Yawning about certification, why 'No' matters and Unilever's need to be first

Yawning about certification, why 'No' matters and Unilever's need to be first

Certification's failings...again.

So many people have sent me Richard Conniff's Yale360 article about the failure of sustainable forest certification, indeed, the greenwashing it hides. It's a good enough article but no stunning revelation, at least not for me. I found myself yawning, "What took you so long?"

Beyond Certification was published in 2015 but having taken four years to write it, the notion that FSC is failing and greenwashing illegal timber is hardly breaking news. People know, yet four fifths of very little has been done about it. Our friends at WWF even highlight that some FSC labelled charcoal bags contain non-FSC wood but nothing seems to change. Certification is a money maker. Since so many FSC labelled charcoal bags carry the Panda logo, who wants to upset that apple cart?

It's great that Conniff's report comes under the Yale banner, a respected institution. People might take it seriously but don't hold your breath.

Yes or No?

Another interesting small discussion caught my eye on social media this week. Is it better to commit to 'No' something e.g. No Deforestation, No Exploitation or 'Yes' something. It's not a new topic but in light of a post I commented on in response to Conniff's article, I was reminded of the power of speaking from one's guts.

Having drafted the first ever No Deforestation commitment with the folk at Nestlé in May 2010, I can share that the power in that statement came from their guts. They were hurting at the implication in Greenpeace's KitKat campaign that they took some delight in the death of Orangutans. "NO!" they said, "that's not who we are!" When 'No' means 'No' it's powerful and when the road gets tough in implementing your commitment, it's the power of this gut feeling that overcomes more 'head' based considerations like budgets, KPIs, quarterly results, wondering about where you'll score in NGO rankings because you're not fawning over RSPO etc. My sense is that 'Yes' statements come more from the head; they're designed to appeal, they lean more to marketing. Proponents argue they can be more inspiring than No statements. Possibly, but when a CEO bangs a fist on a table and says "NO!", folk listen.

Sadly, the head-based bandwagon comes to No statements as well. When your competitor has a shiny No Deforestation statement, you need one too. Announcing one with that driver is only a marketing exercise, there's no gut, and that's why so many NDPE commitments suffer a lack of implementation.

Get the guts in there and you can change the world. No or Yes, it doesn't matter how you frame it. It's where it comes from that counts.

Congratulations Paul

Last week saw the joy of Unilever's breakthrough announcement on palm oil supply chain transparency. A 'rare industry move' Reuters said. CEO Paul Polman shared his pride on Twitter for being first.

Queue more yawning. It's 2018 Paul. We've been inviting downstream palm oil users to transparently share such information for years, certainly after Wilmar made their supply chain transparent in January 2015. Better late than never of course but can we now be even more transparent? Unilever and other palm users' transparency move is precipitated by Greenpeace sending a strongly worded letter that this needed to happen..."or else". So no CEO should sound too proactive about it. There's now a rush of such data emerging which is great but I just can't fathom Unilever's constant need to be first; perhaps they're playing catch up after so many years blindly supporting RSPO, another failed certification scheme?

But my real question to Paul and other CEOs is this, "Please, in this new found spirit of transparency, tell us what your annual Cost Price Reduction targets are?" This is important because news from the bush is that despite the joy of being transparent, price, price, price is the order of the day in negotiations between palm oil suppliers and buyers incentivised by brutal CPR targets. In this context, CPR is not a kiss of life but of death as suppliers cut corners to meet customers' pricing demands. The 'sustainability' corners are the first to go.

Being first isn't so important, get over it guys. Acting true to a fundamental set of good values is. Only then might we see palm oil and other commodities being produced sustainably.

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