A Series about Certifications, part 3 – Rainforest Alliance

Posted on December 21st, 2020

If you’re curious about certifications, this series is for you: Over the course of several blog posts, we’re exploring some of the existing certifications that are available for specialty green coffee, including taking a look at their mission, standards, and whatever auditing or other requirements are important for you to know.  Click here to read about organic certification, or here to investigate Fair Trade/Fairtrade

In the third post of this series, we’ll take a close look at Rainforest Alliance (also known as Rainforest Alliance/UTZ or RFA/UTZ) certification, so you can begin to compare it to the others we’ve discussed so far.  

Rainforest Alliance Certification at a Glance 

Before we begin, here’s a basic run-down of the tenets of Rainforest Alliance certification. 

  • Agricultural, forest, and tourism products/services are eligible for RFA certification following industry-specific guidelines. 
  • Certification for farmers requires third-party auditing on rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. 
  • Small- and large-size farms are both eligible for certification; smallholders organized into member associations or cooperatives are also eligible. 
  • RFA certification does not guarantee a minimum price to producers, but does ensure them a “Sustainability Differential,” a required premium to be paid by the buyer above the going market price for goods. 
  • Net income of certified producers is measured against the Living Income Benchmark, and audits are designed to identify and address human rights issues such as sufficient housing for workers (when applicable); freedom to associate; and child, bonded, and forced labor, among other protections. 
  • Sustainable farm practices such as crop rotation, active soil management, the safe use of agrochemicals and pest control, water conservation, and eco-friendly waste disposal are required; GMOs are prohibited. 
  • There is no cup-score-related quality standard for certification. 

The Origins of Rainforest Alliance 

By this post in the series, you may start to realize that many of the certifications that are the most familiar for coffee started at around the same time, the late 1980s through the 1990s. Rainforest Alliance (RFA) certification follows suit: Deforestation gained more traction during that time as a grave environmental issue, thanks in large part to increased attention to the depletion of the Ozone Layer and other climate concerns. Between 1960 and 1990, there was total destruction of 20 percent of the world’s tropical rainforests.  

This crisis inspired environmentalist Daniel Katz to organize an emergency conference in 1986, out of which RFA was conceived as an NGO with a mission to focus on climate change as the root of myriad corresponding issues that result in widespread poverty in rural areas and those with agrarian economies.   

By 1989, RFA developed and released a sustainable forestry standard, which aimed to incentivize conservation of forests around the world; by 1992, the organization began offering certification for individual and collectively managed farms, starting with two banana farms. The first coffee farm was certified in 1995, and today there are more than 194,000 RFA-certified coffee farmers and 286,461 workers (coffee-specific) in 25 countries worldwide. By 2018, more than 10 percent of the world’s coffee production carried RFA certification. The organization currently has certification presence in more than 70 countries.  

In 2018, RFA merged with another certification program called UTZ, or Utz Kapeh, which means “good coffee” in Mayan Quiché. UTZ certification was established in 2002 and was centered around a farm code of conduct that set standards for husbandry and farming practices as well as environmental standards, human rights, and overall management, similar to RFA. With a new set of combined standards released for 2020, RFA and UTZ have fully aligned their mission and vision, and today we refer to RFA (or, alternately, RFA/UTZ) as the primary certification.  

What You Need to Know

Rainforest Alliance certification comes with a long and comprehensive set of farm requirements that are broken into tiers, and are designed with the idea of “continuous improvement” in mind: After achieving compliance with a set of pass/fail core requirements, farms are then required to make improvements every year. Some of these improvements mandatory, evaluated on a pass/fail basis, and audited within 3- or 6-year schemes, while others are used more broadly to set targets and have less urgency behind their structure. Self-selected improvements are designed by the certified producers, who also determine their own compliance.

The criteria for farm certification cover several major areas that the NGO considers the cornerstones of sustainability:

  • Farm Management – The criteria here focus on efficiency of management, both for individual farms (both small and large) and those that are managed by a group. There are provisions for representation in leadership both with regards to gender and age group and calls for accurate risk assessment as well as accountability in grievance disputes, distribution of funds, resources, training, etc.
  • Income – These standards focus on living income, access to data, the payment of sustainability differentials to farmers, and transparency with regards to investments made by buyer partners into the improvement plans on participating farms.
  • Traceability – Farms must provide documentation and accurate production estimates.
  • Farming Practices – Various requirements related to on-farm activities include planting techniques and crop rotation, pruning, fertilizer use, safe application of approved agrochemicals and pesticides, training and implementation of quality-focused harvest and post-harvest processes, and an explicit ban on GMOs.
  • Human Rights – This set of provisions holds prohibitions on child and forced labor as well as workplace violence and/or harassment; requires contracts for all people employed more than three consecutive months; affirms the right for workers to organize; and insists upon basic dignities for workers, such as safe housing and access to hygienic conditions.
  • Environment – The crux of RFA is an intersection between all of the criteria above and a set of standards for the protection of the environment. These certification requirements call for the protection of endangered species, reforestation projects, increased energy efficiency on the farm and mill, water conservation, respectful human-animal interactions, and more.

While many of the requirements above are considered a mandatory part of achieving RFA certification, the nature of the program is that the farmer/s will continue to improve every year, and the regular audits will track both the core compliance as well as the cumulative renovations and investments being made by producers.

Unlike Fair Trade/Fairtrade, RFA certification does not come with a minimum base price or a predetermined guaranteed price for goods. Instead, there is a mandatory “sustainability differential that RFA buyers must pay to farmers in cash. This additional cash payment is not fixed, but rather is determined by market prices, quality, yield—and can hard to pin down if you are looking for specifics on RFA’s website or in their printed materials. (There is a sustainability differential minimum price for cocoa, but not for other products that carry the RFA seal.)  

Additionally, like with Fair Trade/Fairtrade, there are no specific directives for quality built in to the RFA certifications: While quality is an abstract part of the marketplace appeal for RFA-certified coffees and farmers are expected to aim for high-quality product through their practices and policies, there is no cup-score markers or targets included in the requirements.  

Becoming Certified 

RFA certification requires two types of farm audits: Certification audits happen every two years, with Surveillance audits in between. Certification audits are designed to assess risk levels on the farm, taking a look at climate change impact, gender inequity, potential labor-related red flags such as child or bonded labor, and harassment or violence in the workplace. They assess the mandatory core standards that must be achieved by a farm before the cert is given.  

Surveillance audits are used to track progress and to address risk and/or problems that might arise in order to find positive and sustainable solutions. They include both longer-term mandatory improvements (on a 3- or 6-year timeline) as well as voluntary and self-selected improvement projects that have a less-defined timeline and are at the farmers’ discretion.  

Farmers are responsible for submitting RFA applications as well as for hiring and paying a certifying body: RFA does not regulate the costs of the auditing process, and the fees will vary based on a number of factors, including the size and complexity of the operation, and the geographic location of the farm. Farmers are also required to cover the cost of any compliance-related improvements that are necessary for achieving and maintaining certification. 

For handlers and vendors who want to buy and re-sell RFA-certified products, there are also a variety of fees and dues. The “sustainability differential,” mentioned before, is the amount paid by buyers to farmers above market price for their product. This premium is required. There is also an annual charge of $100 per site for “chain of custody risk assessment” (CRA), as well as additional charges related to auditing. Finally, participating companies are required to pay volume-based royalties to RFA for any product that is advertised as “Rainforest Alliance–certified” and/or contains the RFA seal on packaging and in descriptions. For coffee, this “royalty” is $0.015 per pound green. 

Is RFA-Certified Coffee Better? 

As with any certification scheme, there are benefits and drawbacks that one needs to consider before definitively stating that coffee with the seal is objectively “better” than coffee without it.  

Of the certifications that are most commonly found in coffee, RFA does seem to have the most comprehensive list of standards regarding human rights, including living and working conditions, provisions for health- and childcare, sick time and maternity leave, contracts for temporary and permanent workers, and protections on workers’ rights to assemble and to air grievances safely. The environmental component is also more holistic, generally speaking, than organic certification, as it not only takes the farmland itself into consideration, but also the surrounding forest, natural resources, and local communities.  

On the other hand, there are some vague aspects to the certification, such as the costs for producers to achieve and maintain certification, and the lack of either a fixed-price premium or a minimum floor price that offers risk protection in the case of a market collapse. There is also no specific cup-quality requirement, which can lead to confusion in the marketplace.  

Can I Sell RFA-Certified Coffee? 

In order to sell coffee products with the Rainforest Alliance seal on them, roasters must arrange for their own auditing and certification process: You can find the guidelines and requirements here. As a Rainforest Alliance–certified business, your roastery would be responsible for traceability and record-keeping, as well as paying the volume-based royalty. 

Still have questions? We’re always happy to talk about this or any other certification and compliance! Feel free to reach out to your sales representative or e-mail info@cafeimports.com for more information.