|Headquarters||New York City|
The Rainforest Alliance is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) based in New York City and Amsterdam, with operations in more than 60 countries. It was founded in 1987 by Daniel Katz, an American environmental activist, who serves as the Chair of the board of directors. Its main work is the provision of an environmental certification for sustainability in forestry, agriculture, and tourism. Its certificate seal gives information to consumers about business practices, based on certain standards they set.
They are a product-oriented multistakeholder governance group combining the interests of companies, farmers, foresters, communities, and consumers to produce sustainable and harmonious goods and services.
Merger with UTZ
In June 2017, the Rainforest Alliance and UTZ announced the intention to merge, and in January 2018 the merger was legally closed and completed. The organizations merged in recognition of their similar work to address deforestation, climate change, systemic poverty, and social inequity. The merged organization, going by the name the Rainforest Alliance, points to the increased size and strength of their combined expertise to achieve a scale of impact necessary to meet these challenges effectively.
The Rainforest Alliance's work continues in Latin America, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.
The new Rainforest Alliance plans to release a new certification standard in 2019, building upon the existing Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard and the UTZ Certification Standard. Releasing one standard will help the 182,000 cocoa, coffee, and tea farmers currently certified under both standards, avoiding a double administrative load of working with two standards and certification systems. The UTZ and Rainforest Alliance certification programs are running separately and in parallel until the publication of the new program in 2020.
Rainforest Alliance programs
Sustainable forestry certification
The Rainforest Alliance launched the world’s first sustainable forestry certification program in 1989 to encourage market-driven and environmentally and socially responsible management of forests, tree farms, and forest resources. As of October 1, 2018, the Rainforest Alliance transitioned its certification business, including all related services, personnel and clients, to Nature Economy and People Connected (NEPCon), a non-profit organization based in Copenhagen, Denmark, with a global network. NEPCon has been a member of the FSC since 1996.
Sustainable agriculture certification
The Rainforest Alliance's sustainable agriculture program includes training programs for farmers and the certification of small, medium and large farms that produce more than 100 different crops, including avocado, cattle, cinnamon, coffee, palm oil, and potatoes, as well as tea, cocoa, and bananas. In recent years, the Rainforest Alliance has greatly expanded its work with smallholders, who now account for 75% of the farms (more than 783,000 farmers in all) certified by the organization. To obtain certification, farms must meet the Sustainable Agriculture Standard, which is designed to conserve ecosystems, protect biodiversity and waterways, conserve forests, reduce agrochemical use, and safeguard the well-being of workers and local communities. The Rainforest Alliance encourages businesses and consumers to support sustainable agriculture by sourcing or choosing products grown on certified farms. More than 7 million hectares of farmland—are being managed sustainably under Rainforest Alliance certification, as of 2018.
Crop standards and criteria
The organization requires that 50% of criteria under a certain principle (group of criteria) be achieved, and 80% overall. Several of these criteria are "critical" and must be complied with for a farm to earn certification. They include an ecosystem conservation program, protection of wild animals and waterways, the prohibition of discrimination in work and hiring practices, the prohibition of contracting children under the age of 15, the use of protective gear for workers, guidelines about agrochemical use and the prohibition of transgenic crops.
Rainforest Alliance Certified Seal
The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal appears only on products that meet the crop standards and criteria detailed above. According to Consumer Reports, "The Rainforest Alliance Certified label is clear and meaningful in support of sustainable agriculture, social responsibility and integrated pest management. The label is consistent in meaning among all certified. The label does not consist of farmers and none of the members are certified by the Rainforest Alliance. In this sense, the organizations behind these labels are independent from the products they certify." In February 2008, Ethical Corporation called Rainforest Alliance certification a "rigorous, independently verified scheme". As of 2015[update], more than 4,300 companies buy or sell products from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms, and the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal can be seen in more than 120 countries. As of June 2015[update], 13.6 percent of the world’s cocoa and 15.1 percent of tea comes from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms. As of 2017[update], 5.7 percent of the world's coffee comes from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms.
The Rainforest Alliance was a pioneer in third-party sustainable tourism recognition, working with hotels, inbound and outbound tour operators, and other tourism businesses to help them improve their environmental, social, and economic practices. As of October 1, 2018, NEPCon assumed management of the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Tourism Standards for Hotel and Lodging Services and Inbound Tour Operators. These standards include all elements of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) Criteria for Hotels and Tour Operators.
Rainforest Alliance 2020 Certification Program
Rainforest Alliance (RFA) certification has been extended in recent years to products such as pineapples, coffee, cocoa, bananas, tea and palm oil, among others. The presence of the seal in these products has become an added value in the commercial arena. Especially for retail groups, the seal represents a differential that distinguishes and certifies that the crop in question has been produced in a sustainable way, meeting specific requirements. Voluntary certification schemes as this one aim at rewarding those producers and farmers who make the effort of putting into place better agricultural practices so as to obtain the certification. However, in practice the producers are not always retributed for their efforts.
In order to obtain the Rainforest Alliance seal, compliance with certain environmental criteria is required. Like this, farms that want to qualify for certification are regularly audited in order to check compliance. These requirements are included in the organization's Certification Program. In June 2020, the certifier updated this Program, presenting its New Sustainability Standards. The new program includes new features with respect to the previous one, asking for more demanding requirements in environmental and social terms. In addition, the Standard is composed of two main elements: a document listing the Farm Requirements, and another one containing the Supply Chain Requirements.
The new Rainforest Alliance standard features innovation in nine areas: climate-smart agriculture, deforestation, conserving biodiversity, assessments, shared responsibility, human rights, living wage, continuous improvement, living income, risk-based assurance and gender equality.
Criticism and response
Minimum price issues
Rainforest Alliance sustainable agriculture certification, like the certification schemes UTZ Certified and organic, does not offer producers minimum or guaranteed price, therefore leaving them vulnerable to market price variations. For example, in the 1980s, a pound of standard-grade coffee sold for around US $1.20; in 2003, however, a pound sold for about $0.50, which was not enough to cover the costs of production in much of the world. The price of coffee has since rebounded somewhat, with prices for arabica reaching $1.18/pound by the end of 2007.
Although many Rainforest Alliance Certified farms do in fact achieve price premiums for high-quality produce, Rainforest Alliance focuses on improving the entire spectrum of farming practices. Third-party studies have shown the organization’s approach to be effective in raising both income and net revenue for farmers.
Michigan State University professor of sociology Daniel Jaffee has criticized Rainforest Alliance certification, claiming that its standards are "arguably far lower than fair trade's [sic]" and saying "they establish minimum housing and sanitary conditions but do not stipulate a minimum price for coffee. Critically, they require plantation owners only to pay laborers the national minimum wage, a notoriously inadequate standard."
The Economist favors the Rainforest Alliance's method and notes that "guaranteeing a minimum price [as Fairtrade does] means there is no incentive to improve quality." They also note that coffee drinkers say "the quality of Fairtrade brews varies widely. The Rainforest Alliance does things differently. It does not guarantee a minimum price or offer a premium but provides training advice. That consumers are often willing to pay more for a product with the [Rainforest Alliance] logo on it is an added bonus, not the result of a formal subsidy scheme; such products must still fend for themselves in the marketplace."
Use of seal
The organization certification has been criticized for allowing the use of the seal on products containing a minimum of 30% of certified content. According to Michael Conroy, former chairman of the board for Fair Trade USA, this use of the seal is the "most damaging dimension" of Rainforest Alliance's agricultural certification program and "a serious blow to the integrity of certification".
Lawsuit filed against Rainforest Alliance
An article in The Guardian reported that the US nonprofit Water and Sanitation Health (WASH) filed a lawsuit against Rainforest Alliance in 2014 alleging that Rainforest Alliance was responsible for unfair marketing because it certified Chiquita banana suppliers as sustainable when they were "contaminating drinking water with fertilizers and fungicides and have air-dropped pesticides perilously close to schools and homes" in Guatemala, raising the issue that Rainforest Alliance was facilitating greenwashing by companies making environmental claims. In the same article Rainforest Alliance called WASH’s allegations untrue and said it stands by its auditing practices and also objected to the lawsuit’s charges that the alliance sells its endorsement. The nonprofit Truth in Advertising also reported that WASH was suing Rainforest Alliance for allegedly misrepresenting how earth-friendly its certified products actually are.
Costa Rican pineapples
A report in 2020 by The Guardian alleged that some Costa Rica pineapple growers certified by the scheme were exploiting their labour force, using illegal agrochemicals, and concealing hundreds of undocumented workers from auditors. The Rainforest Alliance said all its certified plantations were required to comply with strict audits and inspections; but the report quoted the president of Fecon, a Costa Rican environmental group, as saying that audits were insufficiently rigorous to reveal violations.
Latin American Banana Growers
The publication of the new Rainforest Alliance standard has caused concern in the banana sector of several countries, especially due to the circumstances in which it has been published: the context of the coronavirus pandemic, which has had a worldwide impact. In particular, the reaction facing the new standard has been remarkable in Latin America. Several Latin American producer and exporter associations, who normally work together with the Rainforest Alliance certifier and share its ambitions and sustainable objectives aiming at reducing the climate footprint, have challenged its new standards.
They consider that the process that has led to the creation of these new standards counts with three major flaws: (1) the application of the standard will increase production costs, (2) it will also leave small farmers, who don't count with the economic means to make this extraordinary investment, out of the possibility to obtain the certification, losing therefore access to the European market, where this certification is key for trade purposes, and (3) the unilateral nature of the socialization process that has excluded most of the comments from the banana sector. These banana groups have been particularly concerned about the updates in the areas of production costs, living wages and other social components, agrochemical management and air application guidelines, and finally, shared responsibility.
For these farmers, obtaining Rainforest Alliance certification is essential to keep the doors to the European Union market open, where more than 65% of their banana exports are directed. But the arrival of the new requirements has called into question Rainforest Alliance's leadership and its management of the standard's socialization process. In addition, Rainforest Alliance certification adds up to other schemes such as Fair Trade International, EU Organic or Organic, which represent most of the private certifications that exist in the market. There are around 400 seals of this style, which stand out for their voluntary nature, with regulations related to the environmental, social, ethical and food safety areas.
In 2010, the European Commission published a communication in which it presented guidelines to good practices aimed at those private certification schemes for agricultural and food products. The Commission's text tries to clarify the existing legal framework that covers voluntary certification processes, in order to increase their transparency and effectiveness, while ensuring that it does not conflict with national legal frameworks. These good practices proposed by the Commission set forth a series of tips for certification schemes, such as the need to reduce the administrative burden on producers, the requirement for clarity and transparency regarding their social, economic, legal and environmental objectives, and the emphasis on maintaining impartiality and independence in the certification process.
Reaction of the banana industry
In view of the lack of compliance with the above-mentioned criteria, banana growers' associations from Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and Guatemala, published an open letter on July 17, 2020 to call on RFA to offer explanations about the process of socialization of the norm. In the letter, they set out their complaints, considering that only 2% of their demands had been taken into account. On July 23, 2020, they held a virtual meeting with Rainforest Alliance, in which the banana growers exchanged their perspectives on the new standard. As Juan José Pons, coordinator of Ecuador's Banana Cluster, stated, the standard "does not take into account the immense effort and related costs that we have made in the recent years, both in social and environmental matters. Our investment is not reflected in the final price, it has had no return, quite the contrary, European supermarkets always impose lower and lower prices". Despite the fact that this meeting led to new meetings of technical analysis of the standard, banana growers believe that Rainforest Alliance has not changed its position, and has remained firm on its standards.
Faced with the lack of progress in the situation, the banana growers - who have expanded their reach to seven countries: Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Panama - began contacting European retailers on their own to inform them about the consequences of applying the new RFA standards. In this context, they convened a tripartite table to discuss the standard with European retailers and RFA, which was held on November 27, 2020. Despite RFA's refusal to attend, the guilds and retail groups that participated agreed that RFA has the obligation to define the concept of Shared Responsibility, as well as to convene a specific committee for its development, made up of representatives from both producers and retail groups.
Rainforest Alliance responded by organizing another roundtable, in which they invited both European retailers and different banana groups. The meeting took place on December 18, 2020. Although the certifier affirmed having taken into account the comments of all stakeholders involved in the consultation process, especially banana growers, the banana grower groups who attended the meeting expressed again their dissatisfaction with the outcome. In particular, they considered that the way in which the meeting had been organized and managed did not allow for a constructive dialogue to take place. Furthermore, according to the Latin American banana groups, the explanations provided by the organization did not proceed to clarify the strategy by which the standard would be applied, which is still failing to fill several gaps around the implementation of the concept of shared responsibility.
In order to show the on-going dialogue around the new certification program, Rainforest Alliance introduced in an article the organization's efforts to work with the banana sector to implement the new standards. In the article, Rainforest Alliance referred to the roundtable that took place on December 18, 2020 as the meeting that ended the round of discussions with the banana sector and that will lead to the implementation of the standard, even if the organization has not yet defined the mechanism and scope for implementing Shared Responsibility and the Sustainability Differential.
- Climate, Community & Biodiversity Alliance
- Fair trade
- Sustainable coffee
- Multistakeholder governance model
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