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. Certified coffee carries the seal shown here.

Rainforest Alliance partners with the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), which sets standards that farms and other operations.

What are the environmental standards?

The most important environmental standards applicable to coffee farms have to do with deforestation. The SAN has a single set of standards for all farms, rather than separate sets for different kinds of crops. Farms that coexist with natural forest cover, like coffee farms, are required to maintain 40 percent canopy coverage that consists of at least two strata. At least 12 native species of trees, on average, must be present per hecatare of cultivated land.

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?

SAN standards generally follow United Nations and International Labor Organization recommendations. Farms must meet local laws in terms of minimum wages and maximum work weeks and workers have the right to organize. Children under 15 cannot be hired and those under 18 must have parental permission. Work should not prevent them from attending school. Children are not supposed to operate machinery or work in dangerous locations.

Farms are required to provide training and protective equipment for workers handling dangerous materials, such as pesticides.

What's the downside?

Rainforest Alliance standards aren't as strict as the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's Bird Friendly standards. But the most 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?

Coffee growers have their operations examined by inspectors. Once operations are approved, the Rainforest Alliance seal can be used on consumer products containing the produce from that farm.

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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