Frequently Asked Questions

The 4C Association

Why was the 4C Association established?

The coffee crisis of 2001-2002 resulted in a prolonged period of very low prices, which threatened the sustainability of coffee production generally and caused major hardship for coffee farming communities. 

Consequently, coffee farmers, trade and industry as well as civil society representatives realized the need to work together to address the main sustainability issues affecting the coffee sector. This was the main reason why, in 2003, various stakeholder groups initiated the Common Code for the Coffee Community project – later 4C Association.

Who governs the 4C Association?

The 4C Association is a global membership driven association representing stakeholders in the coffee sector. This includes coffee farmers (big and small), trade (importers and exporters), industry (coffee roasters and retailers) and civil society (non-governmental organisations and trade unions). Individuals, donors and other organisations can also join as associate members. These organisations work together to continuously improve the sustainability of coffee.

To find out more about our members please visit the members section.

Where does the 4C Association operate?

Globally! The Association has members all over the world – in coffee-producing countries as well as coffee-consuming countries. The 4C Association itself is registered as an independent membership organisation under Swiss Law with its headquarters in Bonn, Germany. 

The 4C Association also has four regional offices to support members and coordinate activities in these regions. They are located in Africa (Kampala, Uganda), Brazil (Campinas, Brazil), Asia (Buon Ma Thuot, Vietnam) and Central America (San Salvador, El Salvador).

How does the 4C Association finance its activities?

The 4C Association receives its core budget through membership fees. The fee payable is based on each member’s position in the coffee supply chain. The total volume of green coffee that they produce, trade or roast also plays a part in determining the fee - farmers pay the least. Non-governmental organisations, other members and associate members also contribute with a small membership fee.

The 4C Association has in the past received significant funding and support from donors including: the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) through the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the Flemish International Cooperation Agency (FICA) and Oxfam Novib (Netherlands).

Although members’ fees cover basic operational costs, increasing activities also require the need for increased financial support. For this reason the Association continually seeks additional funding.

The 4C Entry-level Standard

How to comply with the Code of Conduct?

Firstly, the farmers must exclude ten Unacceptable Practices:

  • The worst forms of child labour;
  • Bonded and forced labour;
  • Trafficking of people;
  • Prohibiting membership of, or representation by, trade unions;
  • Forced eviction without adequate compensation;
  • Failure to provide adequate housing for workers, where required;
  • Failure to provide potable water to all workers;
  • Cutting of primary forest areas or destruction of other forms of natural resources that are designated as protected areas by national and/or international legislation;
  • The use of pesticides banned under the Stockholm convention and listed in the Rotterdam Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
  • Immoral transactions in business relations according to international covenants, national law and practices.

Farmers must then measure their performance and progress against 28 principles. The Association’s criteria for measuring this progress are set out in an easy to understand traffic light system of red, yellow and green.

  • Red means “to be discontinued”
  • Yellow means “to be improved”
  • Green indicates that compliance has been achieved with the highest level of sustainability in the Code.

This system helps coffee farmers easily identify the areas where they are on track, and those which require more work and attention. It is a valuable guide on their journey towards sustainability

A list of all 28 principals is available for download here: the Illustrated Guide to the 4C Code of Conduct.

What is a 4C Unit?

The term 4C Unit refers to the producing groups that produce 4C Compliant Coffee. The 4C Unit is flexible in its set up. A 4C Unit can be a group of small-scale farmers who agree to register jointly, an already organised group such as a cooperative or a farmers’ association, a collecting station, a mill, a local trader, an export organisation, or even a roaster (as long as it is based in a country where coffee is produced).

Basically, there are only three prerequisites for establishing a 4C Unit:

  • Become a member of the 4C Association or belong to an existing 4C Member;
  • Be able to supply a minimum of one container of green coffee (20 tons);
  • Have a person or a group of people who can ensure the implementation of the 4C Code of Conduct. The 4C system calls this a Managing Entity.

For example if you are a producer with a production capacity of at least one container of green coffee, you can register yourself as a 4C Unit. If you produce less than that, you could join an established 4C Unit or establish a new 4C Unit with other small-scale farmers. Another possible scenario is that you are an exporter and decide to establish a 4C Unit with your suppliers.

Within a 4C Unit, any person in direct contact with the coffee is referred to as a Business Partner. A person or company that provides other services related to the production of the coffee and has direct contact with the cherries or the green coffee – a pesticides spraying company for example – is also considered a Business Partner. If you want to find out more about how to establish a 4C Unit, read the 4C Step by Step Guide.

What is 4C Compliant Coffee?

4C Compliant Coffee is not just any coffee. It has been produced according to the set of social, economic and environmental principles laid out in the 4C Code of Conduct.

4C Compliant Coffee is produced by farmers committed to do their best to minimize the use of pesticides, to protect the environment around their farms, provide decent working conditions for their workers, and much more. You can find out about all the requirements in the section the 4C Code in Images.

To date, over 300,000 farmers and 900,000 workers around the world work to comply with the 4C Code of Conduct. They even undergo third party verification to prove how successful they are in fulfilling the principles of the 4C Code. Click here to read some of their stories. You can also see a full list of all the producer groups (so called 4C Units) here.

Does the 4C Association offer fixed prices to producers?

No. The 4C system works in line with the regular market mechanisms of supply and demand. There is no fixed premium or fixed price for coffee supplied by verified 4C Units.

However, 4C Compliant Coffee is not just “any coffee,” it has an added value that derives from the fact that it has been produced, processed and traded applying baseline sustainability criteria. Buyers recognize this additional value and suppliers are in a better position to negotiate the price for their 4C Compliant Coffee.

Moreover, the 4C Association sustainability approach helps farmers to apply better agricultural, processing and management practices. This results in increased yields, improved quality and reduced costs for farmers, helping them to improve their incomes.

What are the traceability requirements for trading 4C Compliant Coffee?

Every actor along the 4C supply chain, starting from the 4C Unit up to the final buyer needs to pass on the license number of the 4C Unit along the supply chain, when trading 4C Compliant Coffee. This is done by including the license number or a copy of the license in the relevant documents (bill of lading, other shipping documents or contract). The license ensures traceability to the 4C Unit level. At the end of each coffee year, 4C Units and final buyers report the shipped and received volumes of 4C Compliant Coffee in what is known as Commercial Reporting.

Buyers should ALWAYS request a copy of the 4C License from their suppliers in order to make sure that it is still valid and corresponds to the 4C Unit they buy the 4C Compliant Coffee from. In case of doubts, they should always refer to the latest verification update or contact the 4C Secretariat.

Who can trade 4C Compliant Coffee?

In line with the membership concept of the 4C Association, only members can trade 4C Compliant Coffee. All actors along the supply chain of 4C Compliant Coffee have to be members of the 4C Association, from the 4C Unit up to the final 4C buyer. This is to preserve the identity of 4C Compliant Coffee and to enable final buyers to claim that their purchased coffee is 4C Compliant.
According to the Rules of Participation, 1.5, the following entities qualify as participants in the 4C Supply Chain:

  • Producers and groups/ organizations of producers supplying green coffee in excess of one full container load;
  • Post-harvest processing facilities (such as mills e.g.);
  • Intermediate Buyers including traders, exporters, importers and processors;
  • Final Buyers including roasters, soluble manufacturers, private label companies and retail companies with private labels and coffee bar chains;
  • Coffee Agents and Brokers.

4C Compliant Coffee can be sold to non-4C members at any time, but in that case it loses its status of 4C Compliant Coffee. Hence, if final buyers intend to claim and report the use of 4C Compliant Coffee, all actors in the respective supply chain have to be members of the 4C Association. Membership is evidenced by the membership certificate.

Can a 4C Unit sell UTZ or Rainforest Alliance certified coffee as 4C Compliant or the other way round?

Although a farmer may be able to offer different types of sustainable coffees, coffee can be sold only under ONE certificate or license. The 4C Association has however established multiple benchmarking agreements with various other sustainability standards.

What is the Commercial Reporting?

The commercial reporting is a key commitment of 4C members. Every year in October, 4C Units and final buyers report shipped and received volumes of 4C Compliant Coffee per coffee year (Oct – Sep). Intermediaries do not need to fill-in the commercial reporting form. 

To prepare for the commercial reporting, units need to register every shipment of 4C Compliant Coffee, and final buyers need to track their receptions of 4C Compliant Coffee consistently over the year.

The electronic commercial reporting form is accessible via the 4C Online Platform. To access the 4C Online Platform you need a login and password, provided by the 4C Secretariat. Please make sure to have your login data and all records of shipped / received volumes of 4C Compliant Coffee at hand for the Commercial Reporting. For a detailed instructions on the 4C Commercial Reporting please refer to the Commercial Reporting Procedure document.


If you have any additional questions regarding the 4C Entry-level Standard, please contact our Standards Manager.


Checking for compliance?

The 4C Association has developed an innovative and easily accessible verification system, which is credible, efficient and independent. The 4C Verification process starts with a self-assessment by the 4C Unit as well as a mapping of all business partners in the 4C Unit and an organizational chart of the Unit. This is the basis for a verification visit.

After these documents are completed and submitted to the 4C Secretariat, a third party verifier will visit the 4C Unit and verify its self-assessment. 

The verifier checks documents and procedures, carries out interviews and collects other evidence, as well as making random checks of 50% of the square root of all individual farmers and other partners involved in the business. 

The verification system helps the 4C Units and their partners identify areas for improvement. If the verification is positive, 4C Units receive a license to sell 4C Compliant Coffee.

Who does the verification?

Professional, independent third-party companies conduct 4C Verifications. These third party companies are accredited against ISO/Guide 65 or equivalent. Additionally, verifiers have to meet certain qualification criteria to work for the 4C Association. Verifiers must:

  • have inspection/ system auditing experience;
  • have background and experience in the coffee sector;
  • have successfully participated in 4C Verifier Training;

Check the list of 4C approved verifiers here.

What are the costs of 4C Verification?

There is no set price for the verification of a 4C Unit as these costs depend on different factors such as the daily rate of the verifier, traveling expenses, accommodation, per diem, traveling time etc. These factors also vary depending on the region and country in which the verification takes place. According to 4C Association’s experience, the average cost per external verification (audit) is approximately € 2,800.

Check the list of 4C approved verifiers here.

How often do verifications take place?

A 4C License based on the results and recommendations from independent third-party verifiers is valid for three years. After this period, a new verification visit will take place (re-verification). During the 3-year interim period, 4C Units must conduct self-assessments on a yearly basis and send their results to the 4C Secretariat. If they are expanding to include more farmers, 4C Units may be visited every year.

4C Units and verifiers agree the dates for the 4C verifications between themselves. The verifiers do not announce the names of the farmers and business partners they will visit in advance. Additionally, verifiers conduct unannounced random verification visits in different regions to ensure the credibility of the entire system.


If you have any additional questions regarding the 4C Entry-level Standard, please contact the Verification Department.

Cooperation with other standards

How does this benefit coffee producers?

Benchmarking means that holders of both the 4C License and the other standard’s certificate have full access to the growing market of 4C Compliant Coffee. This offers better marketing opportunities for producers who do not sell their entire production under a specific scheme. Benchmarking with other standards helps to reduce verification costs and efforts. Therefore, benchmarking is a milestone on the path towards sector-wide sustainability and clear improvements in farmers’ livelihoods.

For Consumers

There is a 4C label on my packet of coffee. What does it mean?

This is actually the 4C Membership Statement and not an “eco-label”. This Statement shows that the company selling that coffee is a member of the 4C Association and has committed to buy coffee from farmers producing coffee according to the economic, social, and environmental conditions laid out in the 4C Code of Conduct. This is what we call 4C Compliant Coffee.

The 4C Membership Statement is thus an important way for companies throughout the coffee supply chain to show their commitment to the 4C Association’s aims.

Incidentally, just because a package doesn't carry a 4C Membership Statement, it doesn't mean they are not a 4C Member. Some 4C Members choose not to display the 4C Membership Statement on their packaging. They communicate about their engagement with the 4C Association instead through their website or reports.

You can check the full list of 4C Members here.

Is 4C Compliant Coffee better quality?

Better agricultural practices may improve the quality of farmers' crops, but the 4C Association provides no guarantee for quality. The quality of 4C Compliant Coffee can range from any of various levels, from consumer grade to premium and specialty coffee.

What is the difference between 4C Compliant Coffee and coffee carrying another label (e.g.: Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance)?

When you buy a product with a 4C Membership Statement you can expect that the company selling that coffee is a member of the 4C Association and has committed to buy coffee from farmers producing coffee according to requirements laid out in the 4C Code of Conduct. This coffee has been verified as such by independent, third-party auditors and is referred to as 4C Compliant Coffee.

When a company which is a 4C Member uses 4C Compliant Coffee in its products, there are no limitations to how much of it they may include in a particular blend or product package. The product you hold in your hands may contain 4C Compliant Coffee, a percentage of it, or even none of it.

The 4C Association approach therefore differs from certification standards. These certify that all or a certain percentage of the ingredients in a particular product have been produced according to their standards. Take Fairtrade, for example. Those that use the Fairtrade seal on a coffee package must ensure that 100 percent of the product contents are Fairtrade certified. In a further example, a consumer can expect that a product carrying the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal contains at least 30 percent content certified as such.

The aim of the 4C Association is to increase overall purchases of sustainably produced coffee over time, independently of where it is used. Members are encouraged to purchase increasing amounts of 4C Compliant Coffee over time; as well as coffee from certification standards. The main ones of these, that is, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified are also 4C Members.

Where can I buy 4C Compliant Coffee?

If you are looking for 4C Compliant Coffee in a package or cup of coffee in your local coffee shop, you may have some difficulty. On joining the 4C Association a roaster commits to increase purchases of 4C Compliant Coffee over time. The roaster can then use the 4C Compliant Coffee that they purchase in any of its coffees, in whatever percentages are best suited to its product.

This approach gives roasters the flexibility to purchase from the origins they need, while also increasing purchases of sustainably produced coffee. So your package may contain100% 4C Compliant Coffee, but there is also the possibility that it doesn't contain any 4C Compliant Coffee at all.

Confusing? Think of the 4C concept as similar to the concept of countries dealing with green energy - When you sign up for green energy, the power company commits to generate an equivalent amount of electricity from renewable sources. You contribute to increasing the demand for renewable electricity in the overall supply – even if the electricity you receive in your house is not from renewable sources.

What are the primary sustainability problems in the coffee sector? Why are sustainability standards/initiatives necessary?

While many farmers have made tremendous strides in sustainability, the majority of farmers in the mainstream coffee sector still face significant challenges.


Coffee farmers, especially smallholders, can find that a combination of negative factors work together to keep the productivity and efficiency of their farms low. For instance, they lack access to technical training and modern farming technologies which could help them to increase productivity and the quality of their produce. Small coffee farmers are also generally unable to access financial help to invest on their farms. They may lack access to markets and commercial information which makes it difficult for them to market their coffee on the best possible terms, making them susceptible to having to sell their produce below market prices.


Lower quality and productivity results in lower net incomes, which directly affect the farmers' ability to provide education, medical services and other basic necessities to their families. It also precludes the development of smallholder coffee farmers' organizations. Workers on coffee farms are also affected by low-level working conditions, low wages, long working hours, limited health and safety conditions, and even the worst forms of child labour in some cases.


In an effort to increase productivity, farmers often rely on inappropriate use of agrochemicals (pesticides, fertilizers etc.) causing environmental damage. Over reliance on agrochemicals can create a vicious cycle leading to exhausted soils, which require even more inputs leading to soil erosion, water pollution and eventually the complete breakdown of a farming system. The mounting effects of climate change are also affecting coffee farmers who suffer from increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and problems with pests.

Where does the 4C Association fit with other coffee sustainability initiatives?

Over the last two decades, the sustainability standards movement has grown considerably and has resulted into the creation of different standards, each with its own unique characteristics. Some of the best known sustainability standards for coffee are Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified.

The 4C Association collaborates with these initiatives and complements the work they do. (In fact, UTZ Certified, Rainforest Alliance, and Fairtrade are members of the 4C Association).

These initiatives set advanced sustainability standards that farmers must comply with prior to receiving certification to sell their coffee under that label. The 4C Association however sets an entry-level sustainability standard with a focus on continuous improvement.

For small scale farmers who have little experience with certification standards, the 4C Entry-level Standard is therefore particularly useful. By using it as their first step towards sustainability, they can move on to achieve certification with other standards - we call this process 'Stepping Up'.

Cooperation with other sustainability standards have shown that the 4C Code of Conduct helps farmers take an important first step toward sustainability. The 4C Association, along with these other standards, are developing common training tools - from the 4C entry-level to more advanced standards.

Click here to read about the experience of cooperative Ciudad Barrios in El Salvador, An example of 'stepping up' from the 4C Entry-level Standard to achieve Rainforest Alliance Certification.

How does the 4C Entry-level Standard help to improve the income of coffee farmers?

It is important to note that coffee farmers' income is the result of many factors that affect net income. The final price that farmers receive for their coffee is just one of these. Other factors that have a direct influence on their incomes are:

  • The productivity of their farms (crop output/yields)
  • Quality of the crop (= higher or lower prices);
  • Pests and diseases;
  • The cost of inputs (such as fertilizers, chemicals and implements);
  • Labour costs for farm workers
  • Transport costs;
  • Cost to access pre-financing and/or credit services;

The 4C Association works to increase farmers' net income by looking at the factors beyond price. By assisting farmers to apply better agricultural and management practices, the 4C Association tackles several of the factors that influence net income.

By providing access to market information, tools and training, farmers benefit from:

  • Increased yields due to better agricultural practices and access to new technologies/planting material etc.
  • Improved quality through better harvesting, processing, drying and storing techniques.
  • Minimized/optimized use of approved pesticides and fertilizers by applying Integrated Pest Management strategies to mitigate environmental damage and decrease costs.
  • Better record keeping to identify greater efficiencies.
  • Enhanced organizational development and management capacities of farmer groups in order to improve service delivery.

Over time, by improving performance in each area farmers will not only improve net income, but also the long-term sustainability of their business. Read about the experience of coffee farmers working with Kyagalanyi in Eastern Uganda.

Why coffee? Will the 4C Association enter any other products?

The 4C Association is the global platform for sustainable coffee. It was founded by the global coffee community to address the main sustainability issues of the coffee sector in a non-competitive manner.

As a result, the 4C Association focuses exclusively on coffee. There are different platforms undertaking similar efforts for other commodities, for example, there is the Ethical Tea Partnership in the tea sector and the Better Cotton Initiative for cotton.