Interview: Anna Canning of Fair World Project Compares Fairtrade to Rainforest Alliance

Nestle's decision to switch cocoa certifications has raised questions about standards.

cocoa beans in hand
Cocoa beans in hand in Bunjako, Uganda.

Getty Images

Nestle has disappointed many people after announcing a switch from Fairtrade to Rainforest Alliance certification of the KitKat bars it sells in the UK. The move would bring KitKat's cocoa under the same umbrella as other candy bars the company produces. 

After listening to a discussion about Nestle's decision on Fair World Project's new podcast, "For a Better World," Treehugger reached out to FWP for a more in-depth conversation about the two certifications and what consumers should know about chocolate.

I spoke with Anna Canning, campaign manager for Fair World Project and podcast scriptwriter. She has more than 15 years' experience working along the supply chains for fair trade companies in the natural foods industry and now, with FWP, is involved in education and advocacy around fair trade. This is our conversation from February 12, 2021, edited for clarity:

Katherine Martinko: Can you explain your role?

Anna Canning: I am a campaign manager at Fair World Project, involved in education and advocacy around fair trade. Fair World Project acts as a watchdog to labeling claims both within the United States and globally. 

Part of my job is to get people to ask why a product like a banana, that comes from thousands of miles away, is expected to be cheaper than a [locally-grown] apple. There's a big framework there and a history that plays into why that banana is so cheap, and that's something we all need to be exploring.

KM: Are we talking about fair trade or Fairtrade?

AC: Fair trade is an all-encompassing thing that includes a series of labels. Fairtrade, all one word, is one specific certification with a blue-green person on the logo. There are two labels in the US – Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA. The former has a requirement for 50% of producers to be on the board and involved in setting standards, whereas the latter doesn't have any requirements for producer involvement. 

fairtrade banana
Public Domain. Pixabay

KM: Can you give a brief overview of Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance certifications? In what ways are they different or similar?

AC: There's a big difference – mainly, who's actually at the table setting the standard, and what is the goal of that standard. Rainforest Alliance standards are geared toward larger plantations and writing base-level compliance with local law into a voluntary standard base. So, one of the differences that you'll see is that Fairtrade standards will require and emphasize the ability of workers to organize and negotiate wages. Rainforest Alliance tends to be more like, "Don't break the law."

A standard on its own doesn't have the strength to know all the issues that could come up in our workers' workday. One annual inspection isn't going to be able to deal with all the things. Having strong worker organization to really figure out what the needs are – those are the things that improve people's lives. The standard can either support those or not.

A big difference is that Fairtrade has a guaranteed minimum price for products. Rainforest Alliance does not. Fairtrade has a fixed premium for community products – an extra amount of money per pound or per box of bananas. Rainforest Alliance does not. Fairtrade says if a product is organic-certified, there needs to be an additional amount of money paid to recognize the additional work and stewardship that goes into it. These are really fundamental pieces.

Rainforest Alliance redid its standards last year, but ignored pressure to include a minimum price. The one exception is for cocoa. There is a premium, but it is $80 per metric tonne of beans. Fairtrade cocoa's premium is $240.

[Note: Rainforest Alliance commented on its cocoa pricing, telling Treehugger, "We do have a sustainability differential and sustainability investment requirements that are above and beyond the market price. In cocoa we will set a minimum of $70/metric tonne of dried beans. The sustainability differential is an additional monetary amount paid to producers on top of price, quality premiums and any other differentials (such as the Living Income Differential set by the governments in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana)." Nestle's website says that premium comes to $180/metric tonne of cocoa.]

KM: A FWP article mentions a troubling trend away from Fairtrade toward weaker certifications. Does Rainforest Alliance appeal to companies because its standard is more easily attainable? 

AC: It's definitely a possibility. Fairtrade-certified volume of cocoa went down after Fairtrade raised their minimum price. Companies are looking for the lowest thing they can still market as ethical... It's kind of a race to the bottom for price, but that's business as usual for cocoa. 

There's such a disconnect between the marketing of things and what the standards actually promise. Companies are able to take that label and say, "This is an ethical product," but when you look through the fine print of what the standards actually are, the reality is so much different. 

For example, if you comb through all the fine print of Rainforest Alliance's standard on child labor, they have an entire plan laid out, but not a prohibition on child labor. It says, "Have a system in place to do your due diligence. If it's found, you have X amount of time to remediate 70% of it." But in the process of that remediation, you could still be selling products that were produced by children in terrible conditions.

KM: Environmental issues are a top priority for many people. Could there be a sense that Fairtrade isn't doing enough for the environment?

AC: The climate crisis is a huge issue, but if we look at how that's playing out in a place like cocoa production, it has a massive deforestation problem. Both Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana [which produce 70% of the world's cocoa] have been largely deforested, and that's happening because low prices in cocoa are pushing farmers to expand and plant cocoa in protected areas so they can scrape by. When prices are low, your only strategy is more volume. Environmental issues can't be separated from human issues.

Green product certification - Rainforest Alliance Certified/Verified

KM: Is Rainforest Alliance better than in-house certification schemes that so many companies are using, like Starbucks's C.A.F.E. Practices and Mondelez's Cocoa Plan?

AC: There are new logos popping up all the time! Anyone who has a graphic designer can put a little seal on their product at this point. But there is one distinction between in-house standards and a third-party certification. Both Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance have a firewall that exists between inspectors and the supply chain that's getting audited. If you're a consultant that's been hired to check off standards by the company who wrote them, the likelihood of their being able to pressure you is much greater.

KM: In the case of a switch between certifications, does Nestle keep buying from the same farmers under a different agreement, or do they go with new suppliers?

AC: The proposal from Nestle is that they would just keep buying from them, but under different terms. That's really common. Across the world, farmer cooperatives have multiple certifications and are meeting multiple standards because they have different buyers that want different standards. It's a lot extra work for those farmers. If you and I think we have label fatigue, being the person who handles compliance for a farmers' cooperative definitely has it!

KM: What's the way forward? How can we make this better for cocoa farmers? 

AC: What it comes back down to for me is, consolidation is a massive factor in our economy, so much bigger than a single certified product. These companies have such a disproportionate influence in our global economy; Nestle's sales are bigger than the GDP of Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana combined. There's vast inequity within our global system and this is the issue we're trying to tackle here.

When it comes to labels, Fairtrade is the higher standard among the ones available; but because of all the complications that we've seen, some artisanal chocolate makers are opting out of putting logos on their chocolate altogether. Some are doing fair trade and organic, which together has much higher environmental and social standards than Fairtrade. We have a buyers' resource on the website that lists mission-driven brands.