Are you sure you bought the Rainforest Alliance coffee, organic bananas and fair trade certified chocolate? Shopping can sure be complicated these days. Walk into your Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or even a Costco or Kroger, and you are bound to find products with a bevy of labels–or even more confusing, different brands that each sport a different stamp of approval. Got fair trade, organic or cruelty free? Watch for a continued shake out, as some labeling organizations disappear while others thrive.
Different certification schemes all have their most fervent supporters and caustic detractors. Fair Trade USA, for example, has been a leader in improving environmental stewardship and most importantly for growers and their families, wages and better economic opportunities around the world. But when the U.S. NGO broke ties with Fair Trade International earlier this year, you would have thought Eddie Fisher left Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor all over again. Meanwhile one certification program that keeps growing, avoids controversy, and now is scoring more multinationals under its umbrella is Rainforest Alliance, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.
As the Wall Street Journal’s Ralph Gardner outlined yesterday, Rainforest Alliance has thrived and gone mainstream. The organization does its best work in the regions of the world that grow the most coveted products–and because of a bevy of challenges suffer some of the most dire environmental and social injustices. Partnering with the Forest Stewardship Council, Rainforest Alliance manages certification, validation and verification services for large companies and indigenous communities alike. An alliance with Sustainable Agricultural Network certifies businesses that pledge to serve only products sourced from farms that protect both people and habitats.
The results have been impressive. Dove’s dark chocolate sports the little green frog that has made the Rainforest Alliance one of the most easily recognized labels. Caribou Coffee, the second largest coffee chain in the U.S. after Starbucks, now only purchases Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee. Now tea companies are joining the bandwagon, with The Republic of Tea an engaged stakeholder and in what is a huge coup, Lipton will sport the same label on all of its tea products by 2015.
Two trends in part are behind Rainforest Alliance’s growing success. First, more consumers are pushing their favorite brands and companies to become more environmentally and socially responsible, so the intangible benefits are obvious. But a world confronting more scarce and costly resources is also driving this push towards standards like those of Rainforest Alliance’s. Whether companies like Unilever push for more sustainable palm oil or a beverage company confronts water scarcity, factors from drought to political unrest can threaten a supply chain at any moment. While all of these schemes are imperfect, they provide a framework for accountability, economic justice and for the consumer, quality.
Just walk down the aisle at the nearest Whole Foods and try some of the products – the chances are high that you will buy that coffee, produce or chocolate again – they are extra enjoyable when you know that human rights and biodiversity still have that fighting chance thanks to your purchase.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.
Image of Unilever Tea Kenya’s Kericho Estate courtesy Rainforest Alliance.