The UTZ label unveiled

Chris Simoens
17 April 2019
The UTZ label sounds familiar to many of us, but what exactly does it stand for?

Consumers who are more conscious of what they eat are familiar with a series of labels:  UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade International, IFOAM… For sustainable wood there is the FSC label, while the Better Cotton Initiative labels sustainable cotton etc. 

Yet as a consumer you risk to get lost in that forest of labels and often it is not clear what exactly they stand for. focuses on one of these labels : UTZ, co-founded by a Belgian (see box). There is good news by the way: UTZ recently merged with the  Rainforest Alliance, making the labeling landscape a little clearer.


What is UTZ?

UTZ is a label for more sustainably grown cocoa, coffee and tea, in addition to some hazelnut. In 2016, UTZ certified 2.1 million hectares of cocoa, 567,000 hectares of coffee and 68,000 hectares of tea. For cocoa and coffee, this amounts to approximately 21% and 5.2% respectively of the total surface area of all cocoa and coffee grown worldwide. In 2017, UTZ reached 750,000 cocoa farmers or 15% of all cocoa farmers worldwide. In Belgium, UTZ is the main label for more sustainable coffee. Not exactly a  small player.

Anyone who buys a product with an UTZ label knows that the company at least bought certified ingredients that were grown more sustainably and with respect for the workers.

Sustainable and social

Anyone who buys a product with an UTZ label knows that the company at least bought certified ingredients that were grown more sustainably and with respect for the workers.

‘More sustainable’ does not stand for ‘organic’, although the farmers do commit to using sustainable cultivation techniques, for example by reducing the use of pesticides to a minimum. They also undertake to avoid deforestation and not to damage biodiversity. 

As regards the social aspect, the focus is on decent wages, among other things. Every worker must earn at least the legal minimum wage, and men and women must receive equal pay for equal work. Child labour is forbidden.

Besides, UTZ tries to make farmers more resilient to climate change, e.g. by encouraging them to grow a greater variety of crops and by showing them how to use water-saving techniques. The producer who sells certified products receives a premium, which must benefit all members of a farmers’ cooperative. 

All the rules that farmers have to follow have been listed in a code of conduct. But the buyers and all other links in the ‘supply chain’ have to comply with a number of rules too, which can be found in the Chain of Custody. This way, UTZ tries to work as transparently as possible and to provide an impetus for more sustainable and social products.

Coffee farmers pick berries in South America.
© Rainforest Alliance

100% guarantee?

But how can you monitor 750,000 cocoa farmers, not to mention the numerous  intermediaries handling the product before it is put on the shelves? ‘UTZ uses independent auditors for this’, tells Daria Koreniushkina, responsible for Public Relations in Europe at the Rainforest Alliance. ’All players in the supply chain who modify the products are regularly audited on all requirements.’

‘The ban on child labour, for example, is an essential requirement. We require cooperatives to take a variety of actions: assessing the risk of child labour, preventing and tackling child labour in partnership with the local community and, where possible, joining existing initiatives to protect children. The auditors will thus not only check if there are children working on the farms, but also find out if the cooperative has really taken measures to eliminate child labour - such as making sure the children can attend school.’

‘However, no viable system can fully guarantee that there has been no child labour at any time and on any certified farm. Members of the cooperative can hide child labor cases. If we really want to eradicate all forms of child labour, we need a strong coalition of all stakeholders, including local communities and governments.’


No viable system can fully guarantee that there has been no child labour at any time and on any certified farm.

Daria Koreniushkina

Attractive to farmers

Why should farmers make the effort to get a label? Because they benefit from it. ‘Our programme helps farmers improve the sustainability and the future prospects of their business’, Koreniushkina tells us. ‘Moreover, they can establish new long-term relationships with traders.’

But farmers also learn a lot about how to better manage their farms. ‘Farmers are trained in methods to improve the soil,  to harvest better and to adapt to a changing climate. This ultimately leads to higher-quality products and a more secure income.’ 

Better living and working conditions are also beneficial for the farmer. ‘Our standards on health and safety, workers' rights, environmental protection and education, etc. all contribute to higher productivity. If the working practices and the workers are safe and protected, their business will become stronger.’

A solid training is therefore the key to success at UTZ. Koreniushkina: ‘There are more than one million certified farmers and we cannot train them all individually of course. That is why we use the ‘train-the-trainer’ approach. Our representatives in each country train local NGOs and technical advisors who work for traders and companies in the supply chain. These trainers in turn train the farmers.’ 


A woman spreads cocoa beans to dry (Assin, Ghana).
© Rainforest Alliance

Attractive to companies

Having an UTZ label is also attractive to companies. ‘Consumers increasingly want  to know where the products come from and whether they were produced in a responsible manner. By buying certified ingredients companies can respond to this growing market. More and more companies are using certified products, including large players such as Mars and Nestlé. Of course, companies must strictly comply with all our labelling rules before they can use our label.’


Merger with Rainforest Alliance

In January 2018, UTZ merged with the Rainforest Alliance, the leading label for tea and bananas. ‘Both organisations have a lot in common’, Koreniushkina explains. ‘We are currently developing our new organisation. This will lead to a unified certification programme that will be published at the end of 2019. We merged to have more impact and create a better future for people and nature. We work to make responsible business the new normal.’ The expanded organisation continues its activities under the name Rainforest Alliance.

The fairly well-known Fairtrade International label shows both similarities and differences with UTZ. ‘For example, we have a different approach when it comes to increasing farmers' incomes’, says Koreniushkina. ‘Fairtrade supports farmers by setting a minimum price and fixed premium. We, on the other hand, focus on good agricultural practices that enable farmers to efficiently produce more yields of higher quality on less land. This increases their income and gives small farmers a stronger position on the market, also in the long term.’

The new, merged Rainforest Alliance focuses mainly on cocoa, coffee, tea, bananas and forest products. Besides, it tries to grow in the sectors of tropical fruit, hazelnuts, herbs, spices and vanilla. 

In short, anyone who chooses UTZ - and other reliable labels - does support a more sustainable and fairer agriculture, which at the same time protects the environment and workers.


Beyond chocolate


Rainforest Alliance has signed the ‘Beyond Chocolate’ charter, an initiative of Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo to make Belgian chocolate fully sustainable. Numerous players, from supermarkets to multinationals, have joined in.


‘We want to support all Beyond Chocolate partners in meeting their commitments’, says Koreniushkina. ‘As a member of The Living Income Community of Practice, we are working on a credible and robust living income benchmark for small cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast and Ghana, the world's key cocoa producing regions. And we want to continuously innovate the cocoa certification. This will culminate in the publication of the unified programme of UTZ and Rainforest Alliance at the end of 2019.’


Belgian major force behind UTZ


Nick Bocklandt


In the 1990s, Belgian Nick Bocklandt ran the El Volcán coffee plantation in Guatemala. He wanted to turn it into a model plantation, not only by working in an environmentally friendly way, but also by establishing very close relationships with his staff. Every day he walked the plantation slopes. He also built a small school and a health centre. But no matter how much effort he put into it, his coffee ended up anonymously at the New York Stock Exchange...


That is why Bocklandt was looking for ways to distinguish himself. For example, he invited coffee roasters such as Rombouts to his coffee plantation to buy coffee directly from him. Finally, together with Ward de Groote of Ahold, he developed the concept of Utz Kapeh (= 'good coffee' in the Quiché language), the predecessor of UTZ. The label was officially launched in 2002. 

Fair trade Coffee Cocoa
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