Chapeau Wilmar: Credit where Credit’s Due in the Journey to No Deforestation
Understanding how change happens will help us better grapple with more big issues
It’s been quite a year in our collective efforts to end deforestation. Glenn Hurowitz, Chair of Forest Heroes, captured the sense of achievement in a recent commentary on Mongabay, titled: “A Landmark Year for Forests”.
“In short, we are seeing the beginnings of a second green revolution in global agriculture, but this one is making it compatible with a living planet”
That’s cool, but how did we get here?
I was reminded of one theory when a colleague pinged me an article published in December 2013, in the aftermath of Wilmar’s No Deforestation, No Exploitation and No Peatland policy announcement. It was titled: ’Palm Oil Giant Wilmar caves to public pressure, commits to end forest destruction’.
On re-reading that article, I blanched, just as I had a year ago. My discomfort came from knowing this wasn’t the whole story; it wasn’t the truth. We build myths around stories of battles, of winners and losers; victory and defeat; heroes and villains. Yet, this particular myth has been over-simplified. It’s become a dangerous sound bite creating a belief that change only happens when NGO good guys beat up on villainous companies. There’s no argument that NGOs are sensational change catalysts; Greenpeace premier among them, but it’s usually only the NGO story that gets told. Company leaders are equally critical to the change journey, yet their stories are rarely, if ever, aired. Indeed, their role is often misrepresented in sensationalist headlines.
Any telling of the full story of 2014’s deforestation achievements must include the change journey of Wilmar’s visionary Chairman, Kuok Khoon Hong. NGO campaigns, especially that by Forest Heroes, captured his attention. He didn’t retreat from the issue but rather engaged with Forest Heroes, TFT and others. From his discussions, he developed his own clear vision for a palm oil industry free from deforestation and exploitation, an industry dealing with its legacy and charting an environmentally and socially responsible future. His vision emerged not from being forced into a corner - Wilmar had been campaign targets many times in the past - nor from caving in, but from his own inherent beliefs and values.
In August 2013, to pursue this vision, we together engaged with major industry players, hopeful that we might bring everyone together by the end of that year in a single, unifying commitment to strong No Deforestation policies. We didn’t get there, so Wilmar went alone. But as Glenn Hurowitz points out, one year on, 96% of the palm oil industry now has, more or less, followed Wilmar’s lead in announcing No Deforestation policies. While there of course remains much to do to implement these policies, we should pause a moment and rethink the myth we’ve built around how we reached these heights.
It’s important we do this because we don’t have years to spend beating up on company after company. We’re on track for 6oC warming. We need change to accelerate, to go to scale. If change was as simple as NGOs beating companies, we could all rest easy. The disconnect between our mythology and how change really happens needs addressing or else all we’ll end up with is increasingly well funded NGOs mercilessly beating apparently villainous business people while our good ship Humanity plunges over a cliff.
We must better trust the change that happens inside the leaders of companies like Wilmar. If we can, and learn to nurture it, we might bring change elsewhere, at greater pace and scale. Nurturing it means helping them understand that there is a path forward out of the conflict and there’s support to take the journey. Wilmar’s Chairman Kuok led his own company down a whole new street. He did it by thinking and asking himself: “What’s the right thing to do?” He came up with powerful answers that everyone else is now striving, in a quintessential race-to-the-top, to emulate.
As we reach the end of this extraordinary year for forests, we should acknowledge that, as yet, unrecognised initiating spark. Every NGO that has ever said a harsh word about Wilmar deserves credit because their words prompt reflection. But it’s not the whole story. We can chalk the achievements of the past year down to both sides coming together as people, not as combatants, in the middle ground with open minds, in a place where innovation and inspiration allows us to grapple with really tough problems. The road to overcome those problems is a long one - the forests, their biodiversity and the people living and working within them are not yet protected. But the true lessons to be learnt from how the commitments to No Deforestation and No Exploitation came to pass need to inform our collective work in other sectors, and in other contexts. If they can, we might stand a chance of turning that ship away from the abyss.