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.
“IF YOU INVEST IN WOMEN, YOU EMPOWER WHOLE FAMILIES.”
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.”