Innovation of the Week: Helping Individuals Make Sustainable Choices with Global Effects

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By Jenna Banning

“The best way to keep forests standing,” according to the Rainforest Alliance, “is by ensuring that it is profitable for businesses and communities to do so.”

This ad encourages farmers to implement environmentally friendly and socially just practices. (Photo credit: Rainforest Alliance)

Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit organization established in 1986 that works with businesses and communities across the world, helping to promote environmental, social, and economic sustainability. The group focuses on rainforests, which support more than two-thirds of the world’s plants and animals as well as many farmers, but which are under threat from unsustainable forestry, deforestation, agriculture, and tourism practices. Approximately 50,000 square miles of the earth – roughly the size of Mississippi – is deforested annually in order to produce paper, lumber and foods for the global market. To combat this, Rainforest Alliance is working with farmers, forest managers, and tourism operators to encourage production practices for their goods and services which also protect the resources on which they depend.

Rainforest Alliance provides tools for environmentally friendly land, water, and labor management. For farmers, this means that they must meet standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network, the oldest and largest coalition of NGOs working to improve production in the tropics. Rainforest Alliance also strives to ensure that workers on these farms, and at all other Rainforest Alliance Certified ™ operations, are treated justly, receive decent wages, respectable housing and healthcare, and have access to education for their children. In addition, the organization works with local groups and communities to build tourism as an alternative to destructive activities such as slash-and-burn agriculture or illegal deforestation.

The adoption of these practices may not always be easy for farmers to implement, but the rewards are visible. According to Rainforest Alliance, “farmers tell us that meeting the criteria is a challenge, but doing so helps them farm intelligently, gain confidence, get ahead and plan for their futures.” After verifying that farms, forestry activities, tourist groups, or other operations are following their standards, Rainforest Alliance allows them to use seals—the Rainforest Alliance Certified ™, for farms and forestry businesses, or Verified ™, for tourism companies—which gives them better access to specialty buyers, contract stability, and premium markets. Improvements are also evident within the operations: according to Rainforest Alliance’s website, 98.9 percent of full-time employees on Rainforest Alliance Certified ™ farms earn wages above poverty level, over 28,000 children have received educational assistance, and in a study conducted in 2008, farmers in El Salvador working towards certification saw productivity rise by 78 percent.

Bringing these products to the market also helps consumers who want to support environmentally and socially just businesses. The Rainforest Alliance seal clearly marks agricultural or forest-derived products coming from Rainforest Alliance certified operations, informing consumers of where their money is going as well as raising awareness of the issues.

The next time that you pick up bananas, coffee, a piece of chocolate, or any other agricultural or forest-derived product with the little green frog seal, you can feel good that your purchase is helping to support businesses and individuals who are helping make the world more environmentally and socially just.

Jenna Banning is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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