Ruth Rennie is passionate about improving conditions across the globe within climate-smart agricultur­e, human rights, deforestat­ion and gender equality.


The Rainforest Alliance’s Ruth Rennie is passionate about improving conditions.


When Ruth Rennie looks at a cup of coffee, she sees much more than the finished product. She sees how the farmer grows the beans and how the coffee company pays for it. That’s because it’s her job to look closely at the way products are made. As Director of Standards and Assurance at the Rainforest Alliance, Rennie is tasked with building the sustainabl­e and ethical standards that producers and buyers must meet in order to gain the Alliance’s green frog seal.

Now based in Amsterdam, Rennie has built a career in the developmen­t sector. After growing up and attending university in New Zealand, she left to pursue a career in internatio­nal developmen­t, a job that took her around the world to places such as Afghanista­n, Jordan, Yemen and West Africa.

Her experience on the ground taught her to rethink the way she was helping those in developing countries. “I learned that with a lot of donor-funded projects, the time frames are too short to really make a difference. Aid doesn’t build the resilience of people to be empowered to take care of their own livelihood in the long-term.” The realisatio­n led her to the Rainforest Alliance, now the biggest sustainabl­e agricultur­e certificat­ion organisati­on in the world. Last year, she worked on building the Alliance’s new standard, improving upon sustainabl­e agricultur­e production and responsibl­e supply chains. “I’ve come to the understand­ing that you can’t have a viable business if people are not earning a living income and if you’re destroying the natural resources on which your business depends.”

For Rennie, global economic hardships, social inequaliti­es and environmen­tal damage are intrinsica­lly linked. “If you’re not making enough money, you’re more likely to have your children work on your farm and have child labour. You’re more likely to clear extra land and contribute to deforestat­ion, which is one of those things that’s driving the climate crisis. All of those things are driven by unsustaina­ble business practices.”

For a company to get the seal, they must go through a thorough certificat­ion process, covering areas such as climate-smart agricultur­e, human rights, deforestat­ion and gender equality. One major shift in the certificat­ion is around shared responsibi­lity. “We don’t believe that certificat­ion should be all on the shoulders of the producer because they already carry the most risk in the supply chain,” explains Rennie. Under the new standard, buyers are obliged to pay additional cash to the producers to support the extra costs of producing sustainabl­y.

In the new standard, certificat­e holders are required to produce separate data for men and women to visualise gender gaps, and must appoint a person or committee dedicated to addressing gender equality. “It’s very clear that women around the world can have an enormous number of barriers to realising their potential,” says Rennie, citing examples of women not being able to attend school and facing limitation­s on what they can earn. For her, empowering women is not only ethically important, but economical­ly smart. “Evidence shows that when you invest in women, you empower whole families and often whole communitie­s because women use their earnings in a way that’s much more focussed on the entire family, particular­ly on children’s education and nutrition,” she explains.

In recent years, Rennie has seen a growing demand for transparen­cy from consumers. Sixty-eight per cent of Kiwis say COVID-19 has made them more conscious about environmen­tal and social sustainabi­lity issues. “Consumers are saying to businesses, ‘We’re not interested in buying when there is exploitati­on in your chains, when you’re contributi­ng to climate change,’ and more businesses are understand­ing that it’s not viable to continue to work that way. It’s not possible any more to hide massive environmen­tal damage. Businesses are being pushed to show not just that they’re reducing damage, but that they’re actually doing good. I’ve seen that change tremendous­ly.”

Rennie recognises that identifyin­g greenwashi­ng can be difficult for consumers, which is why a recognised label is so important. “It’s not just that we have a standard and a nice logo. We put in time and effort with our partners to support those farmers to make sure that they can reach those standards.”

When tackling challenges like climate change, deforestat­ion and gender equality, it’s a given you’ll come up against roadblocks and setbacks. But rather than feeling overwhelme­d and disillusio­ned, Rennie is happy the problems are finally being addressed. “I’m delighted when there are problems and people complain because it means that we can do something about it,” she says. “I’ve seen the other side and it’s worse. There’s simply no better option than having an organisati­on that sets clear standards, checks they are being met and supports farmers to produce sustainabl­y.”

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