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Coffee and Rainforest Alliance Certification

The Rainforest Alliance

A word we often hear when environmental issues are discussed is “rainforest”, and the assumption is that we all know what that is. Well, we probably do, but just to clarify, a rainforest is an area of tall trees, mostly evergreens, with a continuous canopy.

It has high annual rainfall, and lush vegetation, usually described as a jungle. Rainforests are the earth’s oldest living eco-systems, some of them up to 70 million years old. They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen stabilising the climate so we can live and breathe.

It is immediately obvious why there are such efforts to preserve these wonders of nature, and why we deplore their destruction. We need them - hence the Rainforest Alliance.

The Rainforest Alliance (RFA) was created in 1987 with the goal of preserving the rainforests by changing the way land is used, by improving business practices and changing consumer behaviour. It is a non-governmental organisation involving over 20 countries, and it works with farmers, growers and businesses to ensure sustainable agricultural practices.

To have RFA certification a business must follow sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. Certification is important for the image and competitive advantage of many businesses these days, including those that grow and cultivate coffee and the companies that market and sell the products.

How Does Coffee get Certified

Coffee plants are traditionally shade-grown, under the rainforest canopy, but in the 1970’s many growers found that by clearing the forest and planting in full sun, yields were greater, more land was available for planting, and profits increased. However this was short-term thinking, because the soil lost a lot of moisture and nutrients without the protection of the tree canopy, and eventually the coffee plants were less healthy and more prone to disease and blight.

To discourage this, the RFA works with the growers to find more climate and environment friendly ways to boost crops. For example, growers can plant more shade trees and provide cover over coffee plants, which improve the soil’s moisture retention and humidity levels, and the RFA regularly audits the farms to ensure they are meeting the required standards of cultivation

The RFA currently works with over 400,000 coffee growers, distributors and retailers to try to make coffee growing sustainable. In fact, it requires the certified companies in the supply chain to make investments in the growers to help them to transform their practices.

Is Fair Trade the Same as RFA

Fair Trade and FRA are often seen as synonymous. However they are quite different organisations, although they have a common interest in helping the environment. Fair Trade tends to focus more on the people, working with the companies in the supply chain to pay a fair price for the coffee beans, which means the growers can support themselves and pay their workers a fair wage.

By doing this, the growers are encouraged to use sustainable and climate friendly practices. Despite coffee being the world’s third most popular drink after tea and water, it produces the lowest profits to the farmers, who often struggle to break even after their costs. There is naturally a motivation to use whatever means necessary to increase crops and income, so Fair Trade is designed to make sure this can be done responsibly while providing a reasonable return in profits to the farmers.

Who is RFA certified

One of the top RFA certified coffee chains is Dunkin Donuts, along with Starbucks and Costa Coffee. In fact, all the major coffee sellers are certified, in an era where they probably cannot afford not to be. It generally means they pay above the market rate for coffee beans, only buying from RFA certified farms, and this gives better returns to the growers so they don’t need to cut corners to survive.

In addition most major coffee suppliers and retailers are also Fair Trade certified and this tends to feature heavily in their marketing to the extent that it becomes a “chicken and egg” situation – which came first, the concern for the environment, or the desire to sell more product?

Conclusion

Whether or not the businesses are motivated by profit is probably unimportant. What is important is that the RFA and Fair Trade certification can transform the way these companies and the growers operate, not only for the health and longevity of the coffee plantations and their workers, but also of the entire planet.