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Some thoughts after our recent sustainable landscapes conference (now updated)

A couple of weeks ago we held our first sustainable landscapes conference in London. It was a combination of conferences and a culmination of four years work in some ways. We merged our smallholders, deforestation and elements of our agriculture conferences together and somehow it worked.

Huge thanks to our many sponsors and supporters of the event. I wasn’t in every session, as I needed to facilitate one of our four tracks, so I missed many of them. I generally heard very positive feedback about the conference. But we know we can always improve on our session structure, facilitation and do more to collect useful outcomes for attendees.

Here’s a few thoughts I and my colleague Ian Welsh had during and after the conference, which we spent ten months working on and researching:

  • The landscapes approach is not new, it’s been around for decades. However for many in business and commodities sourcing and sustainability, it represents the most interesting and innovative new idea since the rise and flat-lining of certification. (Just to clarify, when I say flat-lining I don’t mean on life support, but I mean hitting limits of growth in sectors) 
  • Few companies, if any, have got to grips with it, but aside from in-depth strategic policies and initiatives, such as those by Olam, Golden-Agri, Unilever, and pilots by Nestle and others, it’s an issue that many companies are considering, but so far are not going too public about.
  • That’s not to say others are not involved. From water stewardship and watershed initiatives, to regional crop sourcing, to consideration of wider areas around mines and other heavy infrastructure projects, much is happening, often under different names
  • Landscapes as an idea, gives some shape to notions of collaboration, which everyone is keen on, but many struggle to do on the ground. The idea of a defined area of activity is so much more appealing to business than being asked to be responsible for vague notions of international development or poverty alleviation in developing nations (as many see it)
  • Governments too, are taking an increased interest. The work of important actors such as TFA 2020 is vital here, and we saw thoughtful participation from governments and their agencies, from the UK, to Germany, to Paraguay, Brazil, Indonesia and Surinam.
  • There still doesn’t seem to be consensus around where the (initial) costs for improvements are to be borne. Existing “value chain” models appear unfit for future purpose.
  • Bottom of the chain engagement is extremely difficult. We need greater awareness of how to deliver sustainable landscapes, from the bottom up. The challenges facing a smallholder farmer to provide for his family, then multiplied by thousands of individual cases. The mooted solution of  building sustainable rural communities point is the strongest solution on the table. Build a puzzle with defined boundaries, piece by piece.
  • Political economy assessments of landscapes/jurisdictions are vitally important, but I wonder if many methodologies are up to speed with the latest thinking in say, development economics. Is there enough engagement between the two fields?
  • There’s excellent potential for agri-business, brands, producers etc, to engage with non-food actors, such as in mining and heavy industry. Many upcoming mine closures loom around the world, and these represent an excellent opportunity for taking a landscapes approach to sustainable rural living and production.
  • Technology is coming along faster than we can use it, and gets cheaper by the day. Now we can watch live deforestation in a 10 x 10m square area. The question is, how do we use such tools cost-effectively to drive change that lasts?

There’s a LOT more I could say here, and as I said, I missed a lot of my own conference, as I was facilitating back to back breakout sessions in a four track conference. I’ve emailed the above to some experienced participants, and will update it as I get responses in the coming days.”

Update: 03/12/18, some responses I got from business protagonists who came to the conference are below, anonymised.

“I still think there needs better alignment on timeframes – how long does it take to get something set up and really delivering traction versus campaigner expectation continues to be a source of tension and disrupts/distracts players – so you look for a quick win to quieten an NGO attack instead of staying focused on the long haul solution. We all try to do both, but we are all guilty of falling into the quick win trap.”

“How do we use technology so it is not just a stick with which to beat people. Or seen as a panacea to solve all problems (it can’t provide us with social assessments). I think more than tech it is the data that is of interest.”

“I found the following messages especially interesting:

  • The role that water/human rights/deforestation or other salient issues have in providing a strategic entry-point into what evolves into a ‘landscape-level’ dialogue or action plan. In turn, the opportunity ‘landscapes’ presents to companies seeking to link historically disparate strategies – this came up especially strongly w.r.t. water e.g. linking water and sustainable sourcing strategies
  • Growing traction on ‘landscape approaches’ in part reflects recognition of the need to move beyond using commitments and policies as a measure of success and keep focussed on outcomes on the ground
  • The inherent challenges associated with multi-stakeholder approaches (navigating different and many agendas) and the importance of business stepping-back and not ‘owning’ the process/governance.
  • Not to lose sight of the progress that we have made – even if incremental at this stage – and the positive outcomes that are being generated (although takes time…)”

“Two key things stood out to me:

1) Effective risk management (supply side): Managing landscapes sustainably is a function of effective risk management. Effective risk management requires the ability to bucket (or categorize) risks even if they overlap with other risks into areas of general business practice: “finance”, “operations”, etc. In other words, managing landscapes sustainably has been done well in cases where businesses work pre-competitively on approaches to risk management and where each individual business employ enterprise risk management solutions. In my role managing analysts and the production of investment research, it is clear that when businesses have aligned risk management from executives / board / directors to manager to staff in a manner that mitigates risk while enhancing return. For example, the palm oil companies that do this financially outperform those that do not, according to our unpublished palm oil indices we are creating right now (timeframe Q1 ’13 to Q3 ’18).
2) Demand Side Pricing that Reflects Costs: And on the demand side, fast moving consumer goods companies need to accurately price deforestation into their products, which generally has not yet occurred. In same ways, while all the focus has been on the supply side and its direct negative climate, community, biodiversity, social, etc. impacts, the demand side is the price taker and is determining the price in the market. Much more focus needs to be on getting the demand side to pay for sustainably produced goods and services in the agriculture sector.
To sum it up, deforestation and more broadly global sustainable landscape management is stuck between the supply side (#1 above) and demand side (#2 above). It is a bit like – cheekily yet seriously – the sin of commission (destroying carbon stocks when we know we should not) and sin of omission (choosing to not pay a price premium for sustainably produced goods and services)….”
Thanks for those insightful comments to all who contributed!

Meantime, check out all the free podcasts and analysis on our site about all this here:

And here’s our plan for next year, I hope you can join us at some of these, and get involved in the debates and discussions!

How business and government can tackle modern slavery

2-3 April, London. Hosted by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Sustainable apparel: How business can drive innovation and supplier engagement

9-10 April, Amsterdam

How business can tackle modern slavery and forced labour

30 April-1 May, New York. Hosted by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

The future of food USA
21-22 May, Chicago. Hosted by Walgreens Boots Alliance
With a theme of: trust, traceability and transparency, and how business can drive food sustainability, build resilience and deliver on customer expectations

The future of food Europe
4-5 June, London
With a theme of: trust, traceability and transparency, and how business can drive food sustainability, build resilience and deliver on customer expectations

The bio-economy of energy, chemicals and materials: Does it add up?
17-18 or 25-26 June, London

How business can measure and manage climate impacts
Late June, London

How business can manage plastic footprints: innovation and single use in retail
October, Amsterdam

How business can measure and manage climate impacts
October, USA

Sustainable landscapes forum 2019
November, London

The bio-economy of energy, chemicals and materials: Does it add up?
November, USA

If you want to know more about any of these, contact me at tobias DOT webb AT