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Questions about Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Alliance’s green frog logo is well-recognised among consumers. The publication of its new draft criteria, however, raises serious concerns about whether it will continue to protect the environment and workers’ rights.

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.

Missing information

Unfortunately, this is not the only area of the criteria that raises concern.

Much vital information is currently missing from the standards. Rainforest Alliance has not yet said how it intends to enforce its standards; how it will determine timeframes for improvement criteria; or what the rules will be about the use of its logo on products. 

In the past, the Rainforest Alliance has been seriously criticised for allowing its logo to be used on the packaging if just 30% of one ingredient had been bought from certified sources. 

Rainforest Alliance has not published information on how it plans to use audits, and for example how many will be unannounced. 

Similarly, the organisation has left out key information about its improvement criteria. Certifications generally include a number of standards that can be met over time. Under the new criteria, Rainforest Alliance producers will be expected to select twelve areas for improvement and determine “the timeframe they need to reach a next level.”

The organisation, however, has given no information on how producers will decide their improvement timeframes. It is unclear whether Rainforest Alliance plans to limit the time allowed.

Many of the improvement criteria are fundamental to the protection of the environment and workers rights. For example, the final improvement stage under Child Labour requires that “At least 75% of cases identified through the farm’s monitoring are no longer in child labour 2 years after identification.” It is concerning that producers might have an indefinite choice of a timeframe in which to make these changes. 

It is also unclear whether producers will be able to reassess and move the planned timeframe if it isn’t being met. If so, Rainforest Alliance needs to show how it will prevent producers from continually shifting the goal posts. 

No protection from price volatility

Rainforest Alliance has been criticised in the past for its failure to protect workers and farms from the volatility of prices on international markets. Producers are often extremely vulnerable to huge and unexpected fluctuations in the price offered for their products. 

Fairtrade uses a price floor to protect certificate holders from these changes. The ‘Cocoa Barometer’ published by a global consortium of civil society organisations, has suggested a different method: a “flexible” premium that rises when the market price falls, and vice versa. 

While Rainforest Alliance says that it is considering the issue, it has no plans to address the problem of price volatility through its certification. 

Failing to protect forests 

One of the most concerning changes is Rainforest Alliance’s approach to deforestation. The new certification contains some requirements to protect forest areas. Yet, it has no definition of what ‘forest’ means, without which the criteria are largely unenforceable. Previously, the certification has used the ‘high carbon stock approach’ to define forest areas. An internationally-recognised definition used in other certifications, this approach defines land based on the amount of carbon it withholds from the atmosphere. 

Rainforest Alliance provides no explanation for dropping this definition in the new standard. It also conflates ‘forests’ and ‘other natural ecosystems’ in several of the new criteria, which is worryingly vague.  If it is serious about protecting forests, Rainforest Alliance must endeavour to have a clear definition of ‘forests’ using the high carbon stock approach, and clearly prohibit the conversion to agricultural land. 

Rainforest Alliance could have a real impact were they to combine this with their commendable plans to use “technology and satellite images” for monitoring deforestation.

Other weak criteria relating to worker’s rights

The organisation has watered down many of UTZ and Rainforest Alliance’s previous requirements, including those on overtime, payment in kind, maternity leave, and preference for organic fertilisers.

It also falls short of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO’s) Conventions and Recommendations – a vital benchmark for fundamental workers’ rights – on several occasions.

Its definition of child labour allows work from 14 years of age and light work from 12 years where these ages are set by the country’s national laws. It therefore sets a lower standard than the ILO (which only allows these ages where developing country exemption apply).

It also does not meet ILO recommendations with regards to overtime: allowing overtime above 12 hours “in exceptional circumstances” and paid at a normal rate (nowhere stating that workers should receive extra pay for overtime hours, where the ILO recommends 1.25 times the normal rate). At the very least, Rainforest Alliance should be following the ILO’s approach, as a baseline for protecting workers.

We are concerned that without addressing these issues, the green frog’s ability to ensure sustainable and fair practices is going to be limited. 

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