FAQ: Rainforest Alliance Certification, Assurance, and Support
  • 18 Jun 2024
  • 40 Minutes to read
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FAQ: Rainforest Alliance Certification, Assurance, and Support

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Article summary

This resource is to help you and your teams answer the most frequently asked questions we receive about our certification program, assurance, and traceability systems. This article is intended to support our markets and external stakeholder facing teams; however, it can be referenced by anyone within our organization.


CB – Certification Body

CH – Certificate Holder

CSOs – Civil Service Organizations

FoA – Freedom of Association

LW – Living Wage

NC – Nonconformity

RA – Rainforest Alliance

RAC – Rainforest Alliance Certified

SC – Supply Chain

SD – Sustainability Differential

SI – Sustainability Investment

How does the Rainforest Alliance protect against Greenwashing?

The Rainforest Alliance strives to maintain the integrity of all our programs, including certification, but also integrated landscape management and community programs and advocacy, which can work in tandem to optimize outcomes. We are vocal in our promotion of human rights and environmental due diligence legislation—like the European Union’s proposed Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive—and have partnered with CSOs across the globe to advocate that certification should not be considered a stand-in or substitute for broad-scale corporate due diligence.

We believe that sustainability is a journey. It doesn’t end when a farm becomes certified or when a company chooses to source Rainforest Alliance Certified ingredients. While we applaud these activities, we know there is always more work to be done. Our external communications are clear that certification is a tool for continuous improvement, rather than an end goal and we aim for full transparency in conveying where we fit in addressing some of the systematic, complex challenges present in the places we work. In our work with corporations, we furthermore continuously encourage the use of accurate sustainability claims and providing consumers with reliable assurances about the products they purchase.

While we know and make clear that certification alone cannot solve all challenges associated with agricultural production, we also acknowledge research which has demonstrated that in many cases, certification can offer tangible benefits such as higher yields, profits, prices, ecosystem quality, worker health, safety, and educational outcomes.

For more information on how we advise communicating about our work and sustainability, please go here.

Why does the Rainforest Alliance work with big companies?

We recognize that many of the global companies we work with have a scale and size that can significantly impact the environment and local communities. We believe that by engaging with these organizations, the Rainforest Alliance is better equipped to guide corporations towards more sustainable and responsible practices. Working with such companies allows us to influence change on a larger scale. For example, while we are proud to work with brands of all sizes, we note that a large company sourcing 30% of raw materials more sustainably may have more significant positive impacts than smaller companies with 100% certified sourcing but lesser overall output. This emphasizes the importance of building strategic engagement with industry leaders of all sizes to amplify our comprehensive sustainability efforts.

How can we trust that the Rainforest Alliance is an independent, credible organization that the public can trust?

The Rainforest Alliance is creating a more sustainable world by using social and market forces to protect nature and improve the lives of farmers and forest communities. To achieve our mission, we partner with diverse allies around the world to drive positive change across global supply chains and in many of our most critically important natural landscapes.

Our work and sustainability programs are funded through diverse sources of income, including grants from governments and foundations, individual donations from thousands of people across the globe, and participation royalties from certification. You can learn more about our funding sources and how we work as a non-profit organization here.

It is important to note that our funding model does not compromise our integrity or independence. We are not owned by any single person or organization and we have rigorous systems in place to maintain transparency and avoid conflicts of interest, adhering to strict governance policies and procedures. We pride ourselves on maintaining a high level of impartiality and independence in all our activities and decision-making processes.

The Rainforest Alliance does not receive any money from farmers for the use of certification. Furthermore, we do not conduct the audits that farmers and supply chain actors—including companies—must undergo in order to achieve farm or supply chain certification. These audits are conducted by independent certification bodies. Learn more about Rainforest Alliance certification here.

Does the Rainforest Alliance play a role in creating the claims made by companies that source Rainforest Alliance Certified products?

While it can be tempting to claim that a product using RAC certified ingredients is “sustainable,” we feel this misleads customers to believing that sustainability is an ‘end goal’ which can be reached.

We believe that sustainability is a journey that doesn’t end when a certification is granted to a farm or a company sources Rainforest Alliance certified ingredients. While we applaud this step, we know that there is always more that can and should be done. For this reason, we strongly advise companies to communicate clearly and credibly about their own sustainability journeys. We also have readily available resources for companies wishing to learn more about how to clearly and openly communicate about where they are in the sustainability journey.

Although we provide recommendations on language related to sustainability claims, it is important to note that companies are responsible for the accuracy and credibility of all text claims made about their products, including that those claims align with applicable law.

One exception relates to the use of claims which directly reference to the Rainforest Alliance or our certification however. These include claims such as “100% certified”, “using RAC cocoa” and others. For these, we require companies to first submit a request for usage. These request are reviewed by a multi-disciplinary panel who verifies the accuracy of the data and approve or adjust as needed.

How does the Rainforest Alliance verify the claims made by companies regarding the use of Rainforest Alliance Certified products?

Companies wishing to make a claim about the use of a Rainforest Alliance certified ingredient on pack or in their advertising must first submit a proposal to the Rainforest Alliance for approval. These include claims such as “100% sustainable” and “Rainforest Alliance sustainable cocoa” as two examples. Quantifiable claims submitted to the Rainforest Alliance are reviewed for data accuracy by a multi-disciplinary panel who verify or adjust as required.

For claims which directly couple references to Rainforest Alliance certification with terms like “responsible” or “sustainable,” the Rainforest Alliance requires additional explanation of the exact context in which the claim is made and how the Rainforest Alliance contributes to the claim’s validity. Approval of these claims is made on a case-by-case basis and is precedented upon guiding companies to more transparent and open communications about sustainability as a journey in which certification can be an important part.

How does the Rainforest Alliance address child labor?

We believe that there is no place in global agricultural production for child labor. Our standard criteria does not allow child labor for this reason. However, the reasons child labor persists in the cocoa sector are systemic, including multidimensional poverty and inequality, limited opportunities, and migration.

Our on-the-ground experience, backed by global research, also shows automatic decertification in response to cases of child labor is not always effective. In fact, such responses can actually drive cases underground where they are harder to detect. This leaves the already vulnerable in a more precarious position.

For this reason, our approach centers on how we can support more systemic action through proactive prevention and active engagement. If cases of child labor are identified, collaborative measures are taken for remediation, putting the safety of the child front and center. This approach is aligned with global principles in frameworks like the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines.

No single organization can solve this complex issue alone. Sustained collaboration is key, and the Rainforest Alliance actively works with stakeholders, including civil society, governments, and companies, to address the root causes of child labor. An important facet is driving more value back to farmers and their communities, reducing the necessity for resorting to child labor.

Additional Measures

We have also built a proactive system for mitigating the risk of human rights violations in the regions where they are greatest. This includes the use of sectoral Risk Maps, which draw on multiple lines of data to quantify the risk for child labor based on country and sector. For country-sector combinations which are identified as “medium risk” or above, certified farms are required to take additional measures to identify and mitigate these risks beyond the basic Rainforest Alliance Farm Risk Assessment Tool. These additional measures include from year two of being certified, identifying the root causes of child labor through an in-depth risk assessment, and working with others (including buyers, local governments, and NGOs) to tackle these root causes to prevent child labor. Farmers must implement monitoring and apply strong mitigation actions when risks are identified. The Rainforest Alliance provides guidance to all certificate holders on how to implement these processes, providing training and capacity building for social auditing skills.

The Rainforest Alliance also regularly follows up with independent certification bodies in the region to alert them to look for any sign of child labor while conducting audits, especially during the harvest season when the risk of child labor is highest.

Has child labor increased since Rainforest Alliance started using an Assess-and-Address approach? And if so, why?

Unfortunately, child labor is still endemic globally. Based on 2020 global estimates produces by the ILO and UNICEF, almost 1 in 10 children worldwide are engaged in some form of child labor. Of this, almost 70% occurs in the agricultural sector.

The reasons child labor persists in agriculture are complex, including multidimensional poverty and social vulnerability, limited opportunities, and gaps in legislation. Zero tolerance approaches to child labor do not help address these issues. Furthermore, our experience in global agriculture over the last 35 years has shown us that such responses can actually drive cases underground where they are harder to detect. This leaves the already vulnerable in a more precarious position.

That’s why the Rainforest Alliance certification program focuses on proactive prevention and active engagement for tackling child labor. It is important to note that an increase in identified cases of child labor through our ‘Assess-and-address’ system does not mean that child labor is increasing. Rather, identified cases of child labor signify that action is being taken to support those who are most vulnerable and that remediation plans are put in place to mitigate against the future risk of child labor cases.

While the Rainforest Alliance strives to do our part to address this deeply pressing human rights abuse, we know that no individual stakeholder alone can truly address the problem. To truly address the issue of forced labor, a systematic approach is needed, with collaboration from stakeholders across the supply chain, including producers, governments, CSOs and companies.

Under the Assess-and-Address approach, can a farm using child labor be certified?

No. While these injustices have never been—and will never be—tolerated by the Rainforest Alliance, our experience has shown us that strict decertification as a response to child labor does not support those who are most vulnerable—children. Child labor persists in the cocoa sector due to systemic challenges including multidimensional poverty and inequality, limited opportunities, and migration.

For this reason, our approach centers on proactive prevention and active engagement. If cases of child labor are identified, farms are required to implement collaborative measures for remediation, putting the safety of the child front and center. In this way, the focus is placed on ensuring the wellbeing of those who are most vulnerable while also working to a future where child labor does not exist.

This risk-based approach was developed in line with the growing international consensus around good practices in human rights due diligence as laid out by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Farms who fail to successfully remediate may have their certifications suspended or cancelled.

How does the Rainforest Alliance address forced labor?

We firmly believe that there is no place in global agricultural production for forced labor. However, no single organization or system can provide a 100% guarantee that forced labor does not exist within a supply chain. Doing so would oversimplify a deeply complex problem that includes contributing factors including deep poverty, migration, and inequality.

At the Rainforest Alliance, we take our role in the effort to end forced labor very seriously. One way we do this is by working with producers to set up systems for mitigating and preventing against the occurrence of forced labor. We know that forced labor is endemic in global agriculture. If a case of forced labor is found on a Rainforest Alliance certified farm, the focus is immediately and first on the safety of the victims. Producers must then work with other stakeholders to develop and implement remediation plans. Failure to do so can result in decertification. Our certification program works in this way with an eye for bringing parties together in addressing the root causes of forced labor.

How does the Rainforest Alliance support freedom of association?

The Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture standard outlines three core requirements which support the right for workers to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Our requirements state that workers have the right to form and join a workers’ organization of their own choice and to take part in collective bargaining without prior authorization from the employer, and in accordance with applicable law. Workers’ representatives should be elected democratically among workers in regular, free elections and afforded reasonable, paid time off from work to carry out their representation functions and attend meetings. Our criteria also outlines requirements to promote communication and genuine dialogue with workers’ representatives and across staff to collectively raise and address working conditions and terms of employment, including thematic trainings which should be made available to all workers.

The Rainforest Alliance is also committed to strengthening its dialogue and collaboration among all stakeholders, including workers’ organizations, to enhance certification processes and uphold worker rights. For example, prior to commencing the auditing process, Certification Bodies are required to map and analyze all potential stakeholders of a Certificate Holder, including workers’ organizations. From these stakeholders, at least one consultation process is mandatory.

Outside of the rules of our program, we consider complaints received by email and other means as a crucial aid for identifying issues and potential nonconformities on Rainforest Alliance-certified operations. We also support trainings to workers’ organizations on the use of our Grievance Procedure and the Sustainable Agriculture Standard. If a workers' organization considers internal workplace committees, including those promoted by the Rainforest Alliance Standard, insufficient for addressing employment conditions, direct communication is possible both with the Rainforest Alliance and Certificate Bodies.

Collectively, our engagement with workers’ organizations has helped us identify both issues in current acknowledgement of Freedom of Association within select CHs as well as proactive opportunities for strengthening worker’s rights and their FoA.

The Rainforest Alliance recognizes the importance of continuous improvement as a critical means of addressing workplace risks related to the use of aerial fumigation, increased use of labor suppliers, and other issues. For this reason, we promote a preventive and constructive approach which calls on all voices, listening especially those of workers, to support CH improvement.

Additional Information

Further fostering engagement, in 2023, we also completed initial mapping exercises of recognized worker organizations in key producing countries. Throughout 2024, we will consult with these organizations, gathering feedback and working together both with workers’ organizations and also companies, NGOs, and retailers to strengthen compliance with the requirements of the Rainforest Alliance Standard and to further foster continuous improvement within our program.

Finally, we have also reinforced our review of audit licenses based on insights gained in addition to the ILO Conventions tools for labor topics. For farms who are found consistently and systematically in violation of the Rainforest Alliance’s Freedom of Association criteria, decertification or suspension are possible.

How does the Rainforest Alliance grievance mechanism work? If I am a farmer or worker, where can I raise my concerns?

Grievance mechanisms help ensure that stakeholders can submit concerns and that allegations of human rights abuses or environmental destruction or degradation are identified and remediated at the most direct level—the farm or certified operation—whenever possible.

The Rainforest Alliance therefore supports the establishment of GMs at multiple levels.

To achieve RA certification, all farms must establish grievance committees where people can report any human rights violations they face. Certification bodies are also required to have a grievance mechanism and inform the farmers and workers about this when they audit farms. Grievances may also be submitted through the Rainforest Alliance website, all of which are followed up with. The Rainforest Alliance takes the complaints submitted through all of these grievance mechanisms very seriously.

Grievances are usually responded to at the level they are received. For example, a grievance at the farm level will first be addressed by the farm’s grievance committee and a grievance submitted to a CB will first be addressed by the CBs. We note that most grievances can be successfully addressed at the farm level and we encourage those submitting grievances to consider submitting grievances at this level first.

For complaints which come into our grievance inbox, we first assess relevance. It is important to note that we can only respond to grievances related to a violation of the rules of our standard. For topics that fall outside of the criteria of the farm, auditing, or supply chain standards, we are unable to provide follow-up. This includes generalized complaints about a CH or about the quality of final products, for example.

Action is dependent on having sufficient information to identify specific allegations of nonconformities.

For each eligible complaint submitted to the Rainforest Alliance, a grievance manager is appointed to follow-up the case. The complainant is informed about the steps in the process and the final outcome of the investigation. Confidentiality on the complainant's identity is essential through the process. More information on our grievance procedure is publicly available on our website.

Are living wage and living income the same thing?

A living wage is not the same as a living income. A living wage is defined as the amount a worker should be paid to ensure that they and their family can afford a decent standard of living. Unlike a minimum wage, the living wage is generally above and beyond what is required by law.

A living income, on the other hand, refers to the net annual household income required to afford a decent standard of living for all members of that household — for example, for a farm owner (or smallholder) and their family.

Is paying a living wage a requirement to be certified?

Earning a living wage is endorsed as one of the main engines of sustainable development and is a fundamental human right recognized by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) Constitution (1919). Unfortunately however, in many of the sectors and geographies in which we work, achieving a living wage remains aspirational. Especially in commodities, low wages are built into prevailing local and global business models, pushing costs and risks down the supply chain. In many regions, producers may also be forced to accept a price for their goods which is below the cost of production.

We believe that achieving a living wage is possible however. The Living Wage requirements within the 2020 Certification Program facilitate buyer’s commitment to supporting producers in achieving a higher standard of living and promoting more sustainable livelihoods within their supply chain. By requiring farms to measure prevailing wages, the gap to a living wage, and to produce a wage improvement plan, the Standard requirements serve as a due diligence tool for companies to invest further in the environmental and social sustainability of their supply chains, providing a better understanding of the size of the living wage gaps in their supply chain and allowing them to make contributions towards closing the gap. Through the payment of Sustainability Differential and Sustainability Investments, we encourage companies to reward and invest in more sustainable production and drive value to farmers. The responsibility and minimum acceptable contribution for SD and SI is sector-specific, though going above and beyond is always encouraged.

Additional about Living Income (not LW)

As a founding member of the Living Income Community of Practice (LICoP), the Rainforest Alliance is also committed to supporting the long term economic resilience of farmers and communities. Our approach to achieving a living income focuses on helping farmers improve farm management and grow their businesses to become more profitable and resilient, while preserving natural resources. Our program includes several tools, including a farm risk assessment tool to help farms better map the risks and needs of members to provide tailored support and a Living Income tool which allows farm group management to estimate the net household income of their members and identify the gap between that and the living income benchmark for their country.

We are also exploring ways to further enhance a living income for farmers, including through our Living Income pilot and its next iteration: the Living Income Fund in the cocoa sector. With this fund, the Rainforest Alliance facilitated cash transfers to farmers, improving household incomes by 11 percent.

Does the Rainforest Alliance require a price premium?

The Rainforest Alliance believes that to create a more inclusive supply chain, both the value and the risks should be shared. We also recognize that implementing more sustainable practices often requires additional investment. For this reason, our certification program promotes a shared responsibility model, where stakeholders along the supply chain are required to contribute to investments for farmers who adopt more sustainable practices and attain Rainforest Alliance certification (SD & SI). We call these Sustainability Differential and Sustainability Investments. The responsibility and minimum acceptable contribution for SD and SI is sector-specific, though going above and beyond is always encouraged. You can learn more about Shared Responsibility and what it means per sector here.

It is critical to note however, that while Rainforest Alliance Certified farms often generate higher prices for their crops, a system that focuses primarily on pricing disregards other critical elements that influence whether farmers can lift themselves out of poverty. Additionally, because price premiums focus only on pricing, they may not fully support farmers in addressing the other critical elements which influence their ability to lift themselves out of poverty.

For this reason, our program is more holistic in its approach and also includes training in more sustainable farm management, enhancing cost efficiency, productivity, and market access support. 

We advocate for a balanced approach, combining both strategies, as we believe their synergy creates a more significant economic benefit for farmers.

How does the Rainforest Alliance address deforestation?

Preventing agriculture-driven deforestation is at the heart of the Rainforest Alliance's mission. To enter the Rainforest Alliance certification, farms are not allowed to have engaged in ecosystem conversion, including deforestation prior to January 1, 2014.

Our standard and assurance systems provide robust strategies for identifying, assessing and addressing for deforestation. Ensuring farms are deforestation-free begins at registration. When Farm Certificate Holders begin registration for certification, they provide geodata that is used as the input for a deforestation risk assessment. The results of this assessment are shared with the farm Certificate Holder and the Certification Body that will perform the audit. When auditing a farm group, the auditor must create a sample of farm members to visit based on the deforestation risk assessment. The auditor then visits the farms (including those that have been identified as “high-risk”) to identify any instances of deforestation after January 1, 2014.

To support our assurance, the Rainforest Alliance has proprietary forest-layer data sets for Peru, Brazil, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Indonesia, and uses Copernicus forest layers for other countries, mapped against Global Forest Watch maps for tree cover loss. We use proprietary AI remote sensing forest data alongside other publicly available and government data sources to map deforestation risks. The combination of traceability, proprietary AI forest mapping, and auditing offers a unique solution to coffee and cocoa companies.

Does the Rainforest Alliance only cover environmental criteria?

No. We believe that sustainability isn’t just about protecting the environment, but also supporting better livelihoods for farmers and workers across Rainforest Alliance Certified operations. The Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Standard therefore includes criteria that support each of the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental.

Learn more about what the Rainforest Alliance Certification means here.

Does Rainforest Alliance Certification mean that a product is sustainable?

No. The Rainforest Alliance seal is not a stand-in for sustainability. We believe that sustainability isn’t an end goal which can be reached. Our vision of sustainability is of a journey of continuous improvement—one where transparency and shared responsibility can help us build a world where people and nature thrive in harmony.

It’s not enough for a company to just place our emblem on their products—they must prioritize sustainability in their supply chains, starting with the farms they source from. Our certification program is based on the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard, which has different sets of requirements for farmers and companies. For farmers, the requirements help them make a better living while enriching—rather than harming—the land through sustainable and regenerative farming. Certified farms are required to provide safe and fair working conditions for their workers. For companies, the requirements encourage responsible business practices and transparency from farm to shelf. In turn, this helps them build stronger supply chains, strengthen consumer loyalty, and achieve their sustainability goals.

How does the Rainforest Alliance verify that farms and companies are following certification?

As a member of the ISEAL Alliance, the global body outlining best practices and codes of conduct for certification systems, the Rainforest Alliance utilizes third-party assurance for its certification program. This means that in most scenarios, auditing of the Rainforest Alliance standard is conducted by organizations known as Certification Bodies (CBs).

CBs representatives are trained in best practices for conducting audits and their independence from the farmer and the Rainforest Alliance allows them a higher degree of impartiality in assessing compliance with the rules of our program. CBs must put in place measures to avoid conflicts of interest and ensure independency in their decision-making process. To conduct Rainforest Alliance audits, CBs must first go through an authorization process which includes verification of the latest ISO 17065 and ISO 17021 accreditation. More information on certification bodies can be found here.

In addition to regular auditing, the Rainforest Alliance also supports internal inspections, conducted by members of certificate holder groups, in addition to proactive risk management, stakeholder engagement, and continuous improvement. Collectively, these assurance mechanisms support the credibility of certification, allowing it to serve as an important piece of corporate due diligence. The Rainforest Alliance is a member of the ISEAL Alliance, and we comply with the ISEAL Alliance Codes of Good Practice for voluntary certification schemes, and we follow their Credibility Principles.  More information on our assurance system can be found here.

How does the Rainforest Alliance respond to potential violations of its certification standard?

When the Rainforest Alliance is approached with concrete, credible claims of potential nonconformities of our Sustainable Agriculture Standard, we will follow appropriate action, as laid out in the rules of our program. The Rainforest Alliance can only respond to allegations of violations against the Rainforest Alliance Certification Program. For topics that fall outside of the criteria of the farm, auditing, or supply chain standards, we are unable to provide follow-up.

The actions taken are contingent on the nature of the alleged non-conformity and related evidence. Where possible, our assurance team will perform an analysis of the allegations, including determining the exact nonconformities alleged and investigating the current certification status of producers or supply chain actors involved. This information informs follow-up actions, which may include work with certification bodies, investigations, and engaging in stakeholder outreach and mediation. If the results of these activities confirm the nonconformities, the certificate holder stands to face temporary suspension or decertification. It is important to note that any ground-level actions are contingent on the Rainforest Alliance having access to sufficient information to identify farms and specific allegations.

Does an issue in the press indicate that RA program is no longer robust?

An issue highlighted in the media doesn't necessarily indicate that a certification program is no longer robust by default. Media coverage often amplifies specific incidents, which may not necessarily be indicative of broader problems with a certification process.

It may also highlight common misconceptions about our program; in these scenarios we aim to use critical media as an opportunity for education on the role of certification and its limitations in progressing sustainable agriculture. While we applaud the media for its role in raising critical issues including human rights and environmental abuses to the public’s attention, we note that no reputable organization—including certification—can solve this complex issue alone. This level of change requires transparent communication on the issues, in sustained collaboration from stakeholders across agricultural value chains.

Nevertheless, credible evidence brought to light through media coverage can act as a trigger for investigating specific incidents or identifying areas for improvement. This enables us to continually refine and adapt our program to address emerging challenges and incorporate feedback from stakeholders.

How does the Rainforest Alliance support farmers throughout the certification cycle?

The Rainforest Alliance is committed to supporting farmers through a variety of activities and trainings available throughout their certification journey. Our dedicated team of Certification Partner Support Officers provide in-person and online trainings focused on helping farmers to understand the requirements of our standard and implement criteria with the highest incidence of non-compliance. Workshops are also help with CBs and CHs to support shared interpretation of our standard criteria, thus leading to fewer avoidable NCs. Many of our Certification Partner Support Officers maintain regular phone and email contact with CHs, in addition to conducting tailored field visits for troubleshooting persistent issues in conformity. We are also continuously working to simplify and clarify our standard without losing the rigorousness which sets RA certification apart as best in class.

For issues which are more difficult to comply with or which require additional investment, we also work with regional and sectoral project teams to identify investment alternatives, for example, in agrochemicals or waste management. Recognizing that implementing more sustainable practices often requires additional investment, our certification program also promotes a shared responsibility model, where stakeholders along the supply chain are required to contribute to investments for farmers who adopt more sustainable practices. Furthermore, our staff work to build strategic alliances with key accounts, to promote assistance on issues that remain a challenge for the CHs to meet. As one example, we are proud to partner with Funcafe on a Coffee Kindergarten program to reduce the risk of child labor during the harvest season.

What does third-party assurance mean and why does the Rainforest Alliance use it?

Most certification programs rely on third-party auditing to ensure programmatic integrity and mitigate against potential conflicts of interest when auditing for compliance of certification standard requirements. ISEAL, the global body outlining best practices and codes of conduct for certification systems, requires certification systems like the Rainforest Alliance to utilize third-party assurance.

For the Rainforest Alliance, third-party assurance means that audits—verification that the rules of the Rainforest Alliance standard are being followed—are conducted by an organization independent from both the Rainforest Alliance and the audited farm or supply chain actor. The organizations conducting audits are known as certification bodies (CBs). The independence of a certification body is a key component of a third-party audit.

To conduct audits of the Rainforest Alliance Standard, CBs must undergo thorough assessment which includes demonstrating that there are measures in place to avoid or minimize potential conflicts of interest and to ensure independence in their decision-making process. CBs must also be accredited to ISO 17065.

Additionally, the Rainforest Alliance conducts multiple oversight activities to assess CB performance.

I heard that farms are only audited once a year. Is this true?

Farms are at least audited once a year by third-party organizations known as certification bodies. In addition to the annual audit, Certification Bodies conduct a number of surprise audits. The selection of farm certificate holders that are visited during surprise audits is decided by the Certification Body and is based on risk.

Farms that are Rainforest Alliance certified must also conduct an annual internal self-assessment to verify compliance with the Standard. For farm groups, the self assessment includes an internal inspection of each farm conducted by trained personnel or a specially trained and appointed member of group management. These self-assessments, inspections, and other trainings help assure that farmers are aware of, understand, and meet the requirements of Rainforest Alliance certification. This applies to both larger farms and smallholders.

While audits are a key supporting element in maintaining the integrity and credibility of the program, it is true that they provide only a snapshot in time of a partner’s compliance. Further, since audits occur periodically, they may not always uncover human rights violations such as child labor, forced labor, gender discrimination, and freedom of association, which can be hidden from auditors.

For this reason, the Rainforest Alliance Certification Program employs an approach which focuses on supporting farms and communities in developing the systems for preventing, identifying, monitoring, and remediating against key issues. This “assess and address” system empowers farms and is a core requirement of our Farm Standard, meaning that certification cannot be achieved unless this requirement is met.

The Rainforest Alliance and members of our Associated Trainer Network also provide periodic trainings to farmers on how to strengthen their adherence to the RA certification. These ‘live' trainings complement our extensive library of recorded trainings, guides and written resources which are readily available in many languages through our Producer Resource Hub.

Does Rainforest Alliance carry out surprise audits?

Yes, both the Rainforest Alliance and authorized certification bodies may carry out surprise audits as a part of our assurance activities. It is important to note that generally, surprise audits are conducted by Certification Bodies. Within each year of the certification cycle, certification bodies must conduct surprise audits for a minimum of 10% of their number of certificate holders. When responding to grievance claims or conducting investigations, it is also possible that surprise auditing activities will be carried out by authorize Rainforest Alliance auditors.

Surprise audits are unannounced.

Is it true that not all farms get audited, and that the Rainforest Alliance relies on self-reporting?

All Rainforest Alliance farm certificate holders must be audited annually. In the case of group certification, a sample of the farmer members of the CH are audited each year in addition to group management (the Internal Management System).

All Rainforest Alliance farm certificate holders go through annual auditing. This includes single farm, multi-farm, and groups. In the case of farm group certification, CBs conduct audits on a sample-selection of farms; the number is determined based on group size and risk allocation. During these audits, the CB must also verify the proper functioning of management and internal management systems (IMS). The group IMS is responsible for conducting internal audits of their group members.

Why are self-assessments by group administrators allowed?

Self-assessment and internal inspections act as two crucial tools the Rainforest Alliance employs for strengthened assurance at the farm level. As a mandatory part of each group CH’s quality management system, trained internal inspectors are responsible for carrying out inspections for all group members at least once per year. Based on the results of these internal inspections and accompanying self-assessments, certificate holders create follow-up action plans to support better compliance with the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard.

As a supporting stakeholder, Certification Bodies verify yearly that the IMS (internal management system) works efficiently and that its inspectors are fully able to monitor against the full implementation of the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard.

Are all audits announced? And why/ why not?

No, not all audits are announced. For example, certification bodies must carry out unannounced surprise audits on a minimum sample of 10% of their portfolio of certificate holders. The Rainforest Alliance and CBs may also carry out unannounced investigation audits in response to grievances or concrete allegations of non-conformities on an RAC operation. Whether an investigation audit is announced or unannounced depends on the risk and circumstances of the investigation.

Certification audits and surveillance audits, the yearly audits to ensure certificate holders are still following certification, are generally announced. In cases like these, prior announcement is necessary to ensure that all required management staff are present, including those responsible for implementation of the IMS (internal management system). It is important to note that in the case of group certification, the sample of producers visited as a part of these audits is generally not announced and is determined by the certification body based on risk.

Are farms allowed to choose certification bodies? Is this the same across regions?

The Rainforest Alliance maintains a list of approved certification bodies by geographical region. Only a limited number of CBs are permitted to audit against the RA standard. To conduct Rainforest Alliance audits, CBs must first go through an authorization process which includes verification of the latest ISO 17065 and ISO 17021 accreditation. More information on certification bodies can be found here.

In most cases, certificate holders are permitted to choose their certification body from our list of approved CBs. In Ghana and Nigeria however, there is an exception for cocoa certificate holders called “Audit Allocation.” Where audit allocation is used, the Rainforest Alliance selects the certification body for the certificate holder based on risk, performance of the CB, and auditing capacity in that country.

How does the Rainforest Alliance certification program and assurance system address the potential conflict of interest from allowing CHs to choose their CB?

To help ensure impartiality and management of conflicts of interest, the Rainforest Alliance only works with independent certification bodies which have been accredited against ISO norms. Additional criteria are outlined in the Rainforest Alliance’s Rules for Certification Bodies and include strict requirements regarding impartiality, corruption, ethical behavior, and conflicts of interest. Oversight activities are regularly conducted by the Rainforest Alliance to verify CB integrity and in cases where nonconformities are identified, follow-up action via remediation or sanctions is possible.

It is important to note that most CBs authorized to conduct Rainforest Alliance audits also carry out audits for other certification schemes. Authorization for these schemes is not given by the Rainforest Alliance but by other certification schemes.

How does the Rainforest Alliance maintain oversight of Certification Bodies?

The Rainforest Alliance’s assurance system includes a broad set of oversight activities for monitoring and evaluating CB performance. In addition to CBs’ own continuing education activities, the Rainforest Alliance provides trainings to improve CB auditing effectiveness, especially for topics which are traditionally difficult to audit against such as Gender Based Harassment and Violence and Freedom of Association.

We also conduct regular desk audits, office audits, shadow audits, and review audits of CBs to identify issues and support better auditing and management practices. Where nonconformities are identified during audits, certification bodies are required to create and implement improvement plans for remediation. Certification bodies and auditors that fail to meet the rigorous standards set out by the Rainforest Alliance in our Certification and Auditing Rules or ISO requirements are sanctioned and face either temporary or permanent suspension.

What are the different audits that are conducted to monitor CB performance?

Certification bodies form the backbone of the Rainforest Alliance assurance system. For this reason, the Rainforest Alliance employs several tools for monitoring CB integrity and performance, including auditing.

The Rainforest Alliance uses four main types of audits to monitor CBs: desk audits, office audits, shadow audits, and review audits. Each audit plays a different role in assessing the overall performance of a certification body.

For example, the Rainforest Alliance routinely conducts systematic remote desk audits. Desk audits specifically focus on evaluating the systems a certification body uses to manage auditor performance and audit quality. Expanding outward to wider management practices, office audits focus on the functioning of a CB’s managerial layer and of the quality their oversight activities. Office audits verify adherence to ISO norms and requirements of our Rules for Certification Bodies, Certification Rules, and Auditing Rules.

To monitor the integrity of auditing practices, the Rainforest Alliance uses shadow audits and review audits. During shadow audits, Rainforest Alliance directly accompanies certification body auditors as they audit, paying special attention to how CB auditors interpret the Rainforest Alliance standards and on the thoroughness of their verification activities. For review audits, on the other hand, an expert auditor from the Rainforest Alliance conducts an audit of a CH who has recently been audited by a CB. The Rainforest Alliance then compares their results with those produced by the CB.

During each of these audits, the Rainforest Alliance may identify NCs based on our Certification Rules and Auditing Rules as well as The Rules for Certification Bodies. For these, auditors or certification bodies are required to create and implement action plans to address and close the NC. Those who fail to close NCs or who repeatedly fail to meet the criteria outlined in our certification and auditing rules may face temporary or permanent suspension.

What does the Rainforest Alliance do to support Certification Bodies?

To maintain authorization for auditing against the Rainforest Alliance standard, all certification bodies are required to develop and implement continuing education activities to support staff and educate on best practices in auditing.

In addition, the Rainforest Alliance offers a comprehensive program of trainings, activities, and resources to support CBs. This includes virtual and face-to-face trainings on how to more effectively interpret the RA standard and calibration activities conducted with RA CHs to build shared understanding of RA standard criteria. The Rainforest Alliance also provides training to CBs to support them in auditing against difficult to monitor issues, especially regarding human rights. These include trainings on auditing the grievance mechanism and “assess and address” system, but also on how to adopt gender-sensitive auditing practices.

For tailored improvement on an individual CB or auditor level, the Rainforest Alliance conducts regular shadow audits, during which an RA auditor will accompany a CB auditors to identify areas for improvement, in addition to providing feedback through our license review activities.

Further support is given through our library of guidelines, development of an analysis of potential risks by country, and ongoing, open communication from dedicated trainers to support CB’s on a day-to-day basis with any aspect of the auditing process.

Are there any measures in place for Certification Bodies who do not meet the Rainforest Alliance’s standards?

The Rainforest Alliance’s quality management for CBs includes trainings, monitoring, license review and stakeholder outreach. If the Rainforest Alliance identifies an issue with a CB or individual auditor through our CB monitoring activities, our first goal is to work with the auditor or CB to develop and implement an improvement plan. For more serious issues however, the Rainforest Alliance uses a tiered system comprised of warnings, yellow cards and red cards. The level is dependent on the severity of the issue raised and takes into account the previous history of the CB. For CBs who are issued a warning, it is possible to continue conducting audits of the RA standard while the warning remains in place, provided that the CB has developed and is implementing a remediation plan. Successful remediation is monitored by RA auditors.

Higher level issues signifying potentially serious issues of CB integrity result in yellow or red cards. CBs receiving a yellow card may have their authorization to conduct audits of the RA standard suspended until they have undergone additional trainings or exhibited sufficient remediation activities to close the issues. For CBs who systematically or consistently do not conform to Rainforest Alliance rules, a red card will be given. CBs receiving a red card will not be allowed to audit against the RA standard for a period defined by the Rainforest Alliance. Auditors can also be suspended, either temporarily or permanently.

What is Rainforest Alliance doing to reduce the complexities and costs of compliance to the standard?

Ever since the launch of 2020 Sustainable Agriculture Standard, the Rainforest Alliance has been taking concerted steps for reducing the cost and complexity of compliance without losing the rigor upon which the standard was built.

This has included introducing certification updates with simplified language and standardization of data collection, in addition to implementation process revisions to improve accessibility, especially for small farmers and single-site CHs. We are also revisiting our sampling methodologies and exploring ways to incentivize farms towards better performance. Collectively, these support higher efficiency for farms in compliance across chapters.

Throughout the last year, the Rainforest Alliance also held several calibration workshops for CBs and CHs to foster shared understanding of the standard’s criteria. By aligning on what signifies compliance for more complex criteria, CHs are more able to comply with the standard and auditing times may be decreased.

Having a choice of CBs also may help reduce cost. By allowing multiple CBs to audit for RAC, we ensure that no single CB has a monopoly hold on the market.

How does the Rainforest Alliance collaborate with certificate holders to address areas for improvement or non-compliance found during audits or assessments?

The Rainforest Alliance is committed to supporting farmers along their continuous improvement journey. To decrease the number of avoidable NCs, for example, the Rainforest Alliance has held multiple calibration workshops for CBs and CHs. These have helped foster shared understanding of the standard’s criteria and interpretation of compliance.

Our dedicated team of Certification Partner Support Officers provide in-person and online trainings focused on helping farmers to understand the requirements of our standard and implement criteria with the highest non-compliance. Every year, these trainings are updated to better provide support where farmers need it most.

The Rainforest Alliance also supports farmers to address areas for improvement by sourcing investment from across the stakeholder landscape. In Guatemala, for example, the Rainforest Alliance recently worked with the Walmart Foundation to support the banana sector in improving its waste management practices and in lowering the use of plastics associated with agrochemical inputs. Through our work with the International Cocoa Initiative and Solidaridad West Africa in Ghana, we are also supporting farmers in human rights compliance by working with them to build stronger systems for preventing and identifying child labor.

What is the value of traceability reporting to retailers, traders, consumers, public?

Our stakeholders–including consumers, brands, other NGOs, and consumer advocacy groups –regularly challenge us to demonstrate how we ensure claims of Rainforest Alliance Certified content. Traceability helps us back up the claim that any products bearing the Rainforest Alliance seal come from Rainforest Alliance Certified sources. It means that consumers and companies can trace a product back to a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm certificate holder. This process helps us safeguard the integrity of the Rainforest Alliance seal.

Collecting this data centrally at the Rainforest Alliance allows us to have visibility through the entire supply chain, from origin to final distribution, and thus can assure the integrity of the Rainforest Alliance seal.

Companies can also benefit from traceability because it can make their supply chains more transparent, identify possible weak spots, and help them to work on further improvements. And farmers can track farm development, but also gain access to new markets

What does Mass Balance mean?

Mass balance is a sourcing method that allows for certified and non-certified ingredients to become mixed during the shipping and manufacturing processes. In the mass balance model the volume of certified product entering the operation is controlled and an equivalent volume of product leaving the operations can be sold as certified. It is important to note that all major international sustainability initiatives use mass balance in one form or another.

Why does the Rainforest Alliance offer traceability options like Mass Balance?

It’s important to understand that a certificate holder’s primary concern is selling their crop as certified, irrespective of whether it ends up in a specific chocolate bar, coffee cup, etc.

In certain supply chains, the elevated costs linked to segregation—such as the need for separate tanks and silos for some cocoa segregation—can discourage companies from embracing responsible sourcing practices. Our diverse traceability options aim to provide a more accessible entry point for companies to participate in sustainability, fostering demand for responsibly sourced ingredients and increased value for farmers.

We encourage companies to gradually raise the traceability levels they use to source certified ingredients for their products.

And how can a company say they have visibility into its supply chain without traceability?

They can’t.

What information is made available to traders and retailers regarding traceability?

The Rainforest Alliance is constantly evolving our traceability platform. Power BI reports are available to partners and provide various traceability information dependent on sector and partner sourcing level from mass balance to identify preserved. On aggregate country-crop levels, we also report on traceability, non-conformities and group management training metrics.

Where can traders find contact details for certified farms/crops?

The Rainforest Alliance maintains a publicly accessible list of farm and supply chain certificate holders on our website, which includes CH ID and License Numbers. Traders looking for more information about specific certificate holders should reach out to a member of the Rainforest Alliance customer care team or their relationship manager.

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