Pardon the jargon: what do all those ‘eco’ terms really mean?

Sustainable? Organic? Carbon neutral? Ethical? Have you noticed how, lately, more and more brands are using these terms in their advertising? From Telstra to Australia Post, and of course too within the coffee industry.

But, what do each of those different terms really mean? Concepts like ‘sustainability’ (the ‘S’ word) are really complex and often used in marketing material too lightly.

Sustainable organic coffee

Inspired by our neighbours and ethical fashion advocates ‘Good On You’, we’ve put together this glossary of definitions to understand the different ‘green’ concepts and certifications.







The ability to exist constantly.

While it is used in many instances to define a process, business or product that has a degree of ethical consideration on it, we prefer to avoid using this word to define our operations or our coffees. Our view is similar to that of Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia: “Everything man does creates more harm than good. We have to accept that fact and not delude ourselves into thinking something is sustainable. Then you can try to achieve a situation where you’re causing the least amount of harm possible.”

We see sustainability as an aspiration, environmental, social and financially speaking.

Read more: Sustainability explained by Wikipedia.
Suggested article: Interview to Yvon Chouinard (Fast Company).
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Ethical consumerism

A type of consumer activism practised through the buying of products that support small scale manufacturers and local artisans, boycotting larger companies that are focused on growth and often produce under poor social and environmental standards. It is the choice of spending one’s money on transparent and value-driven organisations that care for workers, community and environment at the same level as financial profit.

This principle also applies to ethically made, ethical consumption, ethical sourcing, ethical development, etc.

When talking about our coffee or our business, we prefer to use the term ethical (similar to conscious, thoughtful or responsible) rather than sustainable.

Read more: Ethical consumerism explained by Wikipedia.
Suggested article: How to Be a More Conscious Consumer, Even If You’re on a Budget (New York Times).
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Circular economy

An economic system or process based on the continuous use of resources, also known as a closed-loop. This means choosing the right materials and processes, reusing, repairing, upcycling and recycling to minimise (and eventually eliminate) the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions.

While at Sample Coffee we don’t function yet as a total circular process, part of our operations do, and we are always looking at new ways to integrate this principle within more aspects of our business. Current circular systems are our Plastic Police coffee bag retrieval program, the consumer swap containers, the wholesale delivery tins and the use of coffee byproducts in local gardens.

Read more: Circular economy explained by Wikipedia.
Suggested article: Plastic Police: A circular economy solution for soft plastics.
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Carbon neutral

Companies (through their operations) and individuals (through our consumption and movements) generate carbon emissions. Carbon neutrality, or having a net-zero carbon footprint, is achieving net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG), either by balancing them with carbon offsetting and/or adopting practices that reduce or eliminate those.

An example of carbon offsetting could be investing in carbon projects like a forest that is planted and/or maintained for a number of years in order to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. An example of carbon reduction/elimination practices could be a vehicle swap to an electric engine, choosing to travel by pushbike or signing up with an energy supplier that uses renewable sources.

It is possible to achieve a carbon negative status when the practices and purchased offsets sequester more emissions than those generated.

Read more: Carbon neutrality explained by Wikipedia.
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The dishonest or untrue use of marketing or PR to present an organisation’s products, activities, or policies as environmentally friendly or socially responsible, intentional or unintentionally.

Green tokenism is a similar case, and it is the reference or adoption of eco terms without providing facts or information that backs those claims.

We believe that the best solution against greenwashing or green tokenism is to use a realistic discourse, offering concrete facts and stories that prove our statements. At the same time, it is as important to communicate our progress and challenges as it is to talk about successful milestones. In other words, more transparency.

Read more: Greenwashing as a marketing tool.
Suggested article: KeepCup busts compostable cup myths (Beanscene).
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In the business and humanities context, operating transparently means to perform actions and generate impact in a way that is easy for others to see. Transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability]. It may be performed total or partially.

A side of transparency in coffee is traceability; in generally refers to the availability of key details about a coffee, including the producers’ name, geographic origin and production lot properties.

Further from working with traceable coffees, we’ve been practising transparency in other aspects of our business, because coffee sourcing is only a part of the final product journey. We constantly share our milestones, challenges and progress through our social media, journal and annual impact reports. We also underwent through the B Corporation certification.

Read more: Transparency explained by Wikipedia.
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A sign of recognition by a third party, which holds an organisation accountable for the manufacturing of a product (or the performance of a service) while meeting some criteria. These are defined by each certifying body, which is also in charge of the audit process.

In the ethical consumerism world, these certifications relate to products or processes in regards to their environmental impact, workers’ protection, community stewardship, transparency or all of them. Some examples are Organic, Fairtrade, UTZ or B Corporation (learn more below at the CERTIFICATIONS section). These type of certifications are not compulsory, and the purpose to gain their endorsement may be to gain trust or access new global markets. The audit process, final recognition and membership rights generally involve an important fee and some degree of admin preparedness.

We believe that certifications are a great asset, but also understand that not everyone in the small business and coffee-producing scene can access them. This doesn’t mean that they are worse than a certified one. Transparency and trust can also be built through other channels like long-term relationships, meaningful storytelling and honest data-sharing.

Read more: Sustainability standards and certification explained by Wikipedia.
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Direct trade coffee

A coffee that has been purchased straight from the farmer/producer/cooperative, avoiding intermediate parties such as brokers, marketing agents and import/export companies.

While in the past we have attempted to buy direct some of our coffees, we’ve found that this purchasing model may not be suitable for us just yet. Travelling often to origin to be the first cupping and finding new coffees, building new and preserving existing relationships takes a great deal of effort, time and financial investment/risk. Our business size and model requires relatively small lot purchases from different origins; therefore, at this point in time, we’ve chosen to work closely with coffee importers we trust and respect.

One of the coffee roasters that we look up to for their direct trade practices is Coffee Collective.

Suggested article: The opportunities and challenges of direct trade coffee (Imbibe).
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Traceable coffee

A coffee that can be traced back and attributed to a producer (either an individual or an organisation/cooperative), knowing the geographical area where it has been harvested and processed and specific qualities of the fruit/bean.

For example, all the coffees we buy, including those used in our blends, are traceable and you can find stories and key details for each at Further metrics like purchase size, cupping score, etc. are summarised and shared through our annual impact reports.

Suggested article: Why is Traceability Important to the Global Coffee Market? (SCA News).
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Organic coffee

A coffee that has been produced without the use of pesticides or herbicides, sometimes including processes that place an emphasis on recycling, composting, soil health, and protection of the environment.

In some countries, the commercial use of the term organic is legally restricted to those products that successfully go through a certification process (see certified organic coffee). Those products that *may be organic but don’t hold any certification are also known as passive organic.

For example, many Ethiopian coffees grow naturally in the wild native forest, then picked by and taken to a cooperative or processing station. It is likely that, because of these growing conditions, many of these are organic. However, we generally avoid using the term since we can’t be fully certain.

Suggested article: The Power of Organic Coffee (SCA News).
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Shade-grown coffee

A coffee that has grown in a coffee tree total or partially beneath a primary tree canopy. This canopy can be intentionally created (see also Bird Friendly Coffee) or part of the existing, native forests (also known as rustic shade.

Shade-grown is not a certification nor there are standards or minimum criteria, unlike for Rainforest Alliance or Bird Friendly coffee.

Read more: Shade-grown coffee explained by Wikipedia.
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Certified organic coffee

A coffee or coffee production process that has been audited and successfully recognised as organic by an official certifying organisation or third party. The requirements vary from country to country, and the process may be overseen by the government in some cases.

While the criteria are different, certified organic coffees are generally accountable for avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers throughout the harvest.

Organic certified coffees generally include the official logo or stamp of each body. Examples are ‘Australian Certified Organic’ (Australia), ‘European Union’ (ditto), ‘Agriculture Biologique’ (France), ‘USDA Organic’ (US), or ‘Bio’ (Germany).

Read more: Organic certification explained by Wikipedia.
*Suggested article: The Power of Organic Coffee (SCA News).

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Fairtrade or Fair Trade Certified coffee

A coffee that has been produced to Fair Trade standards, defined by a fair trade organisation.

Their mission is to reduce poverty and facilitate access to global markets, “paying producers an above-market “fair trade” price provided they meet specific labor, environmental, and production standards”.

While the intention seems beneficial for both consumers and producers, there has been a heap of discussion around the effectiveness of the current Fair Trade model and whether it has a future within the ethical coffee journey.

Read more: Fair Trade Australia.
*Suggested article: The problem with fair trade coffee).

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Bird Friendly coffee

(or Certified Organic Shade Grown coffee) A certification for coffees that grow in conditions that protect and enhance the habitat of birds by ensuring a variety of trees are preserved or planted within a coffee farm lot. This certification was created by The Migratory Bird Center of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and only granted to coffees that also gain organic certification.

Why preserving trees and birds is important? Coffee grows extremely well in sunny conditions. With the purpose of increasing the quality and yield, there has been a trend of producers clearing up rainforest native trees at scale, thus having a huge impact on the habits and population of local and migratory birds.

Read more: the Smithsonian’s National Zoo Site.
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Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Alliance is a nonprofit that partners with the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), which sets farming standards, “to conserve biodiversity by promoting sustainability”.

These standards limit deforestation and natural vegetation clearing, the modification of water sources and also prohibit activities such as trafficking in wild animals, destruction of ecosystems, dumping untreated wastewater, and other harmful practices.

Read more: Rainforest Alliance Site.
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UTZ or UTZ certified coffee

The UTZ certification covers compliance on good agricultural practices, social and living conditions, farm management, and the environment. These standards are defined by them and “guided by the principles of fairness and transparency”.

UTZ merged with Rainforest Alliance in January 2018, but they are 2 separate certifications and standards.

Read more: UTZ Site.
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B Corporation

Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.

The companies which undergo this certification need to implement, measure and demonstrate their performance and positive impact in terms of governance, workers, community, environment and customers. While it is not a legal requirement or structure (such as the Benefit Corporation) or it may not be the final answer, it provides a great framework to introduce actionable changes towards a more generous way of doing business.

Read more: B Corporation Site.
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Is there a term that you can’t find here? Something’s not quite right? Do you have additional information or comments? Email Us.


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