And then there was Jeremy Goon
I spoke recently with Wilmar International’s Chief Sustainability Officer Jeremy Goon. In another frank and open discussion, Jeremy speaks about the challenges Wilmar has faced on the most recent leg of its sustainability journey. Jeremy and I sat together for half an hour or so during the Innovation Forum’s “Business and Deforestation” event in Singapore at the end of September. I’d had the privilege of speaking with GAR’s Jesslyne Widjaja earlier that day (see more on my discussion and my podcast with Jesslyne here) so this was a palm oil industry double-header. Jeremy didn’t disappoint.
Like Jesslyne before him, Jeremy spoke with honest, open candour about the challenges Wilmar has faced in implementing its No Deforestation, No Exploitation and No Peatland Development policies, announced that fateful day, December 5th 2013. In a wide-ranging 20 minute chat (see below for my podcast with Jeremy), we spoke about the challenges of dealing with a raft of third party suppliers, regulatory environments not conducive to implementing strong sustainability policies and how policy breaches have intensified engagement and opportunities to bring truly transformative change.
Key to this transformative process is really engaging with suppliers. Jeremy identifies Wilmar’s close and respectful relationship with its suppliers as critical to moving forward. He uses words like ‘engaging’, ‘reaching out’, ‘offering help’ and ‘supporting’ suppliers to follow their own sustainability path. And yes, he welcomes engagement with NGOs who have helped highlight where breaches are occurring.
We also touched on internal challenges. Wilmar is a fast moving company, used to changing with the times, indeed, to leading those times and the industry as a whole in new directions. Wilmar’s Sustainability and Trading teams butted heads early in the policy implementation process as the need to keep mills running clashed with the need to engage suppliers known to be breaching the Sustainability policies. Jeremy identifies strong leadership form Wilmar’s Chairman as critical to setting priorities and to enabling good systems to emerge to handle challenges.
And I was fascinated to learn that Wilmar doesn’t go there when people seek to discuss the cost of sustainability. For Wilmar, there is no separate cost. They operate how they operate, call it sustainability if you will but for them, it’s more about doing business a certain way and well, that’s the cost.
Jeremy spoke about where they’ve reached with policy implementation. No doubt there’ll be an update report out shortly with more detailed information. We can expect this to be closely scrutinised since December 2015 was the target date for Wilmar’s palm oil to be fully compliant with its policies.
For the future, we talked about the need to keep going with implementing the policies but to give a greater emphasis on the No Exploitation side. Environmental groups concerned about forests rightly call for strong action but this megaphone can drown out the need to deal with other truly urgent matters like labour issues within plantations and mills and conflicts with communities. Jeremy highlighted the continuing developments with IPOP in Indonesia as critical to progress too; engaging governments at all levels to help remove regulatory barriers to positive change. This is particularly the case with respect to barriers that prevent smallholders enjoying opportunities to increase their yields through investment in new planting stock. Unable to secure traditional bank finance because they lack land titles, smallholders are exposed to more unscrupulous lenders who exploit them. This needs to change.
And finally, transparency. Wilmar broke new ground early this year with its Transparency Dashboard. This transparency revolution is gathering pace and needs to continue and I’m certainly urging the Wilmar team and other TFT members to keep pushing the boundaries on transparency.
It was very easy chatting with Jeremy. When people are open and ready to discuss challenging issues with disarming honesty, chats flow. Like my discussion with Jesslyne Widjaja, after talking with Jeremy I was left hopeful for the future. We do need a strong, viable palm oil industry but we urgently need it to deal wholeheartedly with the sustainability issues embedded in its way of working over the last 30 years. Bright young champions like Jeremy, Jesslyne and other new generation leaders, backed by strong guidance from wise older generation masters, really can do it. They have a clear vision and certainly give me hope at least that change really is possible.