coffee with the power to influence

Fair Trade vs. Rainforest Alliance

In Social Justice & Environment on April 2, 2009 at 2:59 pm
At Speakeasy, we try our best to inform our opinions and purchasing choices with the most current and accurate information. It is never our intention to undermine or misinform. If you believe there to be inaccuracies or glaring ommissions, then feel free to give us a constructive kick. At Speakeasy, we are committed to engaging larger social dialogues…it’s about more than just beans. However, we hope that our attempts to “keep it simple” aren’t interpreted as essentialist – coffee is, after all, the most complex beverage on the planet!
Once I started to look at Fair Trade vs. Rainforest Alliance, it became clear to me that it’s a multi-faceted debate.
I’ll admit from the start that I carry some corporate skepticism into the equation. It’s not a moral “right or wrong” assesment of business practice; but rather, informed by the assumption that “corporate” is governed by profit margins and shareholder returns. A certification sytem that is endorsed by Kraft (owned by tobacco giant Phillip Morris) lacks social credibility in my opinion. In recent past, corporate coffee has not demonstrated itself to be a leader (neither in quality or in social justice); why assume so now?
The bigger issue I have is the perception in the marketplace that Rainforest Alliance certification is somehow a reasonable alternative to Fair Trade. Retailers participate in this deception by charging a premium pricepoint for RA products when they are (in my experience) significantly cheaper at the “green” supply level.
Rainforest Alliance coffees are cheaper for the reasons that differentiate them from a fairly traded, organic bean:
  • Only 30% compliance to receive certification; ie. up to 70% may be conventional, non-organically grown bean
  • No guarantee of a minimum price for it’s workers
  • Production models based on mass land holdings (private estates & corporate plantations), and indigenous subsistance workers
The question is further complicated by issues of quality…some Rainforest Alliance certified estates are CoE (Cup of Excellence) winners, others produce lowest common denominator coffee. The sad reality is that the majority of the high-end bean will not end up in the mainstream “consumer” market.
In fairness, Fair Trade faces similar concerns in a marketplace that’s becoming convoluted with low quality, non-organic, fair trade certified coffees. Fair Trade is also limited by it’s “blended” co-op product; making it difficult for the serious coffee afficiando to aquire certified single-estate beans. A reputable artisan roastery that deals in gourmet  “direct trade” or “fairly traded” coffees is often worth investigating.
I’ll give Rainforest Alliance some recognition for it’s commitment to the preservation of the natural canopy…particularly when countries like Peru are saturating the market with low cost organic coffees being produced on large tracts of clearcut (because it’s easier to organically certify cleared land compared to a natural canopy.)
That said, it’s our opinion that corporates are invested in the sustainability of coffee producing land; their commitment to environmental stewardship has little to do with improving the quality of life in the communities these multi-nationals occupy.
Fair Trade vs. Rainforest Aliiance? Don’t believe the hype.
For environmental commitment, social justice, and economic equity…
I’ll take a shade grown FTO coffee over Rainforest Alliance any day.
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  1. I work for the Rainforest Alliance in NYC, and I just thought I’d chime in here. Whenever a product’s content is 30-89% Rainforest Alliance Certified content, the company has to disclaim that on the packaging underneath the seal. We feel companies should be acknowledged for these commitments as 30% certified content from a multi-national brand still has a huge impact on wildlife and workers. It also acts as a gateway for smaller companies that may not have the funds to buy 100% certified content right away. As part of the process, we work with them on scaling up their quantities. Sometimes this can take time because the supply (in quantity and coffee regions) doesn’t always meet the demands of large companies right away. By doing this we are both helping to increase the demand for Rainforest Alliance Certified commodities and working to increase the supply (and on-the-ground benefits). What matters to the Rainforest Alliance is the impact on the land and workers so a company buying 30% of 100 tons has more of an impact than one buying 100% of 10 tons. What is important is that every ton of Rainforest Alliance Certified product used is helping farmers and farming communities to better protect their environment, provide decent wages to their workers, and provide the communities access to education, healthcare and decent housing.

    You mentioned that we don’t manage the coffee trading process by guaranteeing a minimum price for coffee farm owners; this is true. There is an honored adage in sustainable development: Give a family a fish and it eats for one day. Teach a family to fish and it eats forever. We are teaching farmers to farm smart, growing their bottom line today and conserving the fertile soils and natural resources on which their children will depend. Rainforest Alliance certification takes a different approach, putting the emphasis on improved farming practices rather than on alternative marketing schemes. The recipe for economic success for any farmer contains four essential ingredients: crop quality, productivity, cost control and sale price. The Rainforest program addresses all four. The program is a hand up for those who need it, not a hand out. It gives farmers more control over their own futures. It empowers them to be better business people. Higher prices are important, and most farmers in the Rainforest Alliance program are getting significantly higher prices for their goods. But farmgate prices are not a panacea. We see many farmers earning high prices and still failing. Successful farmers learn to control costs, increase production, improve quality, build their own competence in trading, build workforce and community cohesion and pride, manage their precious natural resources and protect the environment.

    Also, the Rainforest Alliance works with farms of all sizes, from cooperatives to large plantations. Certifying large plantations with large workforces brings many benefits in achieving targets for poverty reduction and proper employment practices; they are also important for conserving biodiversity as they tend to cover larger areas; whereas small farms are often isolated from one another. Apologize for the length of the post (I’m violating blog commenting protocol here, I realize), but if you’d like more information, please e-mail me or check out our website:

    • Do I think that the coffee industry would be worse off in the absence of Rainforest Alliance; I do. The professional relationships they have forged present unparalleled opportunity to overhaul “corporate” coffee.

      Teaching people to fish…

      While some small-farm certification does occur, to my understanding, more than 80% of Rainforest Alliance plantations are vast corporate-owned tracts.

      Globally, many coffee producing farmers are too poor to meet their basic living needs. By forgoing a sustainable wage policy, subsistence workers are denied both resource (the technological means to fish) and opportunity (because this particular “lake” is privately owned.) So who does it actually advantage when disenfranchised workers are taught to implement higher standards of production?

      I fail to see how a model that invests primarily in the long-term viability of coffee producing land (rather than people) encourages “big picture” sustainability. In many cases, multi-generational workers are subservient to a foreign employer, with no prospect for self-directed governance.

      When I voiced this concern to Rainforest Alliance, the response I received was that “Rainforest Alliance certifies farms not companies.” If Rainforest Alliance actively engages in the promotion of corporate “good deeds,” it also invites scrutiny for their problematic ones. To suggest that they are not accountable to the behaviours of their working partners is unsettling and draws transparency into question.

      30% of 100 tons may be a positive move forward for environmental sustainability, but not if we knowingly ignore the human costs.

      I appreciate the positive steps forward that the people at Rainforest Alliance have taken; a significant opprtunity for change. Fingers crossed that they take full advantage of their unique position.

      • Thanks for engaging in a lively discussion. We pride ourselves in transparency (as I hope you can see from our continued engagement), so we’re happy to address this again. Rainforest Alliance Certified farms consider worker’s rights just as much as environmental and economic aspects. Our standards are equally based on the 3 pillars of sustainability: environment, social (how workers and communities are treated) & economic.

        We certify farms of varying sizes, including some banana farms that are owned by Chiquita and a tea estate owned by Unilever, but most are privately owned or run by co-ops. We don’t think anyone would question that a large farm can have a huge impact on the environment, and whether it is owned by one woman or a corporation, it’s important that it is as safe and sustainable as possible, for the benefit of everyone who works on it and lives near it.

        Here’s an example of some of the ways Rainforest Alliance certification addresses workers’ rights: No discrimination (equal pay for equal work); decent wages that are equal to or better than the regional average or legally established minimum wage (whichever is greater); no part or full-time employment of children under age 15 (unless they are 12-14 and a member of the family farm or community, which by tradition help with harvest); dignified housing; access to medical care; access to education for farm children; worker safety programs; potable drinking water; prioritizing local labor; consulting local communities; rights to unionize & practice organized religion freely and many more.

        We do appreciate the chance to exchange comments with you, but there are probably some points where we are just going to have to agree to disagree.

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