An open letter to UTZ and Rainforest Alliance

Bags of coffee beans
An open letter to the newly merged ethical certification standards, UTZ and Rainforest Alliance, urging them to maintain and improve on their certification criteria as they develop their new standard, from MACKENZIE DENYER, CLARE CARLILE and BRENDAN MONTAGUE

Rainforest Alliance has very weak rules on the use of the logo on packaging, which can be used when just 30% of one ingredient is certified. These rules need to be strengthened.

Dear Rainforest Alliance and UTZ,

Congratulations – on January 9 2018, your two organisations officially merged. The merger is one of the biggest shifts in the landscape of certification for a decade and this moment provides an exciting opportunity, as you write a new, combined standard.

We hope that you will use the chance to unite your respective strengths. Rainforest Alliance has set a high bar for environmental protections; UTZ in workers’ rights.

You have promised to produce a certification that brings ‘together the best elements of both standards’. We hope to see this promise followed through.

Exceptional circumstances

But we also fear that the merger could compromise some of these standards. We urge you not to water down any of the principles that you have developed as independent organisations. This will mean taking and maintaining the clauses on which each of you has shown the greatest strength.

In terms of workers rights, we urge you to maintain:
    • UTZ’s demands that workers are paid monthly and that any workers’ complaints can be made anonymously.
    • UTZ’s expectation that workers living on site are allowed to express social, religious and cultural identities freely.  
    • UTZ’s clauses on unionisation: ensuring that all workers, including the employees of smallholders – who even when they rely primarily on family labour, often do also employ some workers – have the right to unionise, and that they are allowed to elect representatives in countries where unionisation is outlawed.
    • UTZ’s clause regarding working hours and overtime: not allowing employers to ask for working weeks over 60 hours, even in ‘exceptional circumstances’ (as permitted by RA).
These are issues that we believe are not currently addressed adequately by the Rainforest Alliance standards.

Recently deforested

Conversely, there are several key workers’ rights clauses upheld by Rainforest Alliance that do not appear in UTZ’s criteria, and that we also believe should appear in the new standard.

Rainforest Alliance has a clearer definition of 'forced labour', specifically prohibiting the use of debt servitude and prison labour. It specifies that workers should be paid 1.5 times their normal wage for overtime, where no law or bargaining agreement states otherwise.

It specifies that working hours rules apply to everyone, rather than adding exceptions for certain jobs. And it states that not more than 30 percent of a workers’ wage should be paid ‘in-kind’ – where UTZ refers only to local law (allowing up to 68 percent in some countries).

In terms of the environment, we ask that Rainforest Alliance’s more stringent requirements are upheld (it tackles many issues not currently addressed in UTZ’s standards).

Rainforest Alliance has very weak rules on the use of the logo on packaging, which can be used when just 30% of one ingredient is certified. These rules need to be strengthened.

In particular, Rainforest Alliance specifies that land cannot have been recently deforested, whereas UTZ allows deforestation of secondary forest.

Standards maintained

Rainforest Alliance surpasses UTZ with regards to protecting ecosystem biodiversity, with clauses on the preservation of native plants and the containment of invasive species, and a preference for organic fertilisers.

We also urge you to maintain Rainforest Alliance’s prohibition of environmentally damaging activities and substances, such as hunting and use of GMO crops.

On many topics, though, your approach would be strongest if your criteria were combined – as is true in terms of maternal rights, living wage, water management and housing conditions for workers living on-site.

Finally, Rainforest Alliance has very weak rules on the use of the logo on packaging, which can be used when just 30 percent of one ingredient is certified. These rules need to be strengthened.

Above, we have highlighted only those areas in which a choice must be made based on the differences between UTZ and Rainforest Alliance’s standards as they currently stand. Where your approaches already coincide, we of course expect the standards to be maintained.

Market price

While this letter has focussed on the strengths that already exist in the two standards, the merger is an opportunity to add new features that don’t currently exist in either standard.

We draw your attention to the amount of material that identifies low and volatile prices for commodities such as cocoa and coffee as the underlying cause of many of the problems– such as child labour and deforestation - that certification aims to prevent.

We urge you to consider regulating prices directly as Fairtrade does, and to look, for example, at the “Cocoa Barometer’s” suggestion of a flexible premium that goes up when the market price goes down, in order to guard vulnerable farmers against the worst effects of fluctuating prices.

Yours sincerely,


Ethical Consumer, The Ecologist, CARE International, Oxfam, Greenpeace, CORE Coalition, European Coalition for Corporate Justice, War on Want, Fair World Project, the Environmental Justice Foundation, the Rainforest Foundation UK, Solidarity Economy, Permaculture Association and The Equality Trust.

Workers’ Rights:

    1. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s more precise definition of bonded labour: which includes prison labour and labour based on debt even where this is legal in the country. UTZ does not explicitly address prison labour or debt-based servitude in its ban on forced labour for certified producers.

    2. Maintain UTZ’s rule that a working week must not exceed 60 hours including overtime: and that workers are provided with safe transport home, if during anti-social hours. Rainforest Alliance currently allows longer working weeks in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

    3. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s blanket working hours rules. UTZ currently includes an exemption for “Watchmen” whose regular working hours are not allowed to exceed 56 hours per week on average per year, rather than the 48 afforded to everyone else.

    4. Maintain UTZ criteria for an anonymous, accessible complaints system for all workers, buyers and suppliers, or anyone else who would wish to make a code of conduct complaint. This must not interfere with other complaint mechanisms, (e.g. judicial or collective agreements). Rainforest Alliance states that management must have complaint mechanisms in place, but does not outline the nature of these or specify any further criteria.

    5. Maintain UTZ’s provisions for illegal freedom of association: accredited businesses must allow workers to elect representatives to discuss working conditions with farm management, in countries where unionisation is illegal. Rainforest Alliance does not address the issue of association in countries where joining a union is illegal.
    6. Maintain UTZ’s requirement that all employees should have the right to unionise and bargain collectively. Rainforest Alliance specifically excludes smallholders from this requirement. Whilst it defines smallholders as a farmer that ‘primarily relies on family or household labour, or reciprocal workforce exchange with other members of the community’, smallholders that meet this description do often still employ a small number of, particularly seasonal, workers and therefore should not be exempt from this clause.  
    7. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s requirement that no more than 30 percent of wage is paid in-kind. The current UTZ criteria allows payment-in-kind up to the national legal requirement, which in some countries is up to 68 percent.
    8. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s requirement that pay for overtime is 1.5 times the usual rate in absence of applicable local law or collective bargaining agreement. UTZ does not specify rate of overtime pay in absence of law or bargaining agreement.
    9. Maintain UTZ’s requirements that wages are paid at least monthly: and that these are given with a payslip. Rainforest Alliance does not specify how regularly wages must be paid, nor that a payslip be provided.
    10. Maintain UTZ’s requirement that on-site workers are given access to healthcare by year four of certification.  Access to health care for all workers must currently be provided by year 6 of certification under Rainforest Alliance standards.
    11. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s specific criteria with regards to space and the safety of toilet facilities for workers living on-site. Rainforest Alliance outlines specific room sizes per number of inhabitants and the safety of toilet facilities for women and children as continuous improvement criteria. UTZ currently outlines basic, mandatory outlines for living conditions (as does RA) but provides no further, more specific guidance for continuous improvement.

    12. Combine your respective strengths with regards to maternal rights: this means maintaining Rainforest’s requirement for 6 weeks full-paid maternity leave as a continuous improvement criteria; and UTZ’s requirements for on-site access to childcare; and no discrimination post-maternity leave, including security of pay and position.

    13. Combine your respective strengths with regards to living wage: combine UTZ’s emphasis on progress from day one, with Rainforest Alliance’s explicit criteria for payment of living wage in order to cut the time within which this goal will be achieved by certified farms. Currently, UTZ requires progress towards living wage as a minimum criteria for certification but does not give a hard deadline for its payment. Rainforest Alliance requires a plan towards living wage only after year 3. It lists payment of living wage as a Level A criteria. However, only 50 percent of Level A criteria must ever be met.      

Ethical Consumer and The Ecologist would like to see a) progress towards living wage as a mandatory criteria from the first year of certification; b) payment of a living wage as a compulsory ‘Continuous Improvement’ criteria; and c) payment of a living wage required earlier than the sixth year of certification.


    1. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s much stricter policies on the prior destruction of forest or High Conservation Value areas: RA specifies that there must have been no destruction of forest or other natural ecosystems in the prior 5 years and no destruction of any High Conservation Value areas since November 2005. UTZ only specifies that primary forest must not have been destroyed since 2008 and specifically allows some exceptions for secondary forest destruction.
    2. Maintain UTZ’s demand that there is no production within 2km of protected conservation areas. Rainforest Alliance has no such requirement for a buffer zone around protected areas.
    3. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s clear policy against GMOs. UTZ does not currently prohibit the use of GMOs, but requires that it is recorded.

    4. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s preference for organic fertilizers: demonstration of which is required by the third year of certification. UTZ encourages the use of organic fertilizer, but does not require it at any stage for ongoing certification.

    5. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s requirement for a management plan on energy efficiency. This would represent the next step for UTZ’s current requirement for consideration of energy efficiency.

    6. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s prohibition of hunting apart from smallholders and of pests. UTZ only prohibits hunting of endangered or threatened species.

    7. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s requirement that efforts must be made to contain and reduce invasive species in order to ensure biodiversity. UTZ does not currently address invasive species.

    8. Maintain Rainforest Alliance’s provisions on preserving native plant species: that farms with shade-tolerant crops have at least 15% native vegetation coverage.

    9. Combine your water management criteria: Rainforest Alliance demands a clear policy against sewage being released into water systems, which addresses erosion. It states that irrigation systems should be maintained and new systems to improve productivity must be designed to minimize water waste, erosion. This should be combined with UTZ’s requirement for a water efficiency plan by the fourth year of certification.


    1. Maintain UTZ’s stricter rules on the use of the logo. UTZ’s rules on the use of the logo depend on the product, but are substantially stricter than Rainforest Alliance. In the case of products based on coffee, cocoa or hazelnuts, at least 60 percent of the total product must be coffee, cocoa or hazelnuts, and at least 90 percent of that must be certified. We hope that the new standard keeps the stricter rules, as weak rules undermine the logo’s reputation. Rainforest Alliance has weak rules regarding the use of its logo on packaging. It can be used if only 30 percent of the one ingredient is certified, and that ingredient does not even need to make up a large amount of the product.


UTZ criteria based on Core Code of Conduct for individual and multi-site certification, 2015, Version 1.1 and Core Code of Conduct for group and multi-group certification, 2015, Version 1.1; and Rainforest Alliance criteria based on Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard for farms and producer groups involved in crop and cattle production, July 2017, Version 1.2 unless otherwise specified.

Antonie Fountain and Friedel Huetz-Adams, the Cocoa Barometer 2018

UTZ, Labeling and Trademark Policy For claims and logo use, October 2015

Rainforest Alliance, Requirements and Guidelines for Use of the Rainforest Alliance Trademarks, 2016

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