Over a year ago, I wrote about an upcoming change to the rules for use of the Rainforest Alliance certified seal. Under the previous (2007) Use of Seal Guidelines, any single-ingredient product, such as coffee, could carry the RA seal so long as it contained at least 30% certified content. The percentage had to be indicated adjacent to the seal.
RA encouraged companies to increase the percentage of certified content over time, even going so far as saying that companies had to agree to these increases. However, there was no specific mandate or requirement in the Guidelines. Thus, we had Yuban Coffee, made by Kraft, that has contained 30% certified beans (and 70% mystery-sourced beans) since 2006.
The good news is that in their new Use of Seal Guidelines (PDF), there is explicit language regarding “scaling up” of amounts of certified ingredients. Companies using the RA certified seal on single-ingredient products that have less than 90% certified content must agree to increase the percentage a specific amount over a specific time period. There are two options for doing so. In the first, the amount is increased by 15% of total volume a year. So coffee that starts out at 30% certified goes to 45%, 60%, 75%, and 90% over four years. Terrific!
The “bad” news is that the other option is for companies to sign a “SmartSource” scale-up plan that “allows more flexibility … to work within the realities of sourcing.” The sample plan provided shows scaling up over six years where some years there is no increase, and other years variable amounts.
The lack of a time limit on the SmartSource plan seems like the weak spot in this option. Why not tell companies they can scale up by less than 15% a year some years, but that they have to get to >90% in no more than 6 or 7 years, for instance.
I understand “the realities of sourcing” and also RA’s rationale for working with these large companies. To rehash: a very large roaster sourcing 30% of many tons of coffee has an arguably larger impact than a small company sourcing 100% of two tons, and allowing less-than-total content gets big corporations to the table. Yet many consumers, roasters, and coffee professionals I’ve talked to think that the “30% rule” (as well as the “10% slippage” issue) tarnishes a great certification, or confuses or misleads consumers. Allowing it in the first place, and providing wiggle room in the scaling up process could be (is) perceived as too much concession to corporate interests.
I’m willing to bet Kraft is using the SmartSource plan, given the volume they purchase and their long-standing 30% plateau. It will be interesting to see how they progress, although we will have to wait years to see the end result. I wonder what will happen to companies that do not scale up on schedule. I presume those companies that fail under option 1 will merely be put on a SmartSource plan. I can’t imagine RA terminating a relationship or yanking a seal as long as there is an open-ended option in place.
So while I’m not discounting this clear step forward with the 30% rule, I’m not sure it “solves” the go-easy-on-big-coffee perception problem. In any event, Rainforest Alliance deserves a lot of credit for the great progress they’ve made bringing certified coffee (and many other products) into the mainstream, and their successful efforts at educating the public about coffee sustainability.