The merger between Rainforest Alliance and UTZ in January 2018 was one of the biggest shifts in the landscape of certification for a decade. The two organisations share huge reach and influence, certifying everything from McDonald’s to supermarket own-brand products. Their logos show that products and producers are meeting certain environmental and workers’ rights criteria.
In December the merged organisation published a new draft set of standards that its users will be expected to meet, under the Rainforest Alliance name. The new criteria mark a fundamental shift in approach and raise questions about how the Rainforest Alliance plans to protect workers and ecosystems.
Too little justification for its new approach
Rainforest Alliance has announced that it plans to take a ‘due diligence’ rather than prohibition approach in its new standard. This means that instead of putting red lines in place – that if crossed would result in decertification – it instead requires companies to have risk assessments, grievance mechanisms and remediation processes in place to themselves identify and address any violations found.
The approach means that absolutely nothing will be outlawed under the new criteria. Even a company found to use violence against forced labourers could continue to bear the logo if it had the right processes in place.
In theory, the ‘due diligence’ approach sounds constructive, and poor policing has plagued certification schemes in the past, undermining the effectiveness of prohibition. A “due diligence” approach has had success in specific cases. For example, it has helped address the problem of child labour in the cocoa industry, which is almost entirely made up of smallholders.
But Rainforest Alliance plans to use it to address four of the most difficult areas – child labour, forced labour, discrimination and (sexual) harassment – without providing any evidence for its success in addressing the last three of these issues.
Red lines can still be maintained even if a due diligence framework is adopted, but the Rainforest Alliance have not explained why they have shunned this option even as a last resort.
Indeed, under the draft standard, a producer could commit the same violations over and over and each time and be met with the same ‘remediation process’. In order to be effective, remediation must be ‘staged’: the implications for the producer must be increasingly serious each time the same violation occurs. And decertification should be the final stage if the violations just continue to be found.