The role of values in No Deforestation policies. A Cooee! Podcast with Roisin Mortimer.
Roisin Mortimer, a TFT colleague, completed a Masters of Agro Ecology in 2017. Her thesis explored the role of values in the origination, formulation and implementation of No Deforestation Policies (NDPs). She presented her intriguing findings at TFT HQ and we captured them in this Cooee! Podcast.
Roisin found that companies, for the most part, make NDPs based on “quick fix”, risk management thinking around maintaining and building commercial value. That’s not surprising but it is quite uninspiring. NGO campaigns have been the major driver; not surprising either but certainly not the strongest foundation for transformative policy implementation. She did find that company, ecological and personal values are there in policy formulation – it’s not solely about risk management - and encouragingly, more strongly so in policy implementation.
Roisin interviewed 27 people, many Chief Sustainability Officers in companies with NDPs including some of the world’s largest food related companies: large growing companies, integrated grower-trader companies, traders and brands. In all, she spoke with folk from 14 different companies and 6 NGOs or research institutes.
I was intrigued by her findings because as far as I know, it’s the first time anyone has looked at this question in the almost eight years since Nestlé raised everyone’s spirits by announcing the world’s first ever No Deforestation Policy on May 17th, 2010. Having been deeply involved in that policy’s creation, I can say that personal and company values were very present but the kicker that got the discussion going had definitely been the Greenpeace KitKat campaign launched two short months earlier. Risk to commercial brand value was forefront in Nestlé minds.
What of the future?
As we discuss in the podcast, we both think there are lessons in her research for companies and NGOs. The important influence of personal and company values is increasing in many companies who are actively restructuring their organisations to better implement their NDPs. We need to kick this on, support it. We’ve got to move beyond “We’ve got to do this to protect ourselves” and get to “We’ve got to do this because it’s right”.
NGOs can help companies get there. Slapping a company around the legs each time it’s found buying from a non-compliant supplier only enhances risk management thinking. It also enhances the risk of perverse outcomes. Both companies and NGOs want to stop deforestation but fear of the smart from an NGO smack drives companies to quickly drop suppliers who are clearing forests. “Bravo” say the NGOs enticing companies to “drop, drop, drop” anytime there’s a hint someone’s not performing. It’s a sugar rush. “Not always so” suggests actual outcomes in the field. Suppliers, who might actually be moving to turn off their land-clearing machines – sadly, it seldom happens overnight – can become indignant and recalcitrant when dumped by an important customer, especially when it’s seen to have happened at the behest of international NGOs. Forests continue to tumble, often faster than before. It also ignites political division and vitriol, further scaring companies.
“If we drop the supplier, the government will be unhappy and that’s never good. If we keep the supplier, the NGOs will nail us”
Spinning in circles, No Deforestation goes nowhere.
For all the recent excitement generated by companies posting their suppliers online – thanks to Greenpeace threatening a hearty slap prompting another risk management response – there’s a real risk of a perverse rather than positive outcome. Since Wilmar published its mill list in January 2015, NGOs have used the information to slam it every time a supplier or a supplier to a Wilmar supplier could be traced to one of the named mills. Punishing Wilmar for being transparent always seemed odd to me. If NGOs take a similar “Now let’s smack them” approach with the newly published lists, we’ll get nowhere fast. The majority of palm oil produced in Indonesia is sold within the country or to Asian neighbours without NDPs. Multi-national buyers with NDP policies, even the EU, are seeing their influence wane. A risk-based, supplier-dropping frenzy could accelerate its demise.
Bottom line, as always, seems to be that people need to communicate and collaborate more. I understand why NGOs are quick to slap legs – so often they’ve seen companies say one thing and do the exact opposite. Yet we know there are companies out there striving to implement their NDPs because the policies are important to them as individuals and as part of the company value set.
It’s absolutely clear that without NGOs, there would never have been NDPs, No Exploitation or No Peatland policies. But we really do need to go further. Recognising when a company is engaged from personal and company values is an important differentiator amongst the hundreds with NDPs who only have one as a piece of paper to wave when anyone asks. It’s Risk Management 101.
Engaging with suppliers around personal values can work. It inspires suppliers to act from their own values which surprisingly to some aren’t always fostered around hating forests. It inspires unprecedented action, even turning off machines. If NGOs and leading companies acting from personal and company values can find a way to build greater trust much more could be achieved where it counts; on the ground, where forests stand or fall based on values based decisions every day. Better, companies and NGOs presenting a united, inspiring, personal values based front to governments might winkle out some transformation there too.
We can’t be certain about that but we can conclude already that staying where we are with our predominantly risk management, compliance approach will have us forestless and cooked sooner rather than later.
P.S. Roisin is preparing a blog for wider publication with more detail about her specific findings. I'll share the URL for that when it's published.