Who Certifies the Certifiers? Retailers put Faith in Rainforest Alliance

Certification is used to indicate the ethical credentials of agricultural products. It is particularly used by transnational corporations such as the producers of tropical fruits like Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita. I am grateful to Banana Link, a UK-based organisation that provides in-depth analysis of the international trade in tropical fruits for permission to reproduce the following article which raises serious questions and doubts about the validity and purpose of SAN/RA standards[1], and should especially prompt the question: who certifies the certifiers? It is reproduced from their News Bulletin of March 2016 (no.54).

[Banana Link: www.bananalink.org.uk]

Key words: Rainforest Alliance; certification; workers’ rights; SAN standards; anti-union tactics; banana production.

In the 1990s and 2000s it was the fruit companies who put their faith in certification and sought to use it as a way of demonstrating to consumers and buyers that they respected a set of social or environmental standards. It was Social Accountability International’s SA 8000 labour standard and Rainforest Alliance’s mainly environmental standard that found favour with Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita.

In the last few months it is the retailers in the UK who have been announcing that they will move to 100% “sustainable sourcing” through the use of certification. Late last year Asda/Walmart announced that 93% of its bananas would be Rainforest Alliance certified by March 2016, the remainder being Fairtrade certified. In February it was the turn of Lidl UK to announce a similar strategy: by the end of this year the 88% of their offer that was not Fairtrade certified would meet Rainforest Alliance standards. Press reports also suggest that Tesco will follow with a similar strategy.

Apart from the crucial difference with Fairtrade – that there is no minimum price enshrined in the standard – how does a certification scheme that started life as a set of purely environmental standards fare when it comes to securing compliance with labour standards for plantation workers?  A report last year from the Honduran federation of agro-industrial workers’ unions Festagro gives serious cause for concern, and is summarised here:

Rainforest Alliance certification and workers’ rights
“Despite the good principles and objectives set out in the certification standards and their theories of change, improvements for workers are hard to detect in practice.” – Dr Ruy Diaz and German Zepeda in “Working Conditions in Certified Banana Plantations in Central America”, August 2015, produced with support from the US-based AFL-CIO Solidarity Centre.

The Rainforest Alliance currently certifies 1600 banana farms covering over 100 000 hectares.

The authors of the report carried out interviews with workers and union representatives in 37 Rainforest Alliance certified farms belonging to both multinational and national producers in Guatemala (North and South), Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Key issues emerging from the interviews
Reponsiveness to workers and the issues covered by the SAN standard

  • No systematic contact between workers and trade unions on the one hand and the certifier and the auditors on the other
  • When issues are raised verbally with auditors they are not resolved
  • The formal complaint procedure is difficult to access (the form is only available in English!)
  • Audit reports are not shared with workers or unions
  • The only cases of de-certification over labour violations were in Honduras where the unions engaged in a public campaign to bring the violations to RA’s attention

 Labour issues found on certified plantations

  • The most systematic and serious is the case of Costa Rica where there is little or no trade union freedom and collective bargaining; there is often systematic persecution of trade union members and they suffer workplace discrimination; there are many cases of sackings of unionised workers using a range of pretexts. The situation also remains serious for workers in national producer companies in Honduras despite de-certification and re-certification of a group of 14 plantations.
  • There are no unions in Southern Guatemala and workers fear to form or join a union because of the anti-union messages from employers and because of the assassination of the leader of the only union that was set up in the region in 2008. This region has the biggest concentration of RA certified farms in the world.
  • Non-payment of minimum wages was found in some plantations in Southern Guatemala and Honduras.
  • Overtime hours are rarely paid in Costa Rica; overtime is de facto obligatory in Nicaragua and Costa Rica and in some national producers in Honduras.
  • In Nicaragua there are several plantations where the employer does not pay full social security contributions.
  • In Honduras and Nicaragua there are violations of holiday rights in many farms; and in Nicaragua workers on long-term sick leave are being made redundant.
  • Sexual harassment is reported in certified plantations in Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica
  • In Southern Guatemala and Honduras there are many plantations with statutory Occupational Health & Safety Committees; in many others the committees function badly or only exist on paper.
  • In Guatemala one community reported being regularly subjected to aerial spraying from the neighbouring certified plantation.
  • Workers on all plantations reported that there is inadequate information provided on agrochemicals they use and little or no training in health and safety in many cases. In Southern Guatemala workers reported up to 12 hour days working with chemicals.
  • Much of the training required in SAN standards is rarely delivered.

The workers all assume that the certification is to benefit the company in marketing its fruit. Although there is a reasonable level of awareness that their employer is certified by RA there is almost no awareness of the details of the standards and therefore how they could use the leverage of certification to demand the end to violations of rights or improvements in working conditions.

[1] SAN/RA: Sustainable Agriculture Network/Rainforest Alliance

The rise of Rainforest Alliance

The previous article from the organisation Banana Link covered the certification of tropical fruit suppliers by the Rainforest Alliance. Banana Link has produced more information on certification by the Rainforest Alliance in the ‘Banana Trade News Bulletin No.55 (August 2016). Given that this issue affects us all as consumers of tropical fruits and users of supermarkets, this further information is reproduced here.

Reproduced by kind permission of Banana Link – www.bananalink.org.uk

Key words: Rainforest Alliance; certification; SAN standards; supermarkets; banana production.

RA certified products (which today include bananas, pineapples, coffee, tea, palm oil and a great many other commodities) are increasingly popular with retailers and other businesses which offer cheap food and drink. Among the companies selling products which carry the RA’s green frog logo are McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Kraft, Unilever, Mars and a great many others not usually perceived as particularly socially or environmentally responsible.

To gain RA certification, banana and pineapple plantations have to comply with Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standards, developed and revised by its International Standards Committee, composed of SAN’s Secretariat and currently a group of 9 experts.

Use of the RA label has expanded rapidly, particularly in coffee, cocoa, tea and bananas since 2010. Around 1 million Metric Tonnes of bananas were certified in 2010. Today over 6 million tonnes display the frog logo, meaning that 5.5% of world banana exports were RA certified in 2014.

This is an impressive achievement, but the rapid expansion of RA certification has invited a growing suspicion that much of its success can be attributed to the laxity of the standards themselves and the undemanding nature of the RA certification process.

SAN standards

Within the Sustainable Agriculture Standard, there are 100 criteria, grouped under ten guiding principles. Six of these principles involve ecological criteria, one relates to management systems and the other three contain social criteria. Of the 100 criteria, 16 are critical and have to be passed to achieve RA certification.

The critical environmental criteria require the protection of existing ecosystems on the farm, the non-destruction of rainforest for farming activities and an embargo on hunting wild animals. Farms may not discharge waste into natural water systems and there is a list of forbidden chemical and biological substances.

The critical social criteria require that:

  • farms do not employ children under the age of 15, use forced labour or apply discriminatory employment practices;
  • workers must have the right to organize freely and to negotiate their working conditions collectively;
  • farms must have and divulge a policy guaranteeing this right and must not impede workers from forming or joining trade unions or from undertaking collective bargaining; and
  • wages should at least equal the regional average or legally established minimums.

Other critical criteria include, in the area of health and safety, that workers in contact with agrochemicals should use personal protective equipment and, in the area of community relations, that farms should put in place policies and procedures which identify and take into account the interests of local populations.

In addition to complying with the critical criteria, farms must also comply with at least 50 per cent of the applicable criteria, relating to each of the ten guiding principles and at least 80 per cent of the total applicable criteria of the Sustainable Agriculture Standard. 46 per cent of all criteria are checked in each individual audit.

Although it’s not possible to analyse the SAN criteria in detail here, it is worth noting that the critical criteria are mostly requirements which are already contained in national legislation, existing company Codes of Practice and in other standards such as GlobalGAP, which are already required by EU retailers selling imported bananas and pineapples. Only one criteria relating to restoration of natural ecosystems appears to add value beyond usual pre-existent requirements.

When it comes to non-critical criteria, there is enough flexibility in the requirements to make it possible for most commercial banana and pineapple plantations to achieve certification without any great difficulty.


SAN authorizes a number of bodies to audit farms and approve certification. 84% of all certifications for all products are carried out by a division of the Rainforest Alliance, RA-Cert (also known as Sustainable Farm Certification International Ltd., SFC). The remaining 16% are mostly carried out in regions which do not export bananas or pineapples to the EU, which means that 100% (or very nearly 100%) of banana and pineapple plantation audits are carried out effectively by Rainforest Alliance itself. As a leading member of SAN, Rainforest Alliance sets its standards and as the owner of RA Cert it also audits farms.

Where violations are found, plantations are normally given warnings, encouraging them to improve performance in future. There is a system for whistle-blowing and RA usually responds quickly to allegations. Some complainants report however that making and following up a complaint can involve a lot of time and effort and there can be no guarantee that they will be satisfied by the outcome.

The only external challenges to the system tend to come from trade unions and civil society organisations which know about the daily realities of life on RA Certified farms. Neither of these agencies have the financial resources to monitor RA farms systematically. Nevertheless, when they do find the resources to investigate, violations of standards (including critical criteria) appear to be almost invariably found. This inevitably raises questions as to the overall reliability of RA and its certification system.

Do certified farms comply with SAN Standards?

It is not always easy for external agencies to get access to farms. This makes it difficult to assess RA’s environmental impacts in any detail. It is easier to assess the Alliance’s social impact as information can be obtained, if necessary, by interviewing workers and trade union organisers outside the plantation gates.

Preliminary investigations of RA’s performance in banana and pineapple farms have been carried out by Banana Link (UK), by Oxfam Germany, by a number of Latin American trade unions and by SOMO Netherlands – for the tea, coffee and flower sectors. Their findings are briefly outlined below:

In Costa Rica, in Ecuador, in Honduras and in Guatemala (and in Kenya for tea) researchers found Rainforest Alliance Certified farms where:

  • Trade union membership and activities were suppressed and unionised workers sacked
  • Wages paid were below the legal minimum requirement
  • Hours worked exceeded legal limits and overtime was not paid
  • Areas for eating and sanitary facilities were not provided
  • Migrant workers were contracted at lower rates than national workers
  • Use of subcontractors generated instability in the workplace
  • Safety equipment was inadequate and agrochemical contamination occurred
  • Workers suffered health problems associated with the use of agrochemicals
  • Contracts without social security and other social guarantees were used
  • There was evidence of environmental non-compliance

Ecuador and Costa Rica are the biggest suppliers of bananas to the EU. Costa Rica is the biggest supplier of pineapples. Some of the farms investigated are known to supply Lidl (and also Aldi).

So does Rainforest certification deliver?

It would appear that RA certification does not provide a guarantee that even such “critical criteria” as basic labour rights or payment of minimum wages have been respected.

The SAN and RA aspire to offer sustainable tropical fruit and to do this at no extra cost to consumers. When supermarkets offer fruit to consumers at exceptionally low prices however they need in turn to buy from their own suppliers at the lowest possible prices.

“Hard discounters” like Lidl and its competitor, Aldi have driven prices down to levels not seen since the 1970s  Other supermarkets are trying to match these low prices but costs to producers have risen dramatically in this period.

Can it be realistic to expect banana and pineapple growers to produce sustainably when the prices they are paid barely cover the costs of production? Is it surprising that, when researchers investigate RA Certified farms, they find that SAN standards are not being met? Producers have to pay RA for certification which adds further to their costs. When low prices are paid to producers it makes it more difficult for them to meet the costs of sustainable production and this makes it more likely that production systems will lead to negative social and environmental impacts.

It is also worth pointing out that Oxfam Germany has published a report ‘Sweet Fruit, Bitter Truth’ which alleges that inhumane conditions exist on many Costa Rican pineapple farms and Ecuadorean banana operations, laying the ultimate blame for this on Germany’s leading discount retailers such as Lidl, which also operates in the UK. Oxfam alleges underpayment, dangerous pesticide exposure and inhumane living conditions across a range of farms. The report can be found at: http://makefruitfair.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Sweet-fruit-bitter-truth.pdf

The principles behind the practice of fair trade in agricultural products

floThe following description is taken from a Fairtrade Foundation leaflet entitled ‘What is Fairtrade?’

Many farmers and workers in developing countries struggle to provide for their families. Poor market access and unfair trade rules often mean that the price they get for their crop does not cover the cost of production. They face the global challenges of food price rises and climate change too.

You will find this label, the FAIRTRADE Mark, on thousands of products from coffee to fresh fruit, as a guarantee of a better deal for people and planet.

Under Fairtrade, farmers receive:

Agreed stable and sustainable prices
An extra payment (a ‘premium’) to invest in their community

As part of the agreement, farmer groups must be democratically organised and meet environmental standards. These include careful use of chemicals, looking after soil and water sources and respecting nature.

Who is behind Fairtrade?

The Fairtrade Foundation is the independent non-profit organisation in the UK that licenses use of the FAIRTRADE Mark on products in the UK in accordance with internationally agreed Fairtrade standards. We also raise awareness of Fairtrade and trade justice issues in schools, businesses, faith groups and local communities. The Foundation is part of an international network of organisations that are members of the standards setting, certification and producer support body Fairtrade International (FLO). You can find out more about FLO’s work at www.fairtrade.net

(Reproduction of the FAIRTRADE Mark by kind permission of the Fairtrade Foundation.)

For further work on fair trade production of tropical crops, the reader is referred to the interviews with Didier Leitón Valverde and Nela Perle, both of which are in the Costa Rica section of the Interviews page.