Vallaeys, Consumer Reports’ senior policy analyst and our top food labels expert, explains what some common labels mean. 

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1. USDA Organic

The term “organic” is strictly regulated by the Department of Agriculture. In the case of coffee farms, this seal means synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides that can be harmful to farmers and to wildlife are banned. The label also ensures that soil quality is protected.

2. Fairtrade

This seal indicates that the beans were sourced directly from small-scale farmers who were paid a fair price. The certification organization, Fairtrade International, sets a minimum price—enough to cover the costs of sustainable production—that must be paid directly to coffee producers. A premium added to the minimum price is distributed to coffee producers and must be invested in their communities or businesses.

3. Fair Trade Certified

Unlike Fairtrade, this label does not indicate that the coffee was purchased directly from small-scale farmers. The beans can be grown on large coffee plantations, but these farms have to meet certain standards, including protecting farmworkers from unsafe working conditions. Farms must also pay workers at least the local minimum wage and implement a plan to increase that to a living wage over time.

4. Bird Friendly Habitat

This seal certifies that the farm where the coffee was grown qualifies as a “bird friendly habitat” as defined by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. It means that coffee carrying this seal not only is organic but also was grown in an environment that protected biodiversity and maintained native trees so that the coffee farm could remain an important habitat for birds and other wildlife.

5. Rainforest Alliance Certified

This seal means that some or all of the coffee in the bag is sourced from farms that have met standards aimed at promoting sustainability and protecting farmers, forests, wildlife, and local communities. But Rainforest Alliance standards for minimizing pesticide use and incorporating native trees are not as stringent as those behind the Bird Friendly Habitat designation.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.