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Setting the Right Standards for the Expanding Sustainable-Certification Market

Not long ago, sustainable certification was mostly a phenomenon of hard-to-find "green" and or "ethical" products that appealed to small market niche. Today, it's big business, the glamorous object of mass marketing and branding, with measurable percentage global market shares. But can mass salesmanship convey the sense of mission behind it?

Just within the last year or so Rainforest Alliance (RA) Certified coffee production expanded from Latin America into Ethiopia and global giants such as Kraft put RA-Certified content into mainstream products such as Yuban coffee or IKEA furniture, making made them available in supermarkets and mass merchandise stores worldwide. The global market for Forest Stewardship Council certified wood passed the $5 billion mark. Other voluntary green and/or ethical certifications such as Fairtrade and organic also experienced similar double digit growth in recent years.

Scaling up in production and marketing has meant a corresponding boom social and environmental benefits for workers and habitat in producing countries, along with more and greener choices for consumers, and that's what counts. Yet for those of us working in the sustainability sector, it also presents some difficulties -- frustrating misconceptions and distortions of the finer points of building a greener, fairer economy in a big-league world of fierce competition, big money and short sound bites.

For example, a recent Ethical Corporation piece posted on GreenBiz last month rightly celebrated the importance of ethical branding as the last great commodity differentiator among competitors otherwise equal on cost and quality. But on the subject of Kraft embracing Rainforest Alliance certification, it repeated the misconception Fairtrade was "harder to achieve" than Rainforest Alliance, the implication being that Kraft took the easier way out.

Rainforest Alliance certification is if anything more stringent on many levels, though direct comparisons are problematic since the certification programs are quite different. The problem we face in explaining this is that the specific differences, best practices and benefits of the various certification models could fill a Ph. D. thesis, and don't lend themselves to a five-second tag line or a bumper sticker.

Rainforest Alliance certification covers a broad range of environmental, social and economic standards -- including rigorous requirements for clean water, reduced pesticide use, habitat protection, worker housing, health care and 200 other criteria. Farmers have to commit to continuous improvements to get and maintain certification. In return, they gain efficiencies and can command higher prices for their crop -- a virtuous circle. Among its particular selling points, the Rainforest Alliance program:
  • gives equal attention to the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainability,
  • was developed in the tropics by farmers, scientists, and NGOs to benefit farmers, workers and wildlife;
  • is managed by leading national NGOs in the producer countries;
  • works with farms of all sizes, including plantations with contracted labor forces.
So when Kraft and other companies or farmers choose Rainforest Alliance, it isn't because RA is cheaper or easier than other certifications; it’s simply that RA is a good fit with these producers' corporate cultures and business models -- a critically important matter when it comes to retooling businesses on a global scale.

The fact is, progressive farmers and companies have widely divergent needs, and they deserve a variety of sustainability models. In many cases producers seek multiple certifications, proving that different models aren’t mutually exclusive. There is room and need for Rainforest Alliance Certified, Fairtrade, organic, FSC, Marine Stewardship Council and other credible programs to do different, good things and for each to find their places in the mass market.

But keeping them all straight is inside baseball. Try getting all the above to flash through the minds of consumers while they are reading an ad or choosing a product. It’s even a lot to ask of farmers who are working on compliance with certification standards. In exhaustive public consultations, producers recently asked us for standards to be put in simpler, more accessible form, and we’ve responded with revised documents that make principles and criteria clearer.

Branding is another form of simplification for consumers, but for certified products it risks oversimplification. It's not enough that a certified brand seem different from an uncertified one. With so many companies jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, some more seriously than others, it’s vital that brands convey a fair sense of why and how the certification was achieved, including how it may differ from the standards of another brand.

That means educating consumers and creating a market culture where such differences are appreciated, though fora just like this one. It’s a tall order, but with intense and growing interest in sustainable and ethical products these days, there is reason to believe we can achieve a mass market of sustainable brands driven not by hype, but by educated consumer choices.

Tensie Whelan is the executive director of the Rainforest Alliance.

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