Future 500 | Finding common ground between uncommon allies

Taman-NegaraIn the past two years, we’ve seen rapid changes in the forestry sector that we could not have predicted would be realized by 2014. As a starting point, we witnessed the chairman of Indonesia-based Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), the world’s second largest pulp and paper producer, announce a groundbreaking Forest Conservation Policy on Feb. 5, 2013, committing to an immediate moratorium on rainforest clearing for its pulp and paper products. This announcement, met with considerable and warranted skepticism, actually set the stage for a new reality for Southeast Asian rainforests. Since February 2013, APP, along with NGOs, brands, and advisers, has strived to uphold that commitment.

Astoundingly, by the end of 2013, the world’s largest palm oil producer and trader, Wilmar, quietly took the zero-deforestation commitment to the next level, by ensuring 45 percent of the world’s palm oil would be produced with zero-deforestation, zero-peatland and zero-social conflict. Unilever took the lead in supporting this policy. By the eve of 2014, commitments from two foremost, global suppliers redefined the mainstream, altering the way brands regard forests.

What has followed the major policy shifts by these two giants is a domino effect, with multiple brands following suit in the first months of 2014. It appeared as though a new U.S.-based brand fell into line on a weekly basis, following the model of their suppliers. GAR, a sister company to APP, suddenly re-entered the scene, by extending its existing Forest Conservation Policy to cover its suppliers, thus with Wilmar, over 50 percent of the world’s palm oil is bound by zero-deforestation commitments. Similarly, brands like Colgate-PalmoliveMars and Ferrero announced their own zero-deforestation commitments. And most recently, Procter and Gamble and palm oil trader Cargill committed to zero deforestation and tracing palm oil in their supply chains.

These commitments were made, in large part, due to years of ambitious, strategic, and often relentless push and pull of NGOs like GreenpeaceRainforest Action Network and the World Wildlife Fund, and various local stakeholders and advisors. These savvy campaigners not only envisioned, but also pursued and are realizing a more environmentally and socially just forestry landscape. They have been the key stakeholders that got the ball rolling, outlined new standards, and are ultimately monitoring and holding companies accountable to these commitments. Without their passion, deep connections to forests, and bold action, we would not be seeing this global movement towards ‘zero deforestation’ among suppliers and their brand customers. 

New norm of zero-deforestation

The new norm of zero-deforestation implies we are entering a new phase, transitioning into a modern approach to global forest management and conservation to match the latest commitments. So, what does this 21st century model look like?

1. Exceeding international standards

The most trailblazing of commitments, like APP’s and Wilmar’s, exceed industry standards, going above and beyond international certification standards, like SFI, or RSPO. This in turns raises the bar across industries and forces other suppliers to adhere to these standards, as their customers demand sustainable products. In turn, NGO and brand dissatisfaction with these international bodies has prompted calls for reform, especially of theRoundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

2. Stakeholder engagement: Odd bedfellows

Inclusive, direct engagement of all stakeholders – companies, NGOs, funders, advisers – has defined these policies and remains absolutely critical to their long-term success. For example, APP has closely and consistently engaged with The Forest Trust and Greenpeace to uphold their FCP, resulting in a mix of odd-bedfellows who partake in frank dialogue and shape one another in fascinating ways. As a result, it’s safe to say we will see new norms in activist campaign methodology, proactivity versus reactivity from brands, and altered funding patterns for campaigns as well as conservation projects.

3. Technology as a tool

Technology has also emerged not as a solution to deforestation but as a tool to monitor both progress and setbacks, to ensure accountability and transparency. The Forest Trust’s dashboard technology, for instance, provides ongoing monitoring of APP’s concessions – from forest data to local grievances. 21st century technology has aided in the push beyond simple conservation goals toward consulting and engaging with local communities.

4. Replication

APP and then Wilmar’s commitments set a bold precedent for industry, with single leaders steering their industries in a new direction and, ultimately, toward a new norm. But why stop at pulp and paper and palm oil, at paper towels and snack foods? In the words of the Climate and Land Use Alliance’s Director of Programs Daniel Zarin: “Momentum is a precious thing.” And with this momentum in pulp and paper and palm oil, there is now a space for replication of the commitment to zero-deforestation across all commodities that impact forests – beef, soya, coffee, and cacao, to name a few.

The road ahead

Simply put, all eyes are on the forests. It is yet to be determined through third party validation to what degree these ambitious brand commitments will protect rainforests and how successfully they will be upheld over time. The stakes are higher than ever for genuine follow-through. As Greenpeace professes: “We have no permanent friends or permanent enemies.” NGOs like Greenpeace are closely monitoring and evaluating the process, and if companies default on their promises, campaigns will commence harder than before, as campaigns continue to ramp up against other pulp and paper and palm oil producers who have not made such commitments.

The risks are great and do not simply include those to brand reputation, but to the very real, disastrous threats posed to forests, communities, habitats, and climate, which are at the heart of zero tolerance for deforestation. Consequently, this is an exciting time as we see a diverse set of stakeholders now ultimately working toward the shared goal of zero-deforestation. We are on the cusp of extraordinary change, so let’s keep going.


Sara Santiago is a stakeholder engagement analyst at Future 500, a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds – often corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others – to advance systemic solutions to environmental problems. 

Join Sara on May 22nd at Stories + Beer to learn more about these important developments in forest conservation, Future 500’s role in facilitating stakeholder engagement, and what it means going forward.

Photo by Phil Covington

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