Five questions for Chris Wille, genuine sustainability pioneer

Chris Wille 

After some years working in and studying sustainable business, I sometimes sit back and consider which individuals have inspired me the most.

I’ve just spent two days with Interface in the Netherlands.

That’s a company made up of people who are genuinely inspirational. More on Interface in later posts but be assured, they are not perfect, but they are the real deal.

If there’s one individual who has inspired me that one person can raise awareness, drive change and start a sustainable (in both senses) movement, it’s Chris Wille.

Chris is one of the most modest people you’ll ever meet. He’s also a genuine inspiration and role model.

To me, and many others. I am not alone. Some of the most experienced, hard-bitten people I know in the sustainable business field agree. They have told me, many times.

Chris is the head of sustainable agriculture at the Rainforest Alliance. But that is only a small part of what he has done. He’s the guy, from my studies, who got Chiquita into sustainability as early as the early 1990s. He’s made similar change happen across myriad companies since then.

There are a few sustainability “gurus” out there who have done little more than write well timed books summarising the work of others whilst inventing soundbites. If I believed in gurus (which you have probably guessed that I don’t) Chris would be a genuine one.

To be truly respected, you’ve got to do stuff, not just write or pontificate about it, or invent silly terms.

That doesn’t mean I am an uncritical friend of the Rainforest Alliance, where he works. They are by no means perfect, like all of us and our organisations. I don’t agree with everything they do. That didn’t stop Ethical Corporation’s judges making Chris the first ever recipient of our lifetime achievement award in sustainable business a few years ago. No-one deserves it more.

Here’s five questions I sent to Chris recently. In his usual way he’s spent some time on his considered responses.

If you read one thing on this blog more than once this year, then read this. I will leave it there.

Q: Give us, in a few lines, a brief overview of your career to date

Chris Wille: In university, we used Aldo Leopold’s opus on wildlife management as a textbook. He is better known as the author of A Sand County Almanac and as the father of conservation.

I wanted to be an apostle for conservation, which Leopold defined as “A way of life in which land does well for its inhabitants, citizens do well by their land, and both end up better by reason of partnership.”

I worked for some US state conservation agencies, and the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society, and then moved to Costa Rica with the Rainforest Alliance in 1989.

With other NGOs we developed the first standards for what we called conservation agriculture in the tropics, integrating the environmental, ethical and economic issues in farming crops like bananas, coffee and cocoa.

As the UN and business began using the term “sustainability” to mean “conservation,” we renamed our NGO coalition the Sustainable Agriculture Network.

Now, more than a million farmers in 35 countries are benefiting from implementing the SAN guidelines; while their productivity is up, deforestation on their lands is stopped, workers are empowered, endangered species protected, and natural capital is conserved. Farms that pass annual audits are certified, and Rainforest Alliance Certified products are increasingly found on store shelves.

As a conservationist, I was promoting sustainability before we called it that. By the way, my man Aldo also said:  “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching- even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”

Q: You are too modest to agree, but as a pioneer of sustainable agriculture, what are the key lessons you have learned in persuading business leaders of the value of sustainability action? 

Chris Wille: Business people, whether producers, traders, manufacturers or retailers, were not interested at first.

Chiquita famously took the leap when it was seen as risky to allow hawk-eyed, standards bearing, local environmentalists onto company operations, in this case banana plantations.

But Chiquita quickly began to see the benefits on the farms, and that’s what convinced them to continue.

For example, in the first ten years of implementing the standards on farms in Central and South America, the company recorded overall productivity gains of 27% and cost reductions of 12%.

Many business leaders like hard data, and the Rainforest Alliance has assembled an all-star team of scientists in recent years to gather verifiable numbers about program impacts. But data aren’t enough to excite everyone. We’ve found that stories from the field, examples, illustrations and project-site visits are all motivating.

Early on, many businesses were pushed toward sustainability by activist groups, and then peer pressure and marketing opportunities became compelling driving forces. As chronicled in the pages of Ethical Corporation, an increasing number of brands began seeing sustainability as more than “doing well by doing good.”

It became an essential ingredient to corporate strategy.

We’re long past the myth that conservation and profitability are at odds.

These days, the smart companies want to know about the risks and efficiency opportunities in their supply chains. They need assurance that the producers providing their raw materials – e.g. coffee, cocoa, tea, paper fiber – are going to be able to continue supplying the quantities and qualities they need in the face of increased competition for water, land, workers, credit and environmental services, climate change, migrating populations and political unrest.

For the most part, we no longer have to convince tycoons about sustainability. Greenpeace identifies and prods any laggards.

Companies want stewardship programs that fit their particular needs, integrate into their business model, make sense to their stakeholders and can efficiently deliver verifiable results. They want unique program elements that they can call their own, the endorsement of independent, credible NGOs, guidance on messaging and marketing and, when possible, certified claims.

Q: Certification is such a complex beast. Look at palm oil. Do you believe in the idea of the consumer sustainability revolution? Or will it be corporate led with pressure from civil society as we have seen to date?

Chris Wille: There is a well-documented gap between what we consumers say we want and how we actually vote with our pocketbooks. There is a trend in some countries of increased awareness and concern, a public increasingly uncomfortable with the continued poverty, inequity, human-rights abuses and environmental degradation. (We’re losing an area of forest equal to 35 football pitches every minute and 3 species every hour.) But will consumers in emerging economies consider the environmental and social costs of each purchase?

Some of the corporate leaders we work with think that the market demand for certified sustainable goods in countries like Brazil, India, Indonesia and China may surprise us.

But we can’t wait for consumers to drive sustainability. We don’t have time.  Consumer products companies understand the need for conservation for the health and durability of their own businesses. We want them to be rewarded in the marketplace, too, and we’ll continue to encourage purchase of responsibly produced goods.

Certification continues to be important as the best framework for determining training needs, providing that training, packaging incentives for producers, independent, third-party assessments of progress and setbacks, endorsement and implementation of company commitments to sustainability and as an antidote to greenwashing.

The palm oil example suggests that we’re asking too much and too little of certification.  Standards should be stout, practical and applicable enough to make a difference. On the other hand, standards, auditing and a consumer-facing seal are just three notes in a response that must be a symphony of actions.

To be effective, a certification program must include training and technical assistance, local support, incentives for continual improvement, monitoring and evaluation, trust and pride building, tangible benefits for the producers, and a local legal framework that at least does not counter conservation.

I don’t think that market demand alone for certified palm oil is going to turn the tide. One of the Rainforest Alliance’s priority palm actions is to convince producers that embracing social and environmental standards has on-farm benefits, regardless of what the market says.

Q: What are your tips on how companies can and should educate their people outside of sustainability teams?

Chris Wille: Get honest information about the progress, impacts, setbacks and challenges (another reason certification is important is because good programs can provide this information) and give colleagues the full, true story.

Explain the long-term strategy and make the connections to their daily jobs. Use all the internal communications channels available and invent more.

Ensure that the sustainability program is seen as a company-wide initiative, not the province of the marketing or CSR department. Bring in enviros and human rights activists to speak at staff meetings. Circulate data and stories from the field.

Provide context and news. How many line workers in coffee companies know about the crisis in the coffeelands? And how many know that coffee farms can contribute to democracy, equality, thriving communities as well as levels of wildlife abundance comparable to rainforests?

Colleagues will educate themselves if they feel involved and proud of what their company is doing on the sustainability front.


Q: How do you view commodity traders on sustainability, it strikes me they need to raise their game and stop hiding behind big brands pressurised by short sighted campaigners, am I wrong? 

Chris Wille: You are right on. With some exceptions, the traders have pretended that sustainability is the responsibility of everyone else in the supply chain.

Those that deal in coffee, tea and cocoa – the most certified farm products – are more progressive than those that manage the invisible commodities such as sugar, soy and palm oil.

Years ago, coffee trader ECOM saw sustainability as a business opportunity and began reorganizing to provide supply chain services to companies that wanted to know more about the beans they were buying. The Rainforest Alliance trains the field staff of traders who in turn train farmers. Traders manage some groups of smallholders, allowing them to get certification at low cost.

We’ve started a responsible cattle ranching program in the tropics, and found a couple companies eager to be pioneers trading certified sustainable beef.

But the big players in sugar, soy and palm oil are asleep at the wheel. Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and other campaigners are working to wake them up. The Rainforest Alliance and other solution providers can take it from there.

More about Chris is here.