Tackling deforestation: What works in one place, doesn’t necessarily work in another

Ahead of two business conferences coming up on tackling deforestation in business supply chains in Jakarta in October and London in November, I spoke with Rob Bailes, associate director at consultants Robertsbridge, who are sponsoring both events, about the subject.

His firm works with many of the leading companies in the space, helping them develop strategy and implement it. Here’s my questions and Rob’s responses below.

TW: At Robertsbridge you’ve been working on deforestation prevention issues with both brands and producers as clients for years now. Which are the key factors which drive a step change in big companies on zero deforestation?

RB: Aside from necessity, there’s a range of influences at play. Enlightened leadership from the top down nearly always drives step change and there are numerous examples of this. If the CEO or business owner believes in it and wants it to happen, it will.

Generational awareness change in family owned businesses has also been a key factor. A new generation of young, smart and connected business leaders is emerging and they intuitively understand the need to align their business with environmental imperatives and changing societal expectations.

Equally, we’ve seen a number of game changing commitments and approaches emerge from robust NGO campaigns and the positive collaboration that can come about as a result.

However, we should be careful to distinguish between commitments and performance. Some would argue that performance on the ground is failing to keep pace with ever greater stretch in the commitments.

Rob Bailes

TW: There’s criticism from the campaign groups on this policy versus performance question. 450+ companies have policies on tackling deforestation, but as we know, the devil is always in the implementation detail. What are the critical success factors for a company moving from policy to on the ground performance?

Setting the policy is the first, often the easiest, step. The critical part is ensuing the right systems, processes and internal management capacity is in place to deliver the policy. Strong and experienced field implementation teams are essential as is good communication between head office and field teams.

It sounds simple, but in most cases, breakdowns in upstream implementation can be attributed to a failure in protocol, operating procedure or adequately trained staff.

The need for financial resource underpins all of this. When companies set ambitious commitments and policies, they must ensure they provide the financial resources required to deliver on them.

In large organisations this often manifests itself as tension between sustainability and procurement, where procurement is under pressure to deliver on sustainability goals and targets with ever tighter budgets.

TW: You work with a lot of the key NGOs in helping clients negotiate how to meet changing expectations. Is there still a lot of mis-trust between campaigners and companies, and what can be done about that?

RB: Many companies and campaign groups enjoy positive interactions, but there is still a good deal of mistrust, particularly when a company finds itself on the end of a campaign for the first time or when that campaign follows a period of stability in the company’s relationship with external NGOs. The company feels wrongly targeted, it lacks the soft skills or willingness to engage meaningfully and, as a result, the campaign continues. Both parties retreat to a bunker. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle from which nobody gains. Breaking the cycle isn’t easy and it’s often a slow exercise in trust building.

We frequently hear companies say that campaign groups don’t understand their operations and that their prescriptions don’t appreciate realities on the ground or knock on effects in the supply chain. There may be an element of truth to this and campaign groups must find time to understand the sector, the local context and avoid off the shelf prescriptions. What works in one place, doesn’t necessarily work in another.

For their part companies need to avoid being defensive, engage openly and sincerely and come to the table with alternative solutions. If both parties can appreciate that they share a similar end goal – positive outcomes for society and environment – then the pathway to achieving that becomes a dialogue.

TW: Standardised approaches and certification has moved a long way in the last few years. What do you see as the key trends here, that companies need to be aware of, and act thoughtfully upon?

We’ve certainly seen a debate about the value of certification as the means to deliver sustainable supply chains. Companies are questioning whether their 100% sustainability certified targets are too narrow in focus and many are complementing certification with additional approaches and measures.

These include traceability and ‘in-house’ approaches. No-deforestation itself was a response to perceptions that certification was failing to prevent tropical deforestation. That said, certification remains a very valuable tool and it won’t go away. It’s just that now it’s seen as one tool within a larger toolbox of measures, rather than the only game in town.

TW: There’s much discussion of the potential for restoring peatlands and saving carbon from leaking into the atmosphere, what’s your view on progress in this area, its potential?

We all saw the economic, social and environmental costs of the 2015 fires in Indonesia. The Indonesian Government responded to this disaster with the formation of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) and a moratorium on all development on peatland. For the last year and a half, the BRG has been moving forward the Government’s agenda for the restoration of priority peatland areas.

There is huge environmental potential for this work and, thirty years from now, we may look back on it as a step-change for the management of Indonesia’s peatlands. However, like everything, the devil is in the detail; the way in which Indonesia’s new peatland regulations are implemented will determine their success.

What is also critical is the role the private sector takes in this – it directly manages the landscapes and has, in some notable cases, shown it has the resources and the skills to deliver conservation and restoration alongside commercial production.

Alongside NGOs and civil society, the two sectors need to work hand in hand on this recognising the risks and opportunities on both sides so that public policy and regulation sit well alongside private enterprise, while both deliver the results we all want to see.

TW: What’s your role at our upcoming conferences “How business can tackle deforestation – 17-18 October – Jakarta and How business can tackle deforestation – 14th & 15th of November – London and what kind of outcomes are you hoping for?

RB: We hope that all attendees to this event feel they have a safe space to discuss challenges and to shape solutions. Our role is to support that and encourage the dialogue.

Robertsbridge, sponsor of Innovation Forum’s two deforestation conferences this year, works with companies all over the world on sustainability. More at: http://www.robertsbridgegroup.com

For more on the upcoming conferences, the first of which is being held in collaboration with the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, take a look at the links below:

How business can tackle deforestation – 17-18 October – Jakarta

How business can tackle deforestation – 14th & 15th of November – London