Rainforest Alliance Is Not Fair Trade

If you have ever thought Rainforest Alliance Certified is equivalent to fair trade, you are not alone…

In previous blogs about confusing labels we have highlighted the concerning labeling misrepresentations on specific products including chocolate bars, iced tea, and coffee.  In this case, we are concerned about the misrepresentation of an entire labeling program.

RA-truffles-webThough officially Rainforest Alliance does not call itself a fair trade label, the message has reached consumers that it is a fair trade label. Sometimes this is due to blatant mis-labeling as in this example of chocolates from this past Valentine’s Day. Other times it is due to the way Rainforest Alliance is positioned in association with fair trade labels in retail settings, most notably with Whole Food’s Whole Trade guarantee program, which gives equal recognition to Rainforest Alliance as legitimate fair trade labels when awarding use of its Whole Trade Guarantee seal.

However, Rainforest Alliance Certified is not a fair trade label. It is lacking several key components of fair trade programs including trade standards. There are no requirements for buyers to pay minimum or fairly negotiated prices, develop long-term relationships, or offer financing. Participating farmers are not organized democratically and are not offered a fair trade premium for community development projects. It is a program focused solely on management of on-farm environmental resources with some social standards for workers on farms. Because of its on-farm focus and lack of trade standards, it is more naturally suited for larger farms rather than the small producers that are at the core of the fair trade movement.


Even though labor standards are included in the Rainforest Alliance program, there are questions about their effectiveness. Even on paper, key components such as limits on working hours, voluntary overtime, and time off are included but not deemed “critical,” which means a farm on which workers are, for example, forced to work overtime may in theory be certified.

But it is not just that this could happen that concerns us, it is that it is happening.  Tres Hermanas is a banana plantation in Honduras that was named in an official complaint filed through CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement. The complaint claims that Honduras has not fulfilled its commitment under the trade agreement in enforcing labor laws. Though Tres Hermanas is only one case cited in the report, it is important because this plantation is also Rainforest Alliance Certified. The union, SITRAINBA, has more recently reported violations including failure to pay minimum wages and overtime and harassment of union supporters. The egregious situation is the subject of a recent International Labor Rights Forum alert.

Voluntary labeling systems such as Rainforest Alliance are meant to provide market incentives for businesses, including farms, to do more than required by government regulations in areas such as fairness and sustainability. By allowing the use of its seal for plantations that violate basic labor laws such as Tres Hermanas, Rainforest Alliance is rewarding bad actors with marketing advantages.

The above issue, coupled with the fact that Rainforest Alliance Certified is often confused as a fair trade labeling initiative creates a situation where businesses that are not even meeting minimum government regulations for labor rights are undermining the efforts of a movement striving to ensure small producers and their own workers are paid and treated fairly in trading relationships.

Here are a few things you can do:

  • If any of your favorite brands use the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal, let them know you would like them to switch to a legitimate fair trade label to show their commitment to fair payments, fair working conditions, and environmental sustainability. A list of certified products can be found on Rainforest Alliance’s website and our own website has an overview of fair trade labels.
  • Join the International Labor Rights Forum in their petition and follow their efforts to ask Rainforest Alliance to immediately correct the current situation with Tres Hermanas.
  • Check out our committed brands section to find companies that are already committing to true fair trade practices.


9 thoughts on “Rainforest Alliance Is Not Fair Trade

  1. Rainforest Alliance is not Fair Trade?
    So what?
    Fair Trade is not Organic and nobody is asking to forget about Fair Trade and just choose Organic products.

    Fair Trade is primary about people not the environment. Maybe as a secondary aspect it tries to have good environmental practices but that is not the main focus of the organization. The main focus of Fair Trade is to alleviate poverty by ensuring that farmers/workers get compensated equitably for their work.

    Rainforest Alliance’s primary goal is about conserving biodiversity, i.e. the main focus on this organization is about the environment.

    It is not a questions of Rainforest Alliance vs. Fair Trade. Both of them are complementary.

    Thank you.

    1. That would work if it was mandatory for products to have both, it is not the case, so people can still be exploited, while the producer has a fancy logo on their packaging, so complementary, not currently unfortunately.

  2. There is no reason Rainforest could not do both. this report mentions a case where they have certified growers that are committing unfair labor practices. why couldn’t they find growers who are good to the foredsts and also fair to their workers

  3. fair trade doesn’t actually have anything to do with the environment and on Zavida coffee beans it explains what the Rainforest Alliance certifies and says otherwise but their trueness isn’t certified so technically everything they “certify” could be a lie so how do we know they actually care about the people who spend their lives planting and harvesting coffee beans for all we know they just want farmers to respect the environment so they say they’ll help them with health and education but they don’t.

  4. Let’s say that you are a poor farmer with little or no resources and you barely survive the season.
    Would you follow a quality standard or do you cheat the process? To support a standard is expensive and even big companies with big pockets are unable to fulfill. You can’t expect any quality of a poor farmer. To think the opposite is only wishful thinking and it is not a reality.
    Ergo, Rainforest Certification is bluff if the ecology measures are not followed or (conclusion of) social measures.

  5. Is it unreasonable to ask that organisations like Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance look after both things: people and the planet?
    If there does need to be separate entities, each to look after a different aspect of sustainability then should we not ask, as consumers, that products need to meet all standards of sustainability – Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance (or whatever they may call themselves now and in the future).
    We need to love people (although some of them may be foolish, flawed or disappointing) and we need to love our planet – it’s a beautiful place and animals, albeit ‘red in tooth and claw’, are wondrous and awe-inspiring, too. Let’s not have one without the other.

  6. I don’t know why two good guys are fighting each other instead of joining forces to ensure certification meets both sets of criteria, good for Earth and good for us?!

  7. Why don’t you do the right thing and link to the independent ITC Standards Map available at http://www.sustainabilitymap.org which shows the similarities and differences among 260+ standards. It is this proliferation of standards who have effectively competed for market share, creating duplication, sowing the seeds of confusion and leading to a mess of wasted effort.
    The Standards Map shows the inadequacy of FairTrade standards in the areas of environmental protection, Biodiversity and Climate Change compared to Rainforest Alliance but I notice that you don’t want to mention those important differences…
    “Holier than thou” attitudes from standards that create cost-of-compliance and chain-of-custody audits and therefore add bureaucracy and cost do NOT service farmers’ interests and is why certification is no longer enough (if it ever was) to stand for anything meaningful!

  8. Rainforest alliance is a gimmick to make people believe they’re spending money eco- consciously, when in fact it’s all a farce.

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