The Bottom line: Simple Comparative Analysis

Bottom Line:

Rainforest Alliance Certified appears to have some positive impacts for some communities in the Global South, but there are multiple weaknesses and deficiencies in the program that are of serious concern to the DFTA.

Associated Organization: Rainforest Alliance, Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN)

Program Claim(s) in the program’s own language:

The Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal is found on food and beverages in restaurants, supermarkets, airplanes, trains and hotels around the world. That little green frog seal assures consumers that products come from farms that are managed to the rigorous standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), where workers and their families enjoy dignified, safe conditions, and where wildlife and habitats are protected.

The Rainforest Alliance and SAN require that all businesses buying, trading, or mixing products from certified farms must achieve SAN/Rainforest Alliance Chain-of-Custody certification in order to call their product Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Our comprehensive farm management standards and traceability system help ensure that certified ingredients and products bearing our little green frog seal can be traced back to well-managed farms or farm groups that protect workers, wildlife and communities.

The ten principles are:

1. Social and Environmental Management System

2. Ecosystem Conservation

3. Wildlife Protection

4. Water Conservation

5. Fair Treatment and Good Working Conditions for Workers

6. Occupational Health and Safety

7. Community Relations

8. Integrated Crop Management

9. Soil Management and Conservation

10. Integrated Waste Management

Web link to program description/label/claim:  

Summary of DFTA findings:  

Rainforest Alliance Certified is a program involving several organizations: Rainforest Alliance and other member organizations of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), described in their own language as a coalition of independent non-profit conservation organizations that promote the social and environmental sustainability of agricultural activities by developing standards. Standard and policy development and review are coordinated by the SAN secretariat based in San José, Costa Rica. A Certification Body certifies farms or group administrators that comply with SAN’s standards and policies. Certified farms or group administrators can apply for use of the Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM trademark for products grown on certified farms…SAN representatives and their operating countries are: Conservación y Desarrollo (C&D), Ecuador; Fundación Interamericana de Investigación Tropical (FIIT); Guatemala; Fundación Natura, Colombia; ICADE, Honduras; IMAFLORA, Brazil; Nature Conservation Foundation, India; Pronatura Chiapas, Mexico; SalvaNatura, El Salvador and Rainforest Alliance.

It should be stated at the outset that Rainforest Alliance Certified does not present itself as a fair trade program per se.  However, DFTA is evaluating certification programs making social or economic claims, most notably regarding producers or workers.  Since RA does have an explicit claim regarding fair working conditions, and also states throughout much of its literature the benefits of the program to small-scale producers, the DFTA has decided to evaluate the program.

While some stakeholders seem well represented in the SAN system, in particular environmentalist and conservation organizations, others such as workers and trade unions are lacking, and the participation of small-scale producers could be increased.  There seems to be a predominance of academics and industry / business on the RA board.  Indigenous communities are also not explicitly identified as stakeholders although RA has informed DFTA that these communities participate where producers are from indigenous communities.

In addition the program utilizes various certification agencies which are responsible for monitoring and verification.  The multiplicity of organizations involved makes it challenging to find information; for example when DFTA inquired about a complaints process we were informed that any complaint regarding certification would have to be submitted to the appropriate certification agency.  While on the one hand this makes sense and meets international norms, Rainforest Alliance could centralize this information in order to make it easier for a member of the public or other stakeholder to submit concerns, rather than the current situation in which it is challenging information to locate.

On the bedrock DFTA principle of supporting small-scale producers, the results seem mixed.  RA does not exclude operations of any scale and includes agribusiness plantations in its system, which some stakeholders view as undermining any benefit to smaller producers.  RA Certified does not include within its scope issues of fair contracts or prices to producers.  The organization has provided data showing benefits to producers in terms of income, although it is mixed: for independent small farmers one study provided to DFTA showed little benefit, while for producers participating in group certification the benefits were clearer.  Two specific points that detract from the benefits to small-scale producers are (1) there is no clear definition of smallholder, and (2) group certification is not limited to small-scale producers but in fact is also open to plantation-scale agriculture.  RA has informed DFTA that this is not the norm but has not provided specific details of how often this occurs.

RA states that by 2010 199 certificates or 28% were for group administrators and the average group size was 243 member farms.  But this does not reveal the size of the member farms themselves.

On the issue of working conditions, which constitutes a large portion of the program’s claims to the public, the results are also mixed.  The worst abuses such as child labor and forced labor are prohibited.  There are also several health and safety provisions in place, although the required ones in some cases do not rise far above legal compliance.  On the issue of labor rights, the DFTA finds the Rainforest Alliance’s language to be misleading.  For example, on its website RA states very clearly that the Right to Freedom of Association is upheld on all certified farms, whereas in reality the standard covering this is not a “critical criterion” within the program and therefore not actually required (see discussion below on the scoring system).  In response to a question regarding this, RA has told DFTA that it will be requiring this in the future.  Finally, it should be noted that there is a current dispute between Rainforest Alliance and the International Labor Rights Forum and the IUF (International Union of Food Workers) over alleged labor rights violations including retaliation for union organizing, on a large-scale certified banana plantation (Tres Hermanas) in Honduras.  More can be read here:  Rainforest Alliance has publicly responded to this stating that non-conformances have been issued and that situation is improving, but that since the criteria violated are not considered “critical” by RA, the operation was not decertified.

The RA further states:  “Currently the SAN is concluding a wide ranging, global public consultation with the aim of updating the SAN standard.  As a result, failure to recognize freedom of association is expected to become a critical criterion for farm certification and grounds for rejecting or withdrawing a certificate.”  The DFTA welcomes this improvement and will adjust its evaluation of the program once this change has been formally adopted.  DFTA will continue to monitor and assess this situation as it relates to our evaluation of the program.

Like some other programs the Sustainable Agriculture Standard associated with Rainforest Alliance Certified has a scoring system (rather than a black and white compliance system more similar to organic certification).  Under the program each of its ten principles has a number of criteria that fall under it.  According to SAN “In order to obtain and maintain certification, farms must comply with at least 50% of the applicable criteria of each principle and at least 80% of the total applicable criteria of the Sustainable Agriculture Standard.”  In addition the Sustainable Agriculture Standard contains 15 critical criteria which are mandatory in all cases.

While the DFTA appreciates the need for some degree of flexibility in certification programs, such scoring systems make it very challenging for a member of the public to fully understand what the actual requirements of a program are.  For instance, language can be included in the standards referring to what a certified operation ”must” comply with, when in fact if that specific criterion is not labeled as critical, it is not technically required. Such is the situation with the above referenced dispute.

Regarding Rainforest Alliance’s environmental criteria, the program should be commended for addressing issues such as wildlife habitat and climate change within the scope of its program.  The criteria regarding agrochemicals prohibit the use of the most harmful pesticides.  Some consumers will choose to seek out certified organic products to further protect workers, producers, and communities, as well as the environment, but RA’s program does represent an improvement over the norm.

Although not directly part of this evaluation, it should be noted that some stakeholders have raised concerns that products with as little as 30% certified product can use the Rainforest Alliance logo.  On its website RA explains its reasoning on this policy: If a product includes less than 90 percent Rainforest Alliance Certified™ content, this must be clearly disclosed directly on-package underneath the seal. Not all certification programs are as forthright, but we know how important it is for consumers to trust our little green frog.

We allow companies to use the seal without reaching the 100 percent mark because their purchases from certified farms can still make a huge difference to farmers and their families. A large company that begins sourcing 30 percent of its supply from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms can have an enormous positive impact on worker's lives and the environment.


Key to Chart
The program is exemplary and meets the DFTA's criteria expectations. The program has some innovative approaches to this issue that may serve as a model.
The program appears to have a comprehensive approach to this issue in general alignment with DFTA criteria. There are some concerns or issues to highlight regarding the program's approach to this issue.
The program addresses this issue and may meet some of the criteria, but significant concerns, questions, or shortcomings compromise the approach. There is inadequate information or outstanding questions preventing a reliable assessment of the program's approach to this issue.
The program either does not address the issue at all, or clearly fails to address it in a manner consistent with DFTA criteria. Not applicable / not addressed by program
Summary Indicator
1. Supports small scale and/or family farms
2. Ensures decent working conditions for farm and food workers
3. Supports long-term, direct, and fair trading relationships
4. Adequately restricts materials and practices that are harmful to people and the environment
5. The program is implemented well and has thorough monitoring in place

For a print version of this summary, please click here.