Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chapter Four Update: Understanding the Rainforest Alliance and Fair for Life labels

Last weekend I was on retreat with a bunch of Quakers and as it was a potluck (which really seems to be the only way Quakers do social events!) the question of what kind of coffee to bring came up. One of my friends asked if it was okay to bring Rainforest Alliance (RA) certified coffee. She bought her coffee from a local company that used the green frog seal and thought that it meant that “the farmers were treated alright.”

In chapter four of my book, I ask “Should We Look for the Label?” and if so which one. Since publication I have noticed the RA label has been popping up on more store shelves, especially since it has been embraced by Caribou Coffee and other retailers. As my day job is near a Caribou location, I have had the chance to talk with Caribou employees about the label and how it is different from Fair Trade Certified.

The ten standards of RA have many appealing elements, especially with growing awareness of environmental issues. The majority of them deal with concerns such as ecosystem conservation, wildlife protection and waste management. There is also one standard related to working conditions, in which “farmers must ensure fair treatment and good working conditions for all employees.” This focus on employees helps us understand an important difference between Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance. “Rainforest Alliance certification was developed to deal with agriculture at large….” I read that as “large agriculture” because RA is certifying a range of farm types, including estates and plantations. Fair Trade certification was started to help small-scale farmers who needed a fair price for their crop to stay on their lands and provide for their families. Unlike in Fair Trade, RA does not guarantee a minimum price but does believe that the RA certification will help farmers demand an above market price because their environmentally friendly product holds more value for conscious consumers.

To my mind, RA offers consumers another option in the marketplace because it addresses a concern that workers who may not own their own land but do need the work offered by estates or plantations are treated responsibly. While I recognize that large agricultural operations have the potential to force small scale farming out of the market, and I myself remain committed to purchasing Fair Trade over RA because I want to be “on the side of the small-scale farmer,” I can’t discount the realities that landless workers face. I also applaud the stated RA mission to “conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods….” (emphasis added)

As with all certifications, an important test is how the value chain is audited to insure that, in this case, workers are benefiting at the same time the planet is being protected. I confess I have no direct personal knowledge of the veracity of the RA certification. As important, as analysts such as Morson and Mongoven point out, another test of the value of certification is whether or not companies that can use a label take the opportunity to incorporate the standards into other aspects of their business. In their article “Many Shades of Green” Morson and Morgoven note that some companies may use a label for good publicity, others to respond to a particular market demand, and others try to transform their practices for their own benefit. Fully committed Fair Traders (those who go beyond using a label on just a few product lines) want to use the marketplace to transform not just their business but indeed the entire marketplace, in order to stop the exploitation that calls for Fair Trade in the first place. That is the most demanding approach to take to label use and, again, I don’t have any experience with the range of responses of RA label users. I’d welcome comments from those who do have direct knowledge.

Another emerging complexity in Fair Trade labeling is the arrival of the “Fair for Life” certification in the U.S. marketplace…more on that in my next posting.

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