Providing 'conservation' to the consumer

Next time you open a bar of chocolate, think about how it smells, how it tastes, and then think about where it comes from, particularly about the farmer that grew the cocoa beans. Whether it was in Ecuador, West Africa or Indonesia, your chocolate bar was once a cocoa pod, grown by a small farmer like Adrien Kouadio, who owns a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm in Cote d’Ivoire.  

We profiled Adrien’s story last year, and he is one of hundreds of thousands of farmers who grow cocoa sustainably on over 1.86 million acres worldwide. When consumers learn about what life is like for Adrien, how sustainable farming affects him, his family, his community, and the biodiversity of the rainforest where he lives, the message of conservation becomes more than just a buzzword, it creates a connection between producers and consumers. 

Earlier this year, a Buzzback study polled over 2000 participants in order to learn more about what sustainability meant to them. Not only did researchers find that over 80% of respondents were more likely to purchase the brand with the sustainable label, they want brands that align with their personal values and are making a difference in ways that are meaningful to them. The numbers supporting this only go up when speaking with Gen X’ers and Millennials. Yet only half of respondents report hearing the word ‘sustainable’ even on an occasional basis from companies.

Consumer insight specialists are finding that the messages that once drove consumers to buy will no longer be effective. Consumers want to see what companies are doing for world, and not just with nice words.  Currently 71% of U.S. consumers consider the environment when shopping and nearly half look for environmental information about products they buy.  More than half look for trust marks, like that of Rainforest Alliance’s.

Rainforest Alliance helps companies transform to new, innovative models of sustainable sourcing and impact, and then engage consumers. In the last twenty-five years, Rainforest Alliance has helped certify nearly 200 million acres of forest-land, tea plantations, cocoa farms, and a myriad of agricultural products where farmers make the choice to use less pesticides, to be kinder to the environment around them, and to treat their workers better. Producers, for their efforts, see higher yields on their farms than they would have otherwise. Companies, when using Rainforest Alliance Certified products, are not only are doing good for the Earth, they are increasing their market share in the burgeoning sustainable goods industry, valued at $36.1 billion in 2012 in the United States alone. 

At the Rainforest Alliance, we believe that certifying farms, forests and tourism operations, engaging with companies to sell the products of these certified farms, and encouraging consumers to choose certified products will make a fundamental difference for the health of our planet. To date, Rainforest Alliance has certified 7.5 million acres of farmland in 43 countries. As a percentage of total world market share, Rainforest Alliance certifies 20% of all exported bananas, 14% of all tea, 14.5% of all cocoa, and 5.2% of all coffee. We are also moving into other sectors, including cattle and palm oil—two of the largest drivers of deforestation worldwide. 

The Rainforest Alliance has also certified 188 million acres of forest in 49 countries, earning $34 million dollars for indigenous forest communities. In the business of tourism, we have improved sustainability as well. Currently, 929 businesses are verified by us in 10 countries, helping to protect 12.3 million acres of land, benefitting 27,670 households. When our researchers looked at tourism businesses in Granada, Nicaragua, they found that sustainable tourism businesses generated significant tax revenue for the area and that 34% of money paid to suppliers went to local companies.

Consumers must also be aware of the increasing availability of certified goods so that they can make smart choices. At Rainforest Alliance, we like to encourage “buy-cotts” for products that are grown sustainably, helping to move consumer demand to agriculture that is better for the environment. One example would be our “Follow the Frog” campaign, a multi-tiered strategy that encourages consumers to look for our seal on the products they buy every day. 

There are also the companies that connect producers and consumers, and Rainforest Alliance leads the way on developing relationships with the largest international purveyors of agricultural and forestry items. For instance, all of Chiquita’s banana farms are Rainforest Alliance Certified, Mars, Inc. has committed to sustainably sourcing all of its cocoa by 2020, and by next year Unilever, which has a 12% world market share in tea, will have all of their tea grown on Rainforest Alliance Certified farms. 

Dean Scarborough, CEO of Avery Dennison, has made a commitment to 100% sustainably sourced materials in his label company.  He explains:

“As a leader in labeling and packaging, we’re in a unique position to move our industry toward sustainably sourced materials, and that includes investing in the communities that manage natural resources. By working with the Rainforest Alliance, we can improve the livelihoods of farmers and their families while creating economic dividends for the entire value chain.”

With chief executives that think like Dean Scarborough, we will continue to develop opportunities for producers to thrive, for consumers to have eco-friendly choices and companies that will be able to benefit financially as well as become stewards of the Earth. For example, Unilever CEO Paul Polman has taken active steps to move away from the “consumer culture” by eliminating products that overlap.

The transformation of the market place is happening now. Every year we see a larger and more dramatic shift towards the availability and consumption of sustainable goods. Consumers are demanding fundamental change and the way they spend their dollars is proof. 


Tensie Whelan is the president of the Rainforest Alliance. Tensie has been working in the environmental field for more than 25 years, serving in senior leadership positions at the National Audubon Society and the New York League of Conservation Voters. Tensie also worked as a journalist and environmental communications consultant in Costa Rica, and was the managing editor of Ambioan international environmental journal based in Stockholm. Tensie also worked as a management consultant to nonprofit organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund. Follow the Rainforest Alliance on Twitter @RnfrstAlliance.

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