Rainforest Alliance Has a New Certification Standard

Learn what the little green frog seal means now.

cocoa pods in a bag
Cocoa pods in a bag, Uganda, 2018.

Getty Images/Camille Delbos

In 2018 Rainforest Alliance merged with UTZ, another leading sustainability certification, to create a single, larger organization. Since then it has been working hard to produce an updated set of certification standards that reflects the two groups' 45 years of combined experience. That new standard was released in 2020 and will take effect in July 2021 on Rainforest Alliance-certified farms around the world. 

To those unfamiliar with Rainforest Alliance, you may already know the little green frog seal that appears on consumer products, typically sourced from tropical regions. Rainforest Alliance is similar to Fairtrade in that both value the social, economic, and environmental pillars of sustainability, but each approaches it differently. Rainforest Alliance describes itself as "using social and market forces to protect nature and improve the lives of farmers and forest communities." It sees social, economic, and environmental improvement as "inseparable elements of the broader goal of sustainability," whereas Fairtrade focuses more on connecting impoverished, disadvantaged producers with consumers. 

Rainforest Alliance new frog seal
The new seal, reflecting the merger between Rainforest Alliance and UTZ, launched in September 2020.

Rainforest Alliance

Treehugger spoke to Ruth Rennie, Rainforest Alliance's director of standards and assurances, for an in-depth look at what the new standard brings to the world of sustainable and ethical agriculture. Rennie explained that it introduces a number of key innovations.

Main Features

First is "a move beyond a simple pass-fail system" and a shift toward continuous improvement. "Of course, the 2020 standard includes core requirements based on our in-depth experience in sustainable agriculture which all producers must implement to be certified," Rennie said, as well as requirements for producers to continuously improve their sustainability performance over time.

"Producers who want to go beyond these requirements can implement self-selected requirements chosen by farmers based on their own context or aspirations. We have also introduced a new tool called the smart meter, which allows farmers to set their own targets, based on an assessment of the sustainability risks they face, and measure the impact of improvement actions they take to address these risks."

A second feature is the improved use of data to track positive environmental and social impact, as expected by consumers. The new standard uses "new tools and technologies such as GIS mapping to support better analysis and verification of issues such as deforestation." Rennie then offered the example of how technology is fighting deforestation in cocoa-producing regions of West Africa.

She explained that in 2019 all UTZ and Rainforest Alliance-certified groups in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire were required to provide GPS locations for at least 50% of their farms to check whether they were in Protected Areas or zones at risk of deforestation. (Unless farms have express permission from the government to operate in protected areas, they cannot attain certification.) The data was analyzed against government-issued maps and maps created by Global Forest Watch to ensure no encroachment occurred. Those that failed to address the issues identified had their certifications were withheld. These maps are provided to third-party auditors and to Rainforest Alliance monitoring staff for follow-up.

Thirdly, the standard recognizes that the burden of achieving greater sustainability shouldn't just fall to farmers. It must be shared with buyers as well, which is why they are now expected to "reward producers for their efforts to meet sustainable agriculture requirements, and to make the necessary investments to support producers to improve their sustainability performance." This reward comes in the form of a Sustainability Investment requirement, which is a cash or in-kind payment to farmers based on their own investment plans.

Furthermore, buyers must pay a Sustainability Differential, which is a minimum cash payment to farms over and above market price. "This payment is designed to be completely free of restrictions or requirements on how it is used," Rainforest Alliance explains, and while the amount is not fixed, it offers guidance on what a proper amount would comprise. Cocoa is one exception with a mandated differential at $70/metric ton (effective July 2022). It is paid to the individual farmer to use as he or she wants.

palm oil production in Honduras
The author visited a Rainforest Alliance-certified palm oil production facility in Honduras, 2014.

K Martinko

Additional Priorities

Another prominent principle of the new standard is the concept of contextualization. This, Rennie explained, is rooted in the idea that producers must analyze their own sustainability risks and adopt appropriate responses to improve their performance. For example:

"Farms that have no waterbodies will not be required to implement measures to protect them, and farms that do not hire workers will not need to implement requirements related to workers' conditions. When they register for certification, producers will receive a 'contextualized' checklist including only the standard requirements that are applicable to them based on the data they have provided."

In keeping with its reputation as a defender of the natural environment, Rainforest Alliance prohibits deforestation, as well as destruction of all natural ecosystems, including wetlands and peatlands. It has minimum requirements for natural vegetation cover to be achieved on farms through agroforestry techniques, and farmers are expected to build up soil health using organic means whenever possible. The use of agrochemicals is not prohibited, but strictly controlled.

"Farms that have destroyed natural ecosystems since 2014 will not be able to be certified. We have chosen 2014 as the baseline year for measuring the conversion/destruction of natural ecosystems for several reasons. Satellite data is more readily available from that year onwards, providing more robust data for improved assurance."

When asked what could lead a farm to become decertified, Rennie said that certificates are canceled immediately "if systemic issues are identified that have resulted in practices that do not comply with standard requirements and cannot be corrected." This could be use of banned pesticides, conversion of natural ecosystems, failure to maintain adequate traceability of certified products, and illegal or unethical practices and severe human rights abuses that have not been remediated.

Child labor does not constitute an immediate cancellation, as Rainforest Alliance prefers to focus on remediation. From a document introducing the standard:

"What we have learned through many years of experience is that only prohibiting child labor and other labor and human rights violations is insufficient. For example, if automatic decertification is the response for any detected incident of child labor, this will likely drive the problem underground, making it harder to detect by auditors and harder for us to address. That’s why our new certification program promotes an 'assess-and-address' approach to tackling labor and other human rights violations."

Why This Standard Matters

It's a tough time to be in the ethical labeling/certification standard business. On one hand, sustainable agriculture is needed more desperately than ever, and any organization working to improve that is doing important work for the planet. On the other hand, consumer skepticism is at an all-time high, particularly following a rather scathing investigative report by MSI Integrity last year that found many labels to be ineffective. 

To that, Rennie responded that "certification systems alone cannot address the systemic issues that drive poor worker protection and human rights abuses in supply chains." She makes a valid point, and perhaps it is overly idealistic of consumers to assume that a single label makes everything perfect. Rennie continued,

"Certification plays an important role in highlighting these issues and supporting producers to adopt good practices. However, meaningful protection of human rights throughout supply chains requires a smart mix of voluntary certification standards, effective government regulation and enforcement, and robust corporate due diligence by buyers and brands."

In other words, we can't leave it up to a single certification to fix all the problems for us. That's an absurd expectation. Rather, an ethical label is a piece of the bigger puzzle that requires all of our participation, across a broad range of domains. I still maintain that supporting brands that prioritize ethical practices by opting to become certified in the first place sends an important message out into the world. It's far better than nothing and deserves our support.