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13 February 2019

Rainforest Alliance is developing a new certification standard

Photo: Mark Kucharski / Unsplash

How to turn certification into a development mechanism that would help farmers move towards sustainability at a pace that’s tailored to their capacity? That’s the question Rainforest Alliance seeks to answer as they are developing an improvement of their certification standard.

On February 5, 2019 SIANI hosted a consultation workshop at the SEI HQ in Stockholm, during which Rainforest Alliance invited 20 guests to discuss the first draft of the new framework for their certification criteria. This consultation was part of global round of workshops, ten of which have been held in the Global South and five in the North.

The Rainforest Alliance explains that their vision is to move beyond certification as a simple pass or fail approach and instead work with farmers and other actors along supply chains to achieve sustainable agriculture, livelihoods and landscapes. The new certification will employ a flexible improvement approach that consists of three parts: mandatory core criteria, context-specific mandatory criteria and self-selected improvement topics. The whole process will be data driven, with a goal to enhance transparency and enable development of context specific solutions.

Experience has shown that receiving the certification requires initial investment. Farmers have to sell their product for the price of uncertified crops, which makes it difficult to save the money to get certified. That is why the Rainforest Alliance is looking to introduce a lower threshold, so it is easier for farmers to enter the certification system. After that they can receive support and market access and, therefore, be in a better position to invest in sustainability. The new approach is seen as more sensible than the one with higher initial demands that farmers and cooperatives can’t meet and manage.

But the very idea of a certification is that consumers want to buy a more sustainable product. So, the mandatory core criteria that all producers and suppliers with the Rainforest Alliance’s seal must follow need to be strong enough to generate consumer trust. In exchange for having a relatively low threshold for certification, once farmers gain the seal, it’s mandatory for them to improve on several self-selected sustainability topics or they risk losing the seal.

Another core concept behind having self-selected improvement topics is to be context sensitive. This means, for instance, that larger producers have requirements for working conditions and wages, while smallholders may focus only on farming practices.

Photo: Zeyn Afuang / Unsplash

The discussions during the workshop touched on many issues, including biodiversity and value chain development, but the main critical points can be split into two major categories – technical and those concerned with social sustainability.

One point that was discussed during the workshop was how to use the progression system to motivate farmers to keep improving, while at the same time communicating the different sustainability levels to the industrial actors who are used to work with a system of premiums to differentiate between various quality levels

When it came to social issues, child- and forced labour took the spotlight. Two approaches were discussed: 1) a “zero-tolerance” approach – strictly forbidding both of these practices and ceasing collaboration with producers if they are found, or 2) an “assess and address” approach, which means that in the instances of child- or forced labour, the Rainforest Alliance would work with the producers to improve the situation and the farm would keep it’s seal if they manage to address the concerns.

Many actors from the private sector argued that it would be difficult to sell their products if they don’t forbid all child- and forced labour within the certified farms. However, “cutting and running”, where a producer turns to a different buyer with less strict regulations, could also be a risk. There appeared to be consensus calling for a combination of the two, i.e. having zero-tolerance policy against child- and forced labour, but keeping the assess and address approach as a mitigation tool.

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The outcome of this and the other workshops will be combined with the results of a major survey available online and form the foundation for a second draft of the framework for the criteria. This will also be discussed with partners, and the new standard will be ready for implementation in 2020.