Nigel Sizer of Rainforest Alliance tells Ethical Corporation editor Terry Slavin how the upcoming union with the Dutch certifier will boost the new organisation’s ability to protect biodiversity and farmers’ livelihoods

The furore over Fairtrade this summer overshadowed news of another development that could prove a big boost for third-party sustainability certification: the merger of US-based Rainforest Alliance and UTZ of the Netherlands later this year. 

The merged organisation will keep the more widely recognised Rainforest Alliance name and green frog seal for a new unified certification standard, which will be published early in 2019 after a robust multi-stakeholder consultation, with the two standards operating in parallel until then.  

Nigel Sizer, current president of the Rainforest Alliance, will step aside to allow UTZ’s executive director, Han de Groot, to become the new organisation’s CEO, returning to frontline work as chief programme officer for advocacy, landscapes and livelihoods. 

In an interview with Ethical Corporation, Sizer said that combining forces would give the new NGO significant economies of scale by removing dual certification for the 200,000 farmers who belong to both schemes, allowing it to invest in cutting-edge technology to support the overall system. It would also help curb costs, which he acknowledged was one of the reasons companies like Mondelez were beginning to abandon third-party certification in favour of developing in-house schemes. (See Has Fairtrade passed its sell-by date?

"By drawing our two systems together and being able to invest more in innovation, we hope to create a system that's more efficient, gives better service, has greater impact on the ground and hopefully is able to significantly decreases costs,” Sizer said. “If we are able to do that I think we'll see accelerating demand for what we are doing and expand the impact of our programmes around the world." 

Nigel Sizer is president of Rainforest Alliance

Kraig Kraft, member of the UTZ Standard Committee, said in a blog in Daily Coffee News this summer that the merger was good news for sustainability in the coffee industry, mirroring the consolidation of the industry itself, where Nestle and JAP now account for more than a third of the retail sector.   

This is a golden opportunity to re-imagine the certification system and to address some of its current weaknesses

“Each organisation brings strengths to the table: RA with its conservation and environmental know-how and valued brand, and UTZ with its strong business acumen. By joining forces, these organisations will be more effective in their mission to find a balance among agricultural production needs, environmental conservation and restoration of environmental services,” Kraft said. 

He added that he hoped the new RA would seize the “golden opportunity to re-imagine the certification system" and address some of its weaknesses, which include “cost structures, especially for farmers; conflict of interests resulting from verifiers/auditors providing technical assistance; limited transparency up the chain on certified sales and demand; and limited impact on productivity and poverty.”  

While UTZ is primarily a certification and traceability scheme, reaching 850,000 farmers and over 420,000 workers in 41 producing countries, with a particular strength in coffee and cocoa, certification is a secondary part of Rainforest Alliance’s mission, accounting for "well under half” its budget, Sizer said.  

The New York-based organisation’s focus has been on a landscapes approach to preserving biodiversity, promoting community-based forest conservation and lifting farmers' income by helping them to make more productive use of their land and gain favourable access to markets.  

Rainforest Alliance co-founded the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), which certifies that products meet comprehensive social, economic and environmental standards, and the Forest Stewardship Council, providing third-party verification that forest products meet both FSC and Rainforest Alliance standards. 

Certification isn’t going to reach the majority of the farmers of the commodities we are most concerned about – or at least any time soon. So wider engagement on policy across landscapes with governments and communities is also very important

Critics of the Rainforest Alliance have pointed to the fact that, in contrast to Fairtrade, a company can use the Rainforest Alliance seal with as little as 30% of its products sourced from SAN-certified farms or from FSC-certified forests (compared to 100% for Fairtrade), though companies have to agree to work towards 100%.  UTZ, meanwhile, sets a minimum requirement of 90% for products other than tea, where it is 30%. The rules for certification under the new merged standard will be established after a year-long multi-stakeholder consultation, but a Rainforest Alliance spokesman said “most likely there will be a scale which allows companies to start and grow their sustainability commitments”. 

Asked whether he thought the higher cost to brands of Fairtrade certification, which requires the payment of a cost premium to farmers, was a significant factor driving the likes of Sainsbury’s and confectionary giant Mondelez to try in-house approaches, Sizer said cost issues “may drive quite a lot of those corporate decisions.” 

Neither UTZ nor Rainforest Alliance’s certifications scheme require that producers be paid a premium. Rainforest Alliance’s focus has instead been on improving livelihoods of farmers through market-based methods. But he added that “we certainly encourage premiums to be paid”, and that premiums have acted as an incentive for farmers to become certified, particularly in cocoa and coffee.  

“There are different views about this in the industry,” Sizer said. “My view is that I want to see the industry competing to buy more sustainably produced products. And if as a result they are paying a higher price for these products, it’s benefiting the farmers and will encourage more to get certified.” 

Sizer pointed out that certification schemes do not reach more than 20%-40% of the production of crucial commodities. Despite increasing demand, he said, both UTZ and Rainforest Alliance recognise that certification “isn’t going to reach the majority of the farmers of the commodities we are most concerned about – or at least any time soon. So wider engagement on policy across landscapes with governments and communities is also very important.”  

UTZ's Han de Groot will be CEO of the new Rainforest Alliance

So is finding other ways to work with farmers who don’t want to be part of certification systems.  The merged Rainforest Alliance, he said, “will be looking to innovate much more in the future around that challenge.” 

It’s just not good enough for companies to make the commitment to deforestation and effectively continue business as usual, saying there’s a lack of agreement on definitions. We are removing that excuse 

One recent innovation for Rainforest Alliance has been working with a coalition of NGOs, including Greenpeace, the Forest Peoples Programme, WWF, the World Resources Institute and the Nature Conservancy to develop the Accountancy Framework, a common set of norms and guidelines for companies seeking to eliminate ecosystem destruction and human exploitation from their commodity supply chains. 

While many companies, including the 400 members of the Consumer Goods Forum, have committed to be deforestation-free by 2020, Sizer says, there has been no guidance on how to get there. “The private sector is very interested to know what we [NGOs] think ‘good’ looks like in this space and that hasn’t been available before. … It’s just not good enough to make the commitment and effectively continue business as usual, saying there’s a lack of agreement on definitions. We want to get beyond that to work through those challenges and ensure there is solid progress, implementation and consistency” in deforestation-free commitments. 

Sizer said he expected that the Rainforest Alliance, which already certifies palm oil producers, mainly in Latin America, will become much more involved in the global palm oil supply chain post-merger as UTZ has a close partnership with the Malaysian-based Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, supplying traceability. “After the merger we want to have a deep conversation with the RSPO on how we can work more closely together. It’s a nice opportunity to help address some of the challenges they have had.” 

Sizer, who spent many years in Indonesia, and was lead advisor on climate change and energy issues in Asia to former US President Bill Clinton, said he is looking forward to returning to South East Asia and other parts of the world to support teams in the field as part of his new role in the merged Rainforest Alliance.  

“It’s a good, good move for me, and a good move for Han [De Groot] and we will have a stronger leadership team as a result.” 

The Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala is an example of FSC-certified community forestry 

This articles is part of a three-part series looking at why brands are starting to abandon certification schemes. See also:

Has Fairtrade passed its sell-by date?

How Sainsbury's lost its taste for Fairtrade

Rainforest Alliance  UTZ  Fairtrade  certification  RSPO  Accountancy Framework  deforestation  Consumer Goods Forum 

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