Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

The Rainforest Alliance: Promoting Sustainability from the Ground Up

April 3rd, 2015 – by Otto Nagengast ’17


The United Nations estimates that 150 to 200 species go extinct every day. Much of this is due to the staggering scale of deforestation in the world today, which is also responsible for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Over one half of the world’s forest have already been destroyed, but the Rainforest Alliance (RFA) is fighting to stem the ever-increasing rate of global deforestation.

Seventy percent of forest removal is for agriculture. The RFA’s model is built on creating sustainable livelihoods for farmers around the world, so that the farmers don’t need to chop down precious forests to make a living. With around 400 staff working in over 100 countries, the RFA works to promote supply chain sustainability from the ground up. At the farm level, the RFA collaborates with the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) to evaluate farms along 10 criteria, ranging from Ecosystem Conservation to Fair Treatment and Working Conditions for Workers to Community Relations. Richard Donovan, Senior Vice President and Vice President of Forestry at the RFA, says that for farms “the baseline is not injuring [the environment]…we want to push them to improve.”

At the corporate level, the RFA works with companies like Hershey’s, Unilever, and Dunkin’ Donuts to help them source their products more sustainability, not only for the sake of the environment but also in the interest of profits. When the banana producer Chiquita transitioned to more sustainable sources, they reduced costs by 12 percent and increased productivity by 27 percent. Unilever reduced paper costs by $5 million by switching to a sustainable producer. Both Lipton and McDonalds increased market share by over 6 percent by offering sustainably-sourced products. Thanks in part to the RFAs work, firms now expect to be able to trace their sources back all the way, whereas before the RFA had to convince firms why traceability mattered.

There have also been enormous economic benefits for indigenous communities thanks to the work of the RFA. By helping 1.1 million farms in 43 countries gain certification for their sustainable practices, the RFA has helped indigenous communities earn around $38 million dollars. Today, over 30,000 households are supported through community forest operations.

But deforestation still occurs on a massive scale and the RFA is constantly evolving to address the ever-changing challenges deforestation presents for a sustainable environment. The very word “sustainability,” says Richard, has become stale and the RFA is still debating using more language like “eradicating deforestation” instead of “promoting sustainability.”  The RFA is among the first wave of NGOs to use matrix management. Instead of siloing talent into separate departments, the RFA has teams of people from different backgrounds and areas of expertise that work together on projects. This allowed Carly Fink, who graduate in May 2014 with a degree in Environmental Studies and Geography, to smoothly transition into her position at the RFA. She has spent the past year working with RFA president Tensie Whelan on exploring new initiatives. Richard says that today it is becoming increasingly important to have an area of expertise, but also a broad understanding of how your expertise fits in with others that you’re collaborating with.

Carly says that at Middlebury she learned about the countless problems that ail our world, but that it is “exciting to work with the Rainforest Alliance on actually solving those problems.” The RFA has already done hugely consequential work, and they’re striving to do even more.



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