Our first post on labels mentioned the Label Lookup iPhone App, which evaluates and rates claims on product labels. It ranks products on a scale of 0 to 4 “green leaves,” 4 being the most trustworthy and reliable. Rainforest Alliance Certified gets four leaves, for example. Must be great, right? And it might be tempting to end your inquiry there… but we encourage you to dig a bit deeper.
In 1992, the Rainforest Alliance entered a partnership with Chiquita when the banana industry’s reputation for environmental and human rights violations came under fire and Chiquita wanted to improve its corporate social responsibility track record. (For more on how that went in the human rights department, read here and here.) In 2002, the organization Human Rights Watch issued a report on Chiquita’s plantations in Ecuador called Tainted Harvest: Child Labor and Obstacles to Organizing on Ecuador’s Banana Plantations. The report showed that these plantations relied on child labor, violated labor rights and suppressed attempts of workers to form unions. Needless to say, that did not look good for Chiquita or the Rainforest Alliance!
In 2007, the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies reported its review of the Rainforest Alliance’s certification system, in which researchers used the Chiquita Banana farm certification as a case study. In explaining the aftermath of the Human Rights Watch report, the GSI report noted that Chiquita, as a publicly-held company, had to be transparent about the Human Rights Watch report. There’s no record that the Rainforest Alliance, on the other hand, a non-profit who does not have such requirements (but should be transparent to its donors), mentioned anything about these problems to the public.
In response, the Rainforest Alliance did re-inspect the plantations mentioned in the report. The result? No violations found – so the plantations in Ecuador did not lose their certification. And this is where things get pretty complicated… In reviewing the battling inspection results, one must note that it would be both a blow to the image and financial situation of Rainforest Alliance to lose Chiquita as a partner.
Further, in 2009, the International Labor Rights Forum and the Organic Consumers Association issued a response to the Rainforest Alliance raising concerns about the operations of the organization. A living wage, maternity leave and confidentially in regards to HIV or genetic testing are not guaranteed for workers on Rainforest Alliance certified farms.
It may be easier to understand the different factors involved here by comparing Rainforest Alliance to another organization, such as Fairtrade International [note: the name for Fairtrade Labeling Organization International since 2011], as this chart by the Organic Consumers Organization does:
Fair Trade International, formerly the Fairtrade Labeling Organization International, is monitored by another organization, FLO-Cert. In contrast to the Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade follows the International Labor Organization conventions and requires a democratic decision-making process for collective-organized producers and unionization rights for hired workers.
Another difference between Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade International is the percent of the product which has to be “fair trade” for the product to earn certification. While Rainforest Alliance is not a “fair trade” certification program [see clarification from a reader comment below - thanks, again!], that may not be clear to the consumer, who might be surprised to learn that Fair Trade International requires 100%, while the Rainforest Alliance requires only 30%.
As you can see, not all fair trade organizations are created equal. The challenge for the consumer (however difficult it may be!) is to understand the meaning behind the labels. This does not mean to never buy food labeled Rainforest Alliance Certified. The Label Lookup app highlights some of the things the organization is doing well. However, this blog entry is a warning that even apps or websites that rank and evaluate different labels do not always tell the whole story. Every level of the supply chain introduces new complexities.
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