What Do Rainforest Certifcations Really Mean?

There’s a valley in Nicaragua that bristles with Arabica bushes under a cloud forest canopy. Blood red berries in patchy sunbeams and gap-toothed children leaving dirty handprints on the drying laundry—that’s how I remember it. The farm was Rainforest Alliance-certified for clean water, wildlife conservation, comfortable housing, health and education programs for the workers and general order and efficiency.

At the time, I worked as a pitchman for the Rainforest Alliance in Latin America.  I learned that the farm's owners had worked for years to nurture the land to its condition  and even as I was there they were building a new school and new houses to meet the certification standards.

Farming in the tropics—unlike the popular stereotype of farming or of life in the tropics—is mind-numbingly complicated. Farmers’ offices are stacked with reams of documents and the tasks become much more complicated when farmers choose to certify their crops through a third party. Then they have to use different weapons in their battles against insects and diseases, invest in the wellbeing of their workers and meet dozens, even hundreds of criteria to pass their audits. After which, they put their trust in the marketing machinery of the certifier and the buyers of their products to promote their work and sell at a higher cost to consumers while competing on grocery store shelves against lower-priced goods from less-regulated farms.

And, though the certifiers may not like to admit it, they also compete against each other. To stand out, they try to differentiate themselves, just like any brand name product might.

What differences?

At one time the major certifiers may have been notably different, each focused on its pet cause. Now, as each has grown they have absorbed the strengths of their competitors and their standards have somewhat converged. Advocates of certification schemes like to say that there are three pillars of sustainability: environmental conservation, human rights and good business sense. Three of the organizations that I looked at focus on all three of those areas. However, each has a reputation for emphasizing just one of those pillars. Fair Trade is known for exemplary social standards, Rainforest Alliance for conservation and Utz Certified for business practices and transparency. Two other that I looked at focus primarily on the environmental pillar: organic and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly certification.

Every certifier listed here conducts yearly farm audits. They all charge the farmers for those audits. They all charge buyers for the right to use their labels, with the exception of the Rainforest Alliance, which charges large farmers a certification fee that buyers sometimes defray. Every label allows farmers to sell their crops at higher-than-market rates, though Fair Trade is the only that formally guarantees a certain rate. The premiums, as they’re called, offset the higher costs the farmers have to pay to run improved farms and for yearly audits. For coffee, premiums can range from five to ten cents per pound on average, varying according to the farmers’ negotiations, the market, the type of coffee and other factors.

USDA Certified Organic

The organic label indicates that the farm does not use chemical pesticides and fertilizers on a long list of crops and livestock. The organic standards are strong, if not unassailable, on the environmental pillar. For example, the label does not require that farmers maintain a forest canopy to shade understory crops like coffee and cocoa. Yet organic farms are unsurpassed in eliminating the chemical contamination of water and soils, even including measures to reduce erosion and prevent the leakage of chemicals from neighboring, non-certified farms onto organic fields.

Farmers sometimes opt for organic certification in tandem with another label, such as Fair Trade since organic has no bearing on labor practices. This allows them to add even more to the price of their organic crops, on top of the premium rate their other label gives.

Photo credit: Rob Goodier

Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center “Bird Friendly” certification

Bird Friendly farms must also be certified organic, so the two work together to guarantee some of the most pervasive environmental conservation measures available for coffee farms (it's not available for other crops). Although coffee is often grown on clear-cut slopes under direct sunlight, it can also thrive under a shady forest canopy, so Bird Friendly must have trees.

However, planting trees is not enough: coffee farmers often plant only one or two species of trees on their fields, usually a kind of inga, which nourish the soil with nitrogen while they grow. Birds and other animals, however, need a diversity of trees for food and shelter. Bird Friendly farms, therefore, are forested with at least 10 native species of trees, plus “backbone” species like ingas, for a canopy that covers at least 40 percent of the ground, as measured after pruning. It requires at least three tiers of cover, as well, to best replicate a natural rainforest. For a summary of the standards see the web site.

Utz Certified “Good Inside”

Utz Kapeh means “good coffee” in a Mayan dialect and got its start in Guatemala in the late 1990s. It now certifies cocoa, tea and palm oil as well. The label has quietly gained a huge market share in coffee—bigger than any of the others —while keeping a low profile in the media. Utz certified 700 million pounds of coffee in 2007, about 1.5 times as much as Fair Trade and 3.5 times as much as Rainforest Alliance. It’s a behind-the-scenes guarantee from one business to another that quality and sustainability are prioritized. To earn the label, farmers must meet labor and environmental requirements, learn to run their businesses more efficiently and prove where their crops came from. Utz excels at traceability and good business practices, but it also ensures that high social and environmental standards are met. One of the label’s most visible features is its online coffee tracer, which allows consumers to read about the farms from which their coffee came.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

As its name implies, the Rainforest Alliance is a coalition of NGOs, businesses and others united to conserve forests. The organization built its reputation on environmental conservation and it has some of the strictest conservation standards. The only label that may exceed it in that regard is Bird Friendly, which requires organic certification. Rainforest Alliance Certified farms can also obtain organic certification, but it is not required and the standards permit the limited use of some chemicals.

Rainforest Alliance certifies farms that produce more than a dozen tropical goods and adjusts its environmental standards to suit each one. Orange trees, for example, grow at a lower altitude than coffee, attract different pests than bananas and they don't thrive under a shady canopy  like cocoa can. The Rainforest Alliance's standards are designed to accommodate those differences. Like Bird Friendly, Rainforest Alliance's coffee standards call for a dozen or more native species of trees in a canopy that shades at least 40 percent of the land.

Like Utz and Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance certified farms must comply with strict labor rules, pay living wages, provide training and education or scholarships to workers and their children. They also have dozens of requirements for business efficiency, transparency and documentation.

Photo credit: Rob Goodier

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade certification aims to compensate farmers adequately for their work. The label is applied to dozens of tropical crops and it's the most readily recognized name in the field. The one thing it does differently from other labels is impose a minimum rate that buyers must pay to farmers. Currently, that rate for coffee (specifically for washed arabica, a common type of higher-quality coffee) is $1.25 per pound. If the market rate is higher than its minimum, then market rates are charged. Fair Trade then tacks on an extra 10 cents per pound, which guarantees that the coffee will sell for more than the market rate. And if it's also certified organic, then it must be sold for an additional 20 cents per pound. Last year, the price of arabicas and robustas averaged at just about $1.25, the same as Fair Trade's minimum, the International Coffee Organization reported. Arabicas ranged from about $1.22 to $1.45.

Nearly a decade ago when coffee prices bottomed out, Fair Trade’s minimum helped keep farmers in business. Now, with higher market rates, certification fetches farmers an extra 10 cents per pound, similar to other certifiers. Also, as with Utz and Rainforest Alliance, the label didn’t stop at just one of the pillars of sustainability—in this case social measures, it also went on to adopt better business and environmental standards.

“We're going to make sure that farmer's price is covered,” said Paul Rice, CEO of Transfair USA, the certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. “All of that is what makes Fair Trade truly unique, but it's wrong to conclude that we're strong on the social and weak on the environmental.”

The Commonality

Until governments can take responsibility for environmental and labor regulations, independent certifiers must fill the gaps in an imperfect system. In a sense, wherever they operate they struggle to fill the roles of an international Environmental Protection Agency, a Department of Labor and a Better Business Bureau rolled in one.

“All of the certifications are, in my opinion, so alike,” said Jennifer Barth, who studied coffee farms certified by different labels in Guatemala and elsewhere while earning a doctorate at Oxford University. “They're more similar than maybe they originally would have thought.” Though they try to emphasize their differences, they ultimately work together to improve how food is made. And, she said, they even have effects on non-certified farms as the human and financial advantages to running good farms become clear. “I like this idea that there's an increased focus on your coffee,” she said. “It is changing, even if slowly and even if small.

Photo credit: Rob Goodier


Thanks, Rob! I just want to clarify this statement: "Every certifier listed here conducts yearly farm audits. They all charge the farmers for those audits. They all charge buyers for the right to use their labels, with the exception of the Rainforest Alliance, which charges large farmers a certification fee that buyers sometimes defray." I think what you mean to say is that the Rainforest Alliance does not charge companies a licensing fee like other certification programs do, but some larger companies do decide to pay for the audit fees of their supplier farms. We do not regulate this and I just want to clarify that we don't charge farms a "certification fee" in addition to an "audit fee". Those are one in the same. Thanks!

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