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Rainforest Alliance: New Merger May Strengthen Sustainable Agriculture Movement

By Jan Lee

For fair trade advocates, the recent merger of Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certification represents an innovative attempt to blend two complementary ambitions into one. In January, after almost a year of consultation, research and brainstorming, the two organizations moved in together, setting up a new a multi-faceted partnership that would allow them to function simply as Rainforest Alliance.

For the two organizations, said Rainforest Alliance’s new CEO, Han de Groot, the partnership makes perfect sense. It brings together strengths that, for years, have been critical to reinforcing the fair trade mission.

“Both organizations have a long history of meaningful impact on sustainable agriculture and driving certification, encompassing strengths in varied sectors,” said de Groot.

Still, many member companies have had questions about how the merger will affect the fair trade movement. Just as concerning, how would it affect the certification and the participation of companies that had helped to nurture the two programs?

According to de Groot, who served as Utz’s CEO prior to the change, the merger offers members a “simplified certification landscape” with consolidated services under one roof.

The two organizations provide services for approximately 1.9 million farmers, including 182,000 coffee, cocoa and tea growers. De Groot said the merger is meant to acknowledge that the two organizations share similar geographies, both aimed at steps that will benefit the ecological well-being of the countries and regions they address.

Utz, which is known for its fair trade certification program, has also gained attention for its research and white papers on farming and other industries that impact the ecology. That vital skill came to Rainforest Alliance when the two companies joined forces. It is allowing the new organization to research apps for farmers, including in remote locations, study forestry management systems in Guatemala and come up with resources and economic models that will encourage youth to stay in their farming communities in Mexico, rather than to abandon the endeavor and seek out jobs in the city.

De Groot said the input they get from such studies is vital to Rainforest Alliance’s comprehensive work:

Increased amount of data and a larger evaluation and research team will certainly help the new Rainforest Alliance be a stronger player in the conservation sphere. More resources mean more synergies between our landscape conservation work and our forestry and agricultural supply chain work.

But it also endows Rainforest Alliance with another important skill: The ability to use that data, and the information they get back from their members, to modify certification programs to fit the regional and specific needs of their members.

“The new certification system will strengthen the capacity of companies to drive innovation throughout their supply chains - and provide a clearer path to do so. The merger will also allow the new organization to provide better, more flexible services to meet business needs,” explained de Groot.

He said they are still developing the draft standards for the certification, but when it is complete, members and other stakeholders will have an opportunity to offer comments.

“Once we establish what criteria this new standard will contain, we will guide producers through a step-by-step transition, allowing them enough time to make any necessary changes.” De Groot said many of the changes they are implementing reflect the information they received from stakeholders in 2017, prior to the merger.

The new certification program will also be “designed to maximize positive social, environmental, and economic impact, offering farmers an enhanced framework to improve their livelihoods while helping to protect the landscapes where they live and work.

“It will emphasize outcomes and adaptability to local contexts, organizational structures, and will reflect differences in farming activities in different locations,” De Groot said.

Fair trade products assume a modest but increasing share of today’s tea, chocolate and coffee market. Studies conducted by researchers in 2014 found that consumers do associate “fair trade” labeled products with better value and are often willing to pay more for the product. According to researchers from Stanford University, Harvard University and the London School of Business, studies showed that when a fair trade label was later added on to an established coffee product, purchases went up by about 10 percent. On the other hand, price inflation of non-fair trade products resulted in a decrease in sales.

The Rainforest Alliance merger, which aligns the skills of two well-respected fair trade labels under the same roof may help to propel that momentum as consumers look for ways to contribute to stopping habitat loss and climate change in the regions they most care about.

According to Giving USA, contributions to environmental organizations increased 7.2 percent (5.8, when adjusted for inflation) in 2016, suggesting that public concerns about conservation and vulnerable ecologies may continue to grow as climate change becomes a greater, and more concerning reality.

Applied diligently, Rainforest Alliance’s increased investment in research and white paper studies won’t just help build a resilient certification program. It may offer stronger resources for protecting the world’s most vulnerable forests against climate change.

Originally published in CR Magazine - Summer 2018
Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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