A frequently heard complaint about Rainforest Alliance is that they allow their seal on coffee that contains as little as 30% RA-certified beans. I understand RA’s rationale: that for a very large roaster to source 30% of many tons of coffee has an arguably larger impact than a small company sourcing 100% of a half ton, and allowing less-than-total content gets big corporations to the table. But while the percentage of certified content has to be specified on the label, many consumers, roasters, and coffee professionals I’ve talked to think that the “30% rule” tarnishes a great certification, confuses or misleads consumers, and indicates too much concession to corporate interests.
The mantra from RA has always been that these “30 percenters” must continue to increase the amount they source. For instance, the RA blog says, “We are committed to ensuring that companies scale up their commitments… If a mainstream brand begins … by sourcing, say, 40 percent of its coffee from certified farms, that brand must agree to source increasing quantities from certified farms as they become available.”
Alas, that does not seem to have happened in practice, with the most glaring example being Kraft’s Yuban coffee, still at 30% since it began using RA beans in 2006. (A very notable exception is Caribou Coffee, which has increased the number of offerings that include RA certified beans and the percentage in those offerings. In 2006, their stated goal was having every one of their coffees 100% RA certified by the end of 2011; they are currently on track to meet the goal.)
The problem has been, apparently, that the actual rules do not seem to be specific enough. RA’s “Use of Seal” Guidelines dated December 2007 (PDF) states that “Companies requesting to use the RAC seal on single-ingredient products with less than 90% certified content should also agree to a SmartSourceTM plan: a step-wise approach to scaling up the percentage of certified content over time with specific benchmarks and timelines along the path of sustainability.”
This is due to change with the next update of the Use of Seal Guidelines. Any company that offers a coffee that does not contain 100% certified beans will be required to scale up the amount at least 15% a year until the content reaches 100% certified beans. I thought this might mean 15% of the current certified content per year (e.g., from 30% to 34.5% to 39.7%, etc.), at which rate Yuban would not be 100% until I was past retirement age in 2020 or so. However, I confirmed with Alex Morgan, RA’s U.S. Manager of Sustainable Agriculture, that this meant 15% of 100 (30% to 45%, etc.). This is a significant, meaningful, and important milestone, in my opinion.
This rule will apply not just to coffee, but other products using the seal, such as cocoa. Thus it is taking awhile to implement to accommodate varying production methods associated with different products, but the update should take place sooner rather than later. It’s my understanding not every partner is thrilled with this change, and it will be interesting to see if anybody drops the certification. My guess is that it would be pretty awkward for a player like Kraft to quit Rainforest Alliance after touting their involvement for years. We will see which big companies are actually committed to sustainable sourcing, and which may have been using RA certification to greenwash via token sourcing.