Consuming Deforestation: Where Are Your Standards?

Jacob Olander

These days, everything from coffee to cornflakes has somebody’s stamp of approval, letting you know its ingredients have been sustainably harvested or that its producers have been treated fairly. But what do these standards mean? Here’s a quick look at four (soon to be three) of the most popular.

This story has been updated from an earlier piece on Canopy Bridge

14 July 2017 | First it was hamburgers, then chocolate and now guacamole. Tropical forests are being relentlessly sacrificed for our far-away indulgences. Avocado growers are trashing native pine and oak forests in Mexico. A boom in cocoa planting comes at the expense of tropical forests in West Africa and Peru. And beef is responsible for over 70% of deforestation in Latin America (not to mention a host of other problems).

With commercial agriculture and livestock the largest drivers of tropical deforestation, many, if not most, products and companies have some deforestation hidden in their supply chain. It would be nice to be able to know that what we consume isn´t fueling forest destruction, but as an article from the NGO Forest Trends, summed it up last year: “Almost everything you buy is killing tropical forests.” Many companies have adopted ambitious public commitments to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, assuring stakeholders that their products won’t be using inputs sourced from farmers and suppliers causing deforestation.

Since trying to research the footprint of every single product we buy while we´re at the supermarket is pretty much impossible, as consumers we often rely on certifications and standards as a shortcut to flag the issues we care about; fair trade, organic, Forest Stewardship Council, Rainforest Alliance … the International Trade Center’s Standards Map now lists over 200 different standards for environmental and social issues.

Since cutting down tropical forests is something that most consumers would probably prefer to avoid, many of the most popular certifications for consumer products address the risk of deforestation. But the way and the extent to which they do so varies.

So here we provide a quick comparison of four of the most popular standards and how they try to keep clearcutting, habitat loss and species extinction out of your cookies, chocolate and guacamole.

Devil in the Details

Before diving into just how the standards compare, we’re going to have to read the fine print, because standards differ even in how they even define “forest.”  A couple of points and terms are important to understand.

Not all forests are created equal. While you’d be forgiven for thinking that a rainforest is pretty easy to recognize when you see one, standards don’t necessarily apply to all forests.  Standards may prohibit (or, on the flip side, permit) deforestation of:

  • All natural habitats, categorically;
  • Primary forest – natural forests of native species that have had little or no human intervention. (Textbook and legal definitions vary).
  • Secondary forests. Again, definitions vary, but generally understood to be forests that have regenerated through natural processes after significant human intervention such as clearing or logging.
  • High Conservation Value forests: A designation first established by the Forest Stewardship Council, HCV refers to forests of exceptional importance for biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services or local communities.

Since when is this OK? Virtually all agricultural products come from lands that were, at some time in history, forest (or some other kind of natural ecosystem like plains, savannahs, wetlands). So at some point in time standards need to draw a line and say: Before this date we’ll let it go, but after that deforestation is unacceptable. Again, different standards tackle this differently:

  • A fixed cut-off date in the past. Suppliers have to show that they haven’t deforested after a certain year or date (for example, November 1, 2005 for Rainforest Alliance or November 1994 for Forest Stewardship Council)
  • Period prior to certification. Certified producers need to demonstrate that forest wasn’t cleared for some number of years immediately prior to certification.
  • From certification onwards. Once the certification is granted (or, in some cases, the application process begun).

There’s a trade-off to be had between the different requirements.  A strict, fixed date reaching back in time is very stringent, and potentially excludes producers that might game the system by deforesting, waiting a bit, and then reaping the benefits of certification. But a date tied to the producer’s certification allows more producers to commit to a path to improvement and doesn’t make them liable for actions that may have happened years in the past.

A Look at Four Standards

What follows is a roundup of four of the most prominent standards on consumer products that tell us something about deforestation, although UTZ is slated to merge into Rainforest Alliance by year’s end.


The standard:

Organic certification can vary with regulations from country to country. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) is the global umbrella organization for the organic farming movement. IFOAM´s standards provide a reference and benchmark for organic certification standards around the world, though national organic standards may vary. More than 2 million producers with over 50 million hectares of farmland in 179 countries around are certified organic.

Products you may see it on:

Everything from fresh produce to consumer goods with multiple ingredients.

What does the standard say:

“Clearing or destruction of High Conservation Value Areas is prohibited. Farming areas installed on land that has been obtained by clearing of High Conservation Value Areas in the preceding 5 years shall not be considered compliant with this standard.” (2.1.2 IFOAM Norms). An IFOAM representative pointed out that many national organic standards do not regulate this aspect at all.

Fair Trade

The standard(s):

Fair trade is a broad movement that seeks to improve rights, benefits and equity in trading relationships, particularly for producers in the global South. There are various fair trade standards, but the largest are Fairtrade International (FLO) and Fair Trade USA, which share a common origin and base of standards, though they split in 2011.

Products you may see it on:

Food commodities like cocoa, coffee, bananas and tea constitute the majority of fair trade certification, though it is also widely used for handicrafts, textiles and flowers.

What does the standard say:

Both Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA share common requirements for small producer organizations and indicate that “Members must avoid negative impacts on protected areas and in areas with high conservation value within or outside the farm or production areas from the date of application for certification” and must report on activities to protect and enhance biodiversity (Fair Trade International Standard for Small Producer Organizations 3.2.33 or FairTrade USA Guidelines ES-BD 1)


The standard:

UTZ is a sustainable farming standard focused on improving farmer livelihoods and good environmental practices. It’s in the process of merging into the Rainforest Alliance to create a single global standard, and details are expected later in the year.

Products you may see it on:

UTZ certification can be found on thousands of product packages, and focuses on coffee, cocoa, tea and hazelnuts.  UTZ is the largest certification program in the world for sustainable coffee and cocoa. Coffee and cocoa are particularly important from a deforestation perspective since these two crops account for about 1/8th of the EUs deforestation footprint.[i]

What does the standard say:

No deforestation of primary forest has occurred since 2008 and deforestation of secondary forest is allowed only with proper permits and titles.

Rainforest Alliance/Sustainable Agriculture Network

The standard:

Farms certified by Rainforest Alliance must meet criteria established by the Sustainable Agriculture Network a coalition of environmental groups working to promote sustainable agriculture, including social, environmental and economic principles. Rainforest Alliance is in the process of merging with UTZ to create a single global standard, but details won’t be known until later in the year.

Products you may see it on:

Thousands of products from health and beauty to food and beverage.

What does the standard say:

How do They Compare?

It is worth keeping in mind that most of these standards weren’t originally created with the primary goal of screening out deforestation. Most have multiple environmental and social objectives, and have tackled deforestation as one aspect of broader agendas. Different priorities (e.g., fair incomes to farmers, screening out GMOs or pesticides) may be more important to some consumers than others as they make their buying choices. When it comes to deforestation there are also real differences between the standards.

Perhaps not surprisingly given its name, the Rainforest Alliance certification is the standard that addresses deforestation risk most directly and categorically, setting a high bar by specifically excluding “destruction of natural ecosystems,” a requirement that reaches back to cover actions taken since 2005.

UTZ also scores high marks for prohibiting “deforestation of primary forest since 2008” and having robust definitions and requirements for geo-referencing and monitoring. Though it’s worth noting that UTZ does allow clearing of secondary forest “with proper permits and titles,” which in practice can allow deforestation of potentially ecologically important secondary forest under (sometimes weak) national regulations.

If forests are not determined to be of High Conservation Value (or within protected areas) farmers could in principle cut them down and resulting products still be certified as Organic or Fair Trade. In that sense these common standards don´t explicitly cover many tropical forests, which might come as a surprise to some consumers.

Many companies that use voluntary certifications like these on their products are also turning to additional more commodity-specific or tailor-made tools to keep deforestation out of their products to provide a better screen. Supply Change is an initiative of US NGO Forest Trends that tracks nearly 450 companies with commitments to reducing deforestation, including giants like Unilever, Cargill, General Mills and Coca Cola. The results of these commitments generally aren’t visible on the products that make it to supermarket shelves; there’s no specifically zero-deforestation certification yet.

Ideally we wouldn’t be able to choose to buy deforestation-free products, because that also implies an option for production predicated on forest destruction. In the meantime, for many companies and consumers, voluntary certification standards provide helpful, but still uneven, guidance.

[i] EU: The impact of EU consumption on deforestation: Comprehensive analysis of the impact of EU consumption on deforestation. European Union. 2013.

Jacob Olander is co-founder of, a global directory and network helping buyers and suppliers of sustainable crops and wild-harvested products to find each other and build relationships. It allows members from around the world to list, describe, discover and learn more about natural products and the people behind them.

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