Open Letter to Rainforest Alliance and UTZ

Rainforest Alliance and UTZ are asked to bolster their standards when they merge.

Rainforest Alliance and UTZ are some of the most well-known and trusted certification schemes for both the environment and workers’ rights. They are being urged not to water down their principles following their recent merger in an open letter written by Ethical Consumer and The Ecologist and signed by fourteen environmental and workers’ rights organisations in the UK.

Oxfam, Greenpeace, War on Want and Rainforest Foundation UK are among the signatories.

The merger between Rainforest Alliance and UTZ in January 2018 was one of biggest shifts in the landscape of certification for a decade. Their two logos grace the packets of everything from McDonald’s to Nespresso. Last year, products certified by Rainforest Alliance alone saw sales worth £2.377 billion.

Certified brands must buy a certain proportion of ingredients from farmers that comply with the certifications’ environmental and workers’ rights criteria. Over the coming months, they will be writing their new criteria together. This could represent a fantastic opportunity to build on the strengths of two extremely influential organisations. Or it could result in a race-to-the-bottom approach, adopting the lowest criteria where their existing standards don’t coincide.

To date, Rainforest Alliance has had much stronger environmental criteria, whereas UTZ has focused on workers’ rights. Ethical Consumer is concerned that these strengths will be lost in the new scheme and that the easiest-to-obtain criteria will be adopted going forward.

The open letter outlines key criteria where one organisation has shown greater strength and which it asks the joint organisation to maintain. For example, it calls on the organisations to uphold UTZ’s requirement that all employees have the right to unionise and bargain collectively (include smallholder employees); and Rainforest Alliance’s much stricter policies on the prior destruction of forest or High Conservation Value areas.

Rainforest Alliance has faced criticism for allowing products to sport its logo even where just 30% of one ingredient is from certified sources. The open letter urges the organisations not to adopt this extraordinarily low threshold in the new standard.

Rainforest Alliance and UTZ have already obtained the trust and recognition of consumers — a trust that may be misplaced should such requirements be dropped.

Worrying signs

Last month, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ published their ‘Terms for Consultation’. Unfortunately, these contained several early indicators that their new joint approach may be very different to that which we are hoping for:

  • They plan to ‘restrict the number of core criteria’ – the red tape standards that must be met pre-certification. These are the most crucial demands covering issues like child labour and impact on protected ecological areas. Any move to cut this list down is therefore a point of serious concern.
  • Both certifications also currently contain ‘continuous improvement’ criteria: incremental changes that must be made over a number of years in order for farmers to keep their certification. The period allowed by Rainforest Alliance, however, is up to six years and even then only 50% of the criteria must ever be met. This is a long time for workers to wait before, for example, they can even hope for a living wage. Yet, the organisations have stated that an even longer period for continuous improvement will be allowed in the new certification. Such a change must be joined by more progressive demands if it is not just to string out the waiting time that workers face.
  • The organisations have also said that they plan to make greater differentiations between smallholder farmers and large-scale plantations. Making such distinctions can be extremely valuable: not only can they reflect on-the-ground differences between different types of farming; they can place smallholders on an equal footing with more wealthy, large-scale competitors, and give them access to a valuable market for certified ingredients. However, this can come at a cost to those workers employed on smallholder farms. Rainforest Alliance already exempts smallholders from the demand that all workers be allowed to unionise and collectively bargain. This kind of distinction costs workers their basic rights.

Such changes may be early signs that the re-write will simply make the label more accessible and scaleable for big brands — rather than enforce actual improvements.

What next?

The new criteria are far from being finalised. Consultation on ongoing plans will begin in November. 

The open letter represents the first step in our efforts to push Rainforest Alliance and UTZ in the right direction. It establishes a baseline to which all 14 organisations agree that Rainforest Alliance and UTZ must commit.

Now, it is down to individual organisations to give advice on how the standards could in fact be strengthened to provide more robust protection. As a consumer, you can also be involved in this consultation. The organisations plan to publish a draft certification in the coming months, and will launch an online questionnaire for you to give your responses.

In the meantime, we ask Rainforest Alliance and UTZ to commit to upholding the principles they have developed as independent organisations.

The letter has been signed by: Ethical Consumer, The Ecologist, CARE International, Oxfam, Greenpeace, CORE Coalition, European Coalition for Corporate Justice, War on Want, Fair World Project, the Environmental Justice Foundation, the Rainforest Foundation UK, Solidarity Economy, Permaculture Association and The Equality Trust.

Free Issue

Sign up now to our email newsletter for a free digital copy of Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sign up now for our email newsletter