Five questions for Dr Simon Lord, group director of sustainability at New Britain Palm Oil

Dr Simon Lord

1)    New Britain Palm Oil is known as an ethically minded palm oil business. Where did that ethos come from?

NBPOL’s journey to become more sustainable started in the late 1990’s.

At a seminal strategic meeting with our downstream processors we highlighted the growing European discontent with the way some players were growing oil palm.

NBPOL embarked on providing assurance to the end users of our oil. At this stage there was no RSPO and so we took the strongest environmental certification program available at the time (ISO14001) and used this as a framework to tactically deal with material issues on the ground and to help focus our strategic thinking.

In 2002 the RSPO began to emerge in response to increasing criticism of the palm oil sector. NBPOL began to play an active role using the BMP developed under our research programs to minimise our environmental footprint whilst at the same time looking at how to tackle the social issues inherent in the industry.

Strong governance was required and so NBPOL resourced and created what was to eventually become its sustainability teams and initiatives.

With the development of the RSPO standard NBPOL finally had a benchmark to assist in defining what sustainable palm oil looked like on the upstream and a mechanism to further assure customers downstream that the product they received was both environmentally and socially responsible.

Where NBPOL differed was in not seeing certification as the goal but to fully engage all management in the ‘process” and in the concept of continuous improvement.

This solid foundation and process approach has enabled the company not only to react to changes in demands but to anticipate such demands.

With time this as evolved further so that the group was able to fully integrated sustainable thinking into all aspects of its core business.

As a result we obtained greater visibility and were able to identify those aspects that a responsible company should be engaged in long before the market demanded.

Key focus on social issues creates business value

2)    What can you tell us about the Sime Darby deal?

Sime Darby is the largest sustainably certified plantation company in the world.

NBPOL is acknowledged as a leader and innovator in the sustainable palm oil sector.

Sharing a common purpose and drive has meant that the take over has been a very harmonious process.

We already have identified areas where together, such synergy can help transform the industry.

NBPOL, operating in the Pacific and of medium size did not possess the necessary critical mass.
I therefore think the acquisition is a game changer.

3)    You’ve been working on social issues on the ground in palm oil for years now. What’s your basic advice to other firms on getting started on tackling complex community and livelihood issues?

Start now, don’t put it off. Be courageous. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Learn from the mistakes. Above all engage and keep the dialogue open.

There is never just one solution and there never is a one size fits all in the social landscape.

Understand that SIA’s and FPIC are not one off events they themselves are processes.

Learn to accept that social issues are complex and that people view the same process through their own history of experience and expect a polarity of perceptions.  Accept that these issues can take time, often years to fully understand and deal with so maintain the organisations stamina.

4)    In Asia I hear there’s a shortage of expertise with regard to the above issues, do you agree with that and what are the potential solutions?

I think farming anywhere in the world is conservative in general, reluctant to change and uncomfortable with the process of change. Yet as a paradox it has generated a plethora of innovating thinking and in technical and physical practises.

The last decade has seen an acceleration of this process in the palm oil sector. There are many able and gifted people working on environmental and best practice issues yet there is still a shortfall in the corporate world of similar people working on social issues.

Most people in the sector know, understand and can point to what is Good Agricultural practice  but very few can do the same for ‘Good Social Practice”.

We are not addressing this and so ‘good’ practitioners will remain in short supply.

£1.1 billion cash deal: Perhaps a sustainability premium?

5)    Tell us about your work with the Palm Oil Innovation Group, and what do you make of the latest RSPO news about member suspensions? 

POIG was created to fill a gap in the currently output of the RSPO.

It anticipated the need for mechanisms to address such issues as deforestation and social inequality.

In the last two years we have seen many single companies deliver charters as a way to highlight their requirements of a supply chain.

Very few have given thought as to how such commitments can be met on the ground. POIG will deliver this.

I see POIG as a means of strengthening RSPO and not as an agent to reduce its effectiveness or purpose. I am committed to RSPO as I have always been and it can only be a positive step to see the standard grow.

I see the disciplining of members who fail in the code of conduct demanded as a necessary step which has been long overdue. I therefore welcome it as RSPO should be encouraging a race to the top and not just working to the lowest common denominator.

Dr Simon Lord will be playing a key role in the debates and discussions at Innovation Forum’s upcoming conference below, where 180 key players in forestry and palm oil will meet with leading NGOs.
How Business Can Tackle Deforestation – 14th-15th April 2015 (Washington D.C.)

All the major brand players meet with the leading NGOs to debate progress. With: Wal-Mart, Staples, PepsiCo, Disney, Asia Pulp & Paper, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, Domtar, Sime Darby, Canopy, TFT, International Paper, Hershey, 3M and many many others. Click here for more details.

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