Rainforest Alliance certification

What is Rainforest Alliance certification?

The Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization based in New York. Its mission is to conserve biodiversity by promoting sustainability in agriculture, foresty, tourism and other businesses. The Rainforest Alliance certifies coffee, as well as other products and services, when it is produced under certain standards.

Rainforest Alliance sealIn general, Rainforest Alliance standards are intended to protect the environment and the rights of workers. The basic guidelines are called the Sustainable Agriculture Standard and additional specific rules apply to coffee producers. Certified coffee carries the seal shown here.

What are the environmental standards?

Coffee farms must maintain (or restore) natural forest cover to achieve 40 percent shade coverage. The standard calls for at least 70 trees per hectare (about 2.5 acres) and at least 12 native species. Farms can still be certified if they don't meet these standards but can show they have a plan to meet the goal and are working toward it.

Farmers are not allowed to alter natural water courses. While they can use chemicals, such as pesticides, they must maintain buffer zones of natural vegetation between the crop areas and areas used by humans, including public roads.

The standards also prohibit such activities as trafficking in wild animals, destruction of ecosystems, dumping untreated wastewater, and other harmful practices.

What are the labor standards?

The Rainforest Alliance standards try to limit child labor. Children under 15 cannot be hired and minors are not supposed to lift more than 20% of their body weight or have to work on steep slopes or in dangerous areas. They should be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Farmers are expected to take steps to allow minors to continue their education.

Farmers must have non-discriminatory hiring practices and must pay legal minimum wages.

What's the downside?

Rainforest Alliance standards aren't as strict as the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's Bird Friendly standards. Farms can fall short of the Rainforest Alliance standards and still be certified if they have a plan for achieving the standards.

A more common criticism of the Rainforest Alliance standard is that as little as 30 percent of the coffee in a container can be grown under Rainforest Alliance criteria and the coffee can still carry the Rainforest Alliance seal. The buyer doesn't know about the conditions under which the other 70 percent was grown. You can avoid this issue somewhat by looking for labels that say 100 percent Rainforest Alliance certified.

Also, as with other third-party certifications, there's a cost to the producers. Of course that can be offset by the higher prices received for their beans.

How does the coffee I buy get certified by the Rainforest Alliance?

If a coffee farmer wants to earn the certification, he can request an inspection. Rainforest Alliance volunteers in the exporting country will examine a coffee farm, make suggestions for improvements, if needed, and make a recommendation for or against certification. The recommendation is reviewed by an independent panel. Once approved, the producer can use the Rainforest Alliance seal on his products.

Coffee producers are just one of many groups the Rainforest Alliance certifies. It offers certification of sustainable practices for timber companies, pineapple farmers, ornamental flower growers, and many other kinds of businesses.

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