Loving Dragons: Golden Agri Resources Gets it Right
Shu Ling Lim, Golden Agri Resources (GAR) Head of Sustainability Communications, shared her thoughts recently in a fascinating article on Eco-Business. GAR is a TFT member so we know them well. GAR was the first palm oil company to announce a Forest Conservation – No Deforestation – Policy back in February 2011. Almost six years in, GAR has some great experience, not always positive, of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to bringing about change in its operations and those of its many suppliers.
Lim’s article was headed ‘Why engagement, not punishment, is the key to a sustainable palm oil supply chain’ and it made the case, based on GAR’s extensive experience, that getting down in the trenches with its suppliers was where most could be achieved. It drew stark contrast with the approach pushed by Greenpeace and other NGOs which is based more on punishment – if you don’t do what we want, we’ll drop you.
“We have a dedicated Supplier Support Team, which as the name suggests, is there to help suppliers with sustainability issues.
All this builds trust and a stronger working relationship with our suppliers. This is absolutely key in helping them understand and be willing to make the changes to achieve sustainable palm oil production.
An approach that leads with punishment does not work. GAR will take that step where and when necessary but we believe exclusion should be the tool of last resort, not the starting point.”
Trust works, punishment doesn’t. How surprising! Lim’s words help us understand the power of treating people like humans, of not judging them but rather assuming they’re good, that they have their own concerns and worries and that if we listen to them, perhaps we can all find a way forward. These people of course aren’t dragons but efforts to paint them as such, as Lim notes, sees them disappearing into the shadows, away from any opportunity to engage and bring change, “Suppliers who were dropped simply shrugged it off, turned to other buyers who have laxer standards, and continued their bad behaviour’.
Years and years of fighting dragons hasn’t yet stopped deforestation or many other ills. We’ve successfully ‘dragonised’ a lot of people, many companies and brands and yet here we are in Pooville. Judging people in this way leads to shame. Shame gets people’s attention and can work to raise awareness, get discussion started, but it leads to a very human call for punishment. When it comes to really changing, that has serious limits.
Our experience at TFT echoes Lim’s observations on what has and hasn’t worked at GAR. We’ve always promoted a “transformation through engagement” approach with our VT TV model – Values, Transparency, Transformation and Verification. Deforestation continues so it would be easy to argue, as NGOs are increasingly doing, that this hasn’t worked either. But stopping a train crash doesn’t happen with the click of fingers. It takes time and what we’re seeing, as Lim notes, is that real change, out on the ground is happening. Not everywhere, not as rapidly as we all might like, but across larger and larger swathes of land, companies are listening to GAR’s and other TFT members’ words and thoughts and are moving the industry toward better practices.
The key really is to speak to people in a way that encourages listening and real engagement in a deep dialogue, a discussion based on respect, a discussion from your Duck (see my previous post on the matter of Ducks and Dragons), from your deepest held values and beliefs, from your soul. If you really believe in your push for sustainable palm oil, your suppliers, one degree of separation away, will be strongly influenced to share your beliefs too. If you threaten them with potential lost business, tell them they’re bad, it’s not rocket science to work out they’ll likely to tell you where to go. Hitting people around the head and shoulders with a stick seldom creates a readiness to listen.
Time and time again we see the results of respectful engagement. I was grateful to read Lim’s article because it represents a first case where a palm oil company is pushing back in public on the prevailing narrative of shame and punishment. We know that TFT members are all engaging with their suppliers in this way. They’ve built their business based on respectful engagement with their suppliers, and they’re now extending that into realms of unheralded sustainability achievements in the same way.
As trees continue to fall, the volume on the vitriol and anger dial goes up but it’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the palm oil and other sectors over the coming months and years as more and more companies speak to each other about sustainability issues in a more loving tone.
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