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Sustainable commodities: The depressed and disempowered vs. the angrily incoherent – some ideas for real change

It’s not often I sit down to write a post that could well annoy almost everyone I know. This is one of those. But it’s a risk worth taking. Someone needs to say, I think, what I am going to say here.

Scott Poynton blogged about this area recently, and I had the same conversation with a campaigner and a corporate, face to face, whilst he was writing about it online. I feel the same as Scott does. We’ve got to do better, and do it together*.

In the odd moment, part of the title above: “Sustainable commodities: The depressed and disempowered vs. the angrily incoherent”.  is how I sometimes, in my most cynical moments, think of the debate around sustainable commodities.

(By that group together deforestation, smallholder engagement, the idea of sustainable landscapes, transparency and integrity in sourcing, whatever you call it, if you’ve read this far, you may know what I mean)

Of course, the title isn’t fair. But there’s a grain of truth here. The “depressed and disempowered” here are the corporate executives, the ones tasked with helping their firms hit the sustainability targets they themselves persuaded the company to set. But on ever-squeezed budgets (in these zero-based budgeting times), with increasing pressure from above, to the side and from often-hysterical social media.

The “angrily incoherent” in this unfair description, are of course the campaign groups. They know what they want, but they don’t know how we’ll get it. They, like most, want to stop deforestation, and human rights abuses. However, bullying brands and their big suppliers online is only getting us so far.

There’s confusion about “what next?” when rogue actors, government apathy, lack of capacity and ineffective enforcement institutions, plus whole markets that don’t care much, become much more obviously part of the solution.

Company executives (on this blog, see earlier posts from 2018) are concerned that their influence is over-exaggerated, that parallel supply chains into uncaring markets are being set up, and we may end up with say, 20% of commodity supply being “clean” whilst the rest is not.

Campaigners, for their part, say companies are under-investing in people and technology, and lack the will to do what only big brands can do: transform the marketplace for commodity supply with their weight, power, combined heft and lobbying ability.

Like my clickbait title, there’s elements of truth in all this. The question is, what do we do now? 2020 deforestation targets, many set with optimistic fanfare in 2014 and 2015, loom ever-closer. In the meantime we have to make a choice.

Do we get into some serious dialogue about the combined efforts of brands and campaigners can make a bigger dent in unsustainable commodities? (By these I mean in palm, in soy, in beef and cattle, in pulp and paper, in cocoa, the list goes on. Rubber is the newest, and there will be others).

Or do we carry on bickering about brands being responsible for the change on their own, or fall back on the argument that brands can only do so much, and are under too much pressure from shareholders?

Neither is satisfactory. Neither will solve the problem.

So let’s say we want to have a proper discussion about all this, essentially about how campaigners and companies can work together to get governments to do their jobs properly. How might it work?

Here’s some practical suggestions:

ONE: Stop ignoring the elephant in the room. That’s corruption, legal enforcement of existing laws, and capacity and will to tackle it. There are increasing laws around modern slavery disclosure and risk that can get government interested. There’s increasing financial risk for companies of illegal commodity sourcing. We have more drivers. Let us use them. Could something be convened at the OECD level, or the EU level, or amongst big Western economies? A conversation with government that says: “we all want to tackle this, help us do so with the inter-governmental levers that exist”. Can lesson be learned from Voluntary Partnership Agreements on timber? We should explore.

TWO: Accept the limits of the current approach. To make the above credible, don’t we need a joint statement, like climate scientists put out now and again, by all the key players, acknowledging the limitations of where we are, and suggesting a short path to finding real solutions. Yes I know campaign groups will fear such a statement may remove campaign levers, but we have existing groups and deals, such as The New York Declaration on Forests, or TFA 2020, which might play a role. Can the Accountability Framework take this (further) into account? It’s worth them asking themselves.

THREE: Be realistic about some of the trade-offs. But be ambitious too. One executive emailed me recently essentially saying we have to choose between people and the environment. That Malthusian-type argument must be debunked. Landscape examples featuring effective, sustainable restoration and sustainable livelihood examples will be essential. Yes even illegal smallholders will need jobs, not just to be kicked off land they shouldn’t be on. We need to face facts, both ways. We won’t save everything we want, but people can be moved, if livelihoods are offered, and restoration should play a much bigger role. Mining companies have experience here. Have we tapped into that?

FOUR: Think about how consumer awareness can be raised, together, in emerging markets. Some people tell me Indonesians and Chinese consumers have a low awareness about what unsustainable means. Others that they know, but just don’t really care. Neither is likely true, as a blanket statement. We know from the Brazil example that whilst politics and economics triumphs over environmental activism, that’s not always the case. Success is possible. But we also know that social media with brand and campaigners together, can make a huge, and quick difference, to political mood music in India, China, and elsewhere. Where campaigning NGOs are not really accepted / allowed / taken seriously, can social media fill the gap, if used for good? Worth exploring, together.

FIVE: Hold firm and resist backsliding, but make sure those who do, suffer the consequences. This is one of the hardest parts. Let’s say we do the above, and something more meaningful happens, but Greenpeace get a new hard left leader, or a major company gets bought by 3G Capital, et. al, and decides to bail out of engagement and progress. What do the consequences look like? Can there be any? This needs to be discussed.

SIX: Include sectors that are under the radar, or not getting the attention they deserve. Palm oil executives, rightfully in many cases, moan to me that they get all the flak, whilst beef, cattle and soy get away with it, by comparison, despite huge land changes in South America in recent times, for example. How do we even the odds? That’s by raising awareness, together, of where impacts happen, and how to change it. Brands and NGOs COULD get the media to cover sugar cane, or soy, or cattle and beed, to even the odds, even though there are fewer big-eyed animals in these areas. It can be done.

SEVEN: Finally, break out of the sector silos, and look around. If the landscape approach is the way to go, let’s talk to the mining companies, those in oil & gas, or heavy industry. What can be learned from their decades of getting it right, and wrong? Even in agriculture crops and their production often exists in silos. No transferable lessons are not easy to find (as we see in the Cerrado vs. Amazon) but more joined-up discovery efforts are needed.

EIGHT: Recognise that on the ground capacity, trained people, are lacking, to check, monitor and fix problems. Focus on how to fix this. Is there a fund to be created, this “blind trust” idea, to fund such development of capacity? Can we pool resources and tackle the on the ground expertise gap, the credibility gap in verification, and use remaining funds to help build government capacity to enforce laws? Maybe. It’s worth looking at. These problems are not going away.

I’m aware that what I’ve suggested here is likely “pie in the sky” and unlikely to happen, given vested interests on all sides. But if we do want to get beyond brands bickering with campaign groups over fundamental governance, political and economic challenges, we’ll need to do something like this, and soon.

We’re doing our best to create fora that might hold some answers. We need to do a better job asking the right questions, and helping move towards substantive answers. We’re making a start on November 6-7 in London. See below.

*Above I wrote that “We’ve got to do better, and do it together”. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting we let companies with commitments off the hook by saying “we’re all in the same tent vs. the rest, so a little backsliding is OK”. But that we recognise and pick targets much more wisely. 

Here’s some discussions that might help, too.

Upcoming Innovation Forum, PPT-free, nonsense-free, pontification-free, meetings that you should come to: (Particularly the last one)

How business can tackle forced labour and modern slavery– 12-13 June 2018 – New York
Comply with legislation, mitigate risk and eliminate slavery from your operations and supply chain

How business can measure the impact – and ROI – of corporate sustainability– 19-20 June – London
This two-day conference will highlight the latest methods being applied by business to measure the impact of their sustainability programs. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of the different tools and techniques available, whilst assessing what has really worked for companies in practice.

Why (some) plastics are essential – and how to make them sustainable
Overcome barriers to collaboration, and drive progress that works for consumers, the environment, utility and business reality. A two-day business conference, Amsterdam, 16th-17th October 2018. Email to get involved.

Innovation Forum’s Sustainable Landscape Forum: Land, Forests, Farmers, Livelihoods: How business can manage risk, improve relationships and drive resilience in agricultural supply chains 6th-7th November 2018, London. Email to get involved.

With 250+ big companies, key NGO, implementation partners, technology solutions and many others. Places limited. Also with a 15 booth exhibition of solutions for companies. Contact us to get involved.


1 Comment

  1. Alex Nichols

    Hello, well, pie in the sky is ok as long as there are some practical things to suggest – and you have made some. As we’ve chatted about before, there is a definite need for a “proper discussion” to make things work better/faster.
    Rubber – what practical things can be done to accelerate pre-competitive collaboration? Pooling resources on, say, yield improvement per ha is one juicy topic to get teeth into. I know one tyre major is doing loads alone on this in SE Asia. Bet the others are too. Come on people!