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Sustainable business: “the problem with 2020 targets is that they’re just way too distant” – Guest post by Scott Poynton

Scott Poynton gives a personal view on why the deforestation debate should focus on action now and not targets for future improvement

Poynton: Has ‘sustainability’ become meaningless?

I have seen many bad things, close up and personal, over the last 20+ years working on deforestation issues.

I believe that our path to survival lies through the goodness of the human heart, but I often despair at some of the things I see that human heart doing – really bad things that destroy the environment and people’s lives.

It creates a genuine feeling of despair that despite all we’re doing, despite all the efforts of the NGOs, despite the good things done by many businesses, ultimately we will lose our forests, we will plunge the world beyond climate change thresholds and we will create real horror.

And yet, at the same time, from despair springs hope so I tend to oscillate between being hopeful – where I like to think I spend more time – and feeling despair.

It can change in a moment based on a phone call, a human interaction or an interaction with nature. Mostly I try to put those feelings aside and just keep going, just keep pushing.

One of the things I despair about is that the whole concept of “sustainability” has become so bastardised that it’s nigh on meaningless.

It has become a throwaway term and so long as a business has a sustainability policy or a sustainability manager, they become insulated, to some degree against the change process.

Business as usual

Grand reports and all sorts of proclamations often hide the fact that business as usual continues unabated and that all that has happened has been participation in meetings, discussions and not much else.

So when I see the term “sustainability” being thrown about to cover inaction, I get pessimistic.

I’d like to see more action and on the ground change. Then folk can call it “sustainability” or whatever they want. We seem to have become enamoured by the process rather by genuine achievement of urgently required ends.

We should first ask what outcomes we want and then celebrate our progress toward them.

No one speaks so much about ends and that is why at TFT we use such sharp language as No Deforestation and No Exploitation.

These are ends we seek to achieve and I become optimistic when people are ready to embrace these ends rather than speak about ill-defined “sustainability”.

The targets problem

It’s become clear that 2020 deforestation targets aren’t going to deal with the problem. This is because the pace of deforestation in places such as Indonesia where the destruction has already been so immense, continues unabated.

If we don’t move more quickly, we aren’t going to save those last remaining forests and the critical species like the Sumatran tiger, rhino and elephant and orang-utans that live there.

This is a human tragedy, a deep human failure. On top of that, we can add a further human tragedy that continues to unfold as indigenous people and local communities continue to be displaced and disrespected. We’ve just got to move a LOT more quickly.

The problem with 2020 targets is that they’re just way too distant. If you’ve got a 2020 target, you’re not going to get serious about delivering it until at least 2018 … people really do need to be honest about that.

All these announcements about No Deforestation by 2020 are just unhelpful noise because it effectively gives suppliers a license to continue business as usual for the next six years.

It takes the pressure off and I’m disappointed that NGOs, including those that I respect very much, such as Greenpeace, are celebrating companies committing to 2020 for No Deforestation as a victory.

More ambition

It isn’t a victory to allow six more years of deforestation in a context where many forests will be destroyed in that period. So we’re asking people to be much more ambitious.

Set targets that mean you have to start acting NOW, today. And report how you’re going transparently, honestly, so that others can see and judge your progress themselves.

And if you work with TFT, we’ll kick you out if you don’t start real action today. We don’t have time to ponder what we might or might not start doing in 2019.

The other side of the story is that the change we need is not one company at a time.

We need whole industries to transform and the change processes for that to happen are so huge, complex and gruelling that we need to start working through them immediately if we’re going to get anywhere in the years ahead.

If we only start in 2018 (or later), we’ll not be where we need to be, if at all, until way after 2020.

It’ll be easy to deliver No Deforestation targets when there’s no more forest to cut down so let’s recognise that we’re setting these targets to save forests, not to win some award or be hailed as an environmental hero or to get more funding for more campaigns while suppliers carry on business as usual. Policies count for nothing; it’s change on the ground we need and we need it now.

Scott Poynton is executive director of The Forest Trust. He will be speaking at the Innovation Forum deforestation conference in London on 28-29 October. Other speakers include McDonald’s, Nestle, Unilever, Ikea, Wilmar, New Britain Palm Oil, Waitrose, Mondelez, Marks & Spencer, Mars, Greenpeace, TFT, WWF, Sky, Aviva Investors, Oxfam, Robertsbridge and many others.

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