Rainforest Alliance vs. Fair Trade

Having had a few people ask me the difference between the two, I thought I’d write a summary to clarify some of the key distinctions.

With all the confusing labels around it can be easy to assume that if a company adopts a ‘sustainable’ symbol, it is doing something to help preserve our world. Yet it’s not always that simple.

The drive for greater corporate social responsibility has created a market for business-driven sustainability. As businesses are pressured to be seen ‘making a difference’ they are seeking the easiest way to improve their reputation, without actually making a difference to their standards.

The key difference can be seen between the standards set by Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade. Whilst Fair Trade relies on independent monitoring boards to ensure standards are met, Rainforest Alliance heads up its own standard setting body, operating in a somewhat closed system.

Fair Trade sets stringent standards for farmer’s organisations and hired labour, helping form cooperatives and encouraging democratic decision-making, ensuring the standards are upheld by the workers themselves. It provides a minimum wage, which not only ensures a decent regular income, but also allows for future independence. However, Rainforest Alliance has no such system, setting no minimum wage, and has no requirements for building farmers unions. Moreover Rainforest Alliance only requires the producer to comply with its standards by 50% and for the product to contain 30%. This means that a Rainforest Alliance certified product could contain 30% ingredients that are sourced from a plantation which still relies on child labour.

Finally, anyone can adopt the Rainforest Alliance label with no fee, but there is a 2% charge for becoming Fair Trade, which goes towards building community development projects, ensuring standards are improved for farm workers with every sale.

There is a useful chart set out by the Organic Consumers Association that outlines the key differences if you want to read more.

In essence Rainforest Alliance offers standards to help the environment, whilst Fair Trade builds on this and creates standards in addition that are good for the workers.

Just give it some thought the next time you buy some teabags.


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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dear H,

    I’d like to correct a few of the mistakes you’ve made in speaking about the Rainforest Alliance.
    1). Our standards development complies with the Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards of the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling (ISEAL) Alliance, of which Fair Trade is also a member. We have an International Standards Committee full of experts in labor rights and farm production, sustainability, etc. Read more here: http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/agriculture.cfm?id=standards_development.
    2). Our standards DO require that farms pay the local minimum wage and our standards cover the right to unionize as a critical criteria.
    3). In order to pass audits to receive certification, farms must comply with 100% of critical criteria, 80% of all 94 criteria AND 50% of each principle category (of which there are 10 principles). This prevents a farm that is good on the environmental side from passing if they are lacking on the labor rights end. You can find the standards on our website.
    4). Products can carry the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal if they have 30% certified content, but the percentage on the label must be indicated right under the seal. In addition, we require all companies to scale up to 100%.
    5). You are correct in stating that the Rainforest Alliance does not charge companies to use our seal, but they must prove that they have purchased from certified farms and sign a licensing agreement. The licensing fee charged by Fair Trade does not go back to the farm as you say, but rather into a marketing budget. Because we do not charge a fee, our marketing budget is very slim, so unfortunately we don’t have quite as much opportunity to educate consumers about our program.
    6). The Rainforest Alliance is a holistic program that focuses equally on social, environmental and economic issues.

    I would suggest if you are going to post further about the Rainforest Alliance, or other certification programs, that you first look at their website and/or contact them directly. We are always interested in engaging in dialogue.

    Abby from the Rainforest Alliance

  2. Hi,

    Just wondering, based on everything that’s been said, which accreditation is then more beneficial for third world farmers and the environment overall?


    • Hi,
      Both Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance offer beneficial systems for third world farmers escape poverty. However Fairtrade is committed to challenging the existing injustices in the trade system and offer an alternative. Rainforest Alliance focuses heavily on the environment, whereas Fairtrade could perhaps include more criteria in that area. Each have their pros and cons, but personally I think the Fairtrade mark offers the better deal as it offers a comprehensive and holistic approach to improving the injustices in the current trade system.
      I hope that helps, if there are any more questions don’t hesitate to ask, and if I don’t have an answer then check out their webpages which have the key information there.

    • Hi, i work for Unilever, a multinational company that works with both Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance. I have worked closely on launches of some of our products that are certified by either RA or FT.

      RA and FT have different objectives and use a different approach. 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.

      The reality is that we shouldn’t focus on the difference between RA and FT. We should focus on the difference between credibly certified and non-certified goods. Both RA and FT are members of ISEAL, http://www.isealalliance.org/ the de facto gold standard for certification schemes.
      They are both credible and sound schemes working towards a sustainable future.

      • Thanks for your comment, you raise some good points and it certainly is encouraging to see the development of more sustainable and ethical approaches to trade. Interesting to hear that you work for Unilever – how many of your products are FT or RA certified? Is this a move to see all of your products become certified in the future or merely a marketing ploy?

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