Fairtrade vs. Rainforest Alliance

Here’s a very interesting article about the differences between the two certification standards. It certainly affirms the doubts I had about the Rainforest Alliance approach to farmers in the tropics.

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7 thoughts on “Fairtrade vs. Rainforest Alliance

  1. Michiel Leijnse

    It’s a shame this article has given you doubts- perhaps you should do some more research to come to a balanced view.

    I work for Unilever, a multinational company that works with both Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance. I have been closely involved in the launch of some of our products that were certified by either FT or RA. I am writing this in a private capacity though.

    This article is not helpful since it is badly researched and biased. It contains several factual errors about both FT and RA.

    Justin failed to mention that both FT and RA are members of ISEAL-( http://www.isealalliance.org ) which is the de facto gold standard for certification schemes. ISEAL has strict guidelines for the creation fo standards, using stakeholder involvement.

    FT and RA have different objectives. Both schemes have their strengths and weaknesses. They’re complimentary, and both further sustainable development, but in different ways. To say one is better than the other is like saying apples are better than oranges.

    Unfortunately some people see certification schemes as a zero-sum game- if RA wins then FT loses. This is doing a disservice to both schemes. The reality is that we shouldn’t focus on the difference between RA and FT. We should focus on the difference between certified and non-certified goods. If only one consumer buys a non-certified product instead of an RA certified product as a result of this article then that is a loss for sustainable development as a whole.

    And I would have said exactly the same thing if the article had been written pro RA and contra FT.

    For a detailed rebuttal, including the numerous factual errors, pls see http://organicconsumers.org/forum/index.php?showtopic=2846

  2. Endangered Species Chocolate

    This is an interesting article, but I agree with Michiel, both RA and FT are at least doing something to correct a problem with the current system. I would also like to add that just because some companies are not FT or RA certified does not mean that they do not practice fair/ethical trading polices. Endangered Species Chocolate used to be partnered with Fairtrade, however we decided to take a more active role in distributing the social premium we were paying for our goods. We now work closely with co-ops and family owned farms in African and South America. In fact, we have a team on the ground in Ecuador today (08/29/09) working with a cocoa co-op to find out what they could best use to improve their living conditions. Endangered Species Chocolate has committed itself to an ethical trade policy, which means we not only pay a fair market price for our cocoa, but are active in improving our farmer’s living conditions. We accomplish this by installing water pumps and filtration systems as well as donating thousands of dollars worth of school and medical supplies.

    Endangered Species Chocolate

  3. Michael Post author

    Yes, third-party certification is an important step towards making food production more transparent. But my unease with the RA seal stems from more than just an impression. I spoke at length with Mr. Millard about the cocoa certification and I came away with the impression that the mandates to the cocoa farmers are rather stringent while the benefits are not nearly as clear. The recent announcement by Mars to use some RA certified cocoa mentions only the possibility of better prices, no assurance.

    Here’s my rub: Mars gets the free use the RA seal which carries a large amount of good will among consumers. RA gets a huge boost in name recognition and possibly more members. The farmers get a set of onerous requirements and the hope that eventually this could result in a higher income. Somehow that does not add up for me.

  4. Michiel Leijnse

    ‘ The farmers get a set of onerous requirements and the hope that eventually this could result in a higher income. Somehow that does not add up for me’

    Look at it this way: once a company has made a commitment to use only crops from RA certified farms, it can’t go back. Can you imagine the headlines if they tried? So those farmers that make the commitment to become certified make an investment, knowing that they will have a competitive edge over those that are not certified. And invariably not everybody will be certified. That competitive edge is important in a commoditized market. RA certification aims to reward farmers that invest in their business, and produce good quality product, in a responsible way.

    The other group that benefits is the consumer: consumers get a guarantee that the product they buy was produced in a responsible way. Currently there is no way to know if your chocolate was produced without child or forced labour if it doesn’t have a label. Certification by either RA or FT or Utz provides those kind of guarantees.

    Simply too many products are produced in circumstances that consumers have no idea about (and sometimes don’t want to know). Certification brings much needed clarity.

  5. Michael Post author

    I agree with the principles of third party certification. That’s not the issue. My issue is with the proliferation of labels that create the impression that these certifications are interchangeable, when they are not.

    The segmentation of the farmers into “innovators” and “laggards” is, of course, exactly the same strategy as that of the World Cocoa Foundation, Mars and the Gates Foundation. They aim to create “master” farmers who are productive even at low prices by adopting “modern” farming methods. Never mind the rest of the farmers.

    In fact, the entire RA certification depends on that division. If all farmers adopted RA certification, the price effect would be zero. While Mars and RA benefit.

    I still maintain that, at least for cocoa, fairtrade certification achieves similar environmental goals while vastly exceeding RA certification in terms of social benefits both for individual farmers and farming communities.

  6. Michiel

    ‘ In fact, the entire RA certification depends on that division. If all farmers adopted RA certification, the price effect would be zero. ‘

    Maybe, but some of the worst practices we see (like child labour, destruction of habitats, etc) would no longer take place. All workers would benefit from good working conditions. The environment would be better protected. Wouldn’t that be an enormous achievement?

    the price effect would also be very close to zero if all producers became Fairtrade certified. because the demand for fairtrade is much smaller than the supply. So the majority of the FT certified farmers would not be able to sell their product as FT certified. (This is already the case now- most farms that are FT certified sell only a small % of their production as FT.)