Organic coffee beans are coffee beans that have been produced without the use of pesticides or herbicides. This is both beneficial to both the producer and the consumer. However, non-organic coffee is typically higher yielding because it is not usually shade grown. The definition of certified organic coffee can be extended to include an emphasis on recycling, composting, soil health, and protection of the environment. These are important aspects to sustainability that are both cost effective and socially responsible. That is why organic fair trade coffee and organic shade grown coffee often go hand in hand.
The following definitions were kindly provided by the wonderful folks at Royal Coffee of New York.
Fair Trade Certification: Is an approach to sustainable development,
helping family farmers to gain directs access to international markets. Fair
Trade provides these families with the capacity to compete globally, receive
higher wages for their product, better living conditions and more opportunities
for future generations without depending on foreign aid.
Rainforest Alliance: The prime effort of the Rainforest Alliance is to conserve and sustain ecosystems by protecting soil, rivers, wildlife, and other organisms. The RA also requires dignified living conditions for farm workers and neighboring rural communities. The strict guidelines of the Rainforest Alliance overtime mold a farm into a sustainable, potentially long lasting ecosystem.
Smithsonian Bird Friendly: Is a certification that maps out broad shade management practices necessary for a coffee plantation to be considered sustainable. Because coffee is grown under diverse managements systems and climatic and ecological conditions the criteria is very general. The object of shade grown coffee is to provide and preserve a home for migratory and resident birds.
Another good source of information is coffeeresearch.org and ecomall.