Over the past two years dozens of companies have established “zero-deforestation” or “deforestation-free” policies for the commodities they source, trade, and produce. The pace of adoption has been staggeringly fast for a business that have been historically slow-moving relative to other industries. Some sectors, like the Indonesian palm oil industry and the Brazilian soy industry, even appear to be nearing a critical mass where the majority of international buyers and traders are now bound by such agreements.
At the center of some of the biggest deals has been The Forest Trust, a non-profit headquartered in Switzerland but with offices around the world. TFT, as the group is better known in conservation circles, was founded in 1999 by Scott Poynton, an Australian forester who got his start in the timber certification business.
Since then, Poynton has become an outspoken critic of certification of timber and agricultural commodities, to the extent that he has just published a manifesto calling for a major shift away from certification as an approach to cleaning supply chains and addressing critical environmental issues.
Never one to shy away from a fight, Poynton argues that certification schemes like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) “[stifle] innovation and introspection” and have “fallen behind” best practice in the field. Instead he calls for companies to adopt a “Values, Transparency, Transformation and Verification” (VT TV) change model predicated on the values held by people who run companies. He says that approach forces the kind of fundamental rethink that is leading companies to establish zero-deforestation policies and could push market transformation faster than certification-based strategies.
Poynton talked about his views these issues during a June 2015 interview with mongabay.com.
AN INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT POYNTON
Mongabay: Why does the world need this book? And why now?
Scott Poynton. Photo by: TFT.
Scott Poynton: I think the world needs this book because it represents a call to change, and don’t we need it! It really does seem that we’re heading for a >6°C global warming beyond which no large mammal can survive on the planet. As a species of large mammal, that should bother us. This 6oC tragedy is not happening tomorrow but each day of ineffective action on our part to address the causes of climate change means that the mass extinction a 6oC warming will cause becomes more and more entrenched in our future. I’m not comfortable with that.
I do believe that our efforts to tackle climate change to date have been totally and embarrassingly ineffective. Certification is not solely to blame of course but it was created to secure a better future. Twenty plus years of certification and we’re not really in a great place. So when I hear the “if not certification then what?” lament, I feel pretty upset. We tried it, it was good for a bit, for some things, great but the ship is heading for a cliff people, we’ve got to duck and weave, move and innovate until we find something that works. It’s time to focus on the ‘then what?’ part of the question. We’re acting like the frog in the saucepan on the heat…slow death by boiling isn’t really attractive to me and certainly not to my children.
So we have to act now. My sense is that the world is sleep-walking toward that future so the book is a call to ‘wake up!”
And why now? Actually, I started writing it 4 years ago but could never get it finished. I think we could have done with thinking beyond certification at least ten years ago so the book is way too late.
Mongabay: What are the top reasons the commodity supply chains need to move beyond certification?
Beyond Certification (free download).
Scott Poynton: The first is that the standards are too weak and have fallen behind the pace of innovation and best practice in the field. The second is that certification stifles innovation and introspection. If we’re going to grapple with the problems we face, we’re going to need huge amounts of innovation. Ticking someone else’s boxes – boxes that were created a long time go with ‘lowest common denominator’ thinking – is no way to inspire innovation. The book describes many ways by which certification processes choke off innovation. That introspection question is also important. I believe that we need people to act according to their own fundamental values. Few people are truly evil and just about everyone knows what’s right. That knowledge often gets buried in the pursuit of wealth or power; our ego kicks in too much. We want people to tap back into what’s good in them, because it is there, and set that free to bring real change. Certification just completely kills that off as you outsource your values to someone else; you never have to look inside yourself to contemplate if what you’re doing is right. Big NGOs tell you you’re a hero if you commit to certification and a legend if you get certified or buy certified product. Why go further? But clearly we need to go further and just pushing certification hasn’t and will never get us to where we need to be. We don’t need millions of dollars to promote certification; too much money has already been wasted on that front. We just need people to act according to their own inherently good values, to what they know to be right. If everyone acted in that truth, we’d be in a better place.
Mongabay: You make a strong case for companies to replace certification targets with goals based on their own values. But isn’t it risky to assume that senior executives at extractive/industrial companies are going to value things like biodiversity and human rights over making money?
Scott Poynton: Well, that’s the rub. If we don’t start trusting people, we’re going to continue to spend way too much time, effort and money on building fences, on corralling people. We know that building fences around National Parks and conservation areas doesn’t work. Indeed, in many cases, it’s a violation of indigenous people’s human rights. Yet we cling to certification schemes that build fences around what people can and can’t do. It’s command/control. The trouble with that is that people are ingenious at working around controls, and getting around, over, under or through fences. Legalize marijuana and drug related crime gowns down dramatically. The point I’m making is that we just have to trust in what is good in people because our experience of trying to control them hasn’t worked and it cannot work. Those who love certification just propose tighter controls yet the world races away before us. Senior executives are people too. They have children. They live in the world and see it changing too. Why can’t they too be forces for good? We accept that they create jobs and gadgets and social infrastructure that helps us and others. Why can’t they help protect the environment and people? There are many cases where they do. So why put fences around them? Reward them for good efforts in these regards and they’ll do more. We’ve got the whole equation skew-whiff, around the wrong way completely. Bottom line, if we can’t trust each other, frog-like, we’re cooked,
Logging in Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Mongabay: You are very critical of the FSC yet in two boxes on timber, you highlight FSC sourcing as success stories. Does that indicate certification is a part of the puzzle? Can certification schemes be compatible with the Values, Transparency, Transformation and Verification (VT TV) approach?
Scott Poynton: Certification can be a part of the puzzle but it’s not critical to the process. In the two boxes on timber, both organizations started with a fundamental think-through and expression of their values. They didn’t pledge themselves to the FSC. They pledged themselves to doing the right thing and saw that FSC certification was a way to verify that they were. In one case, the company went way past the FSC standard. So certification represents a milestone on your journey. You head off to meet you values and at some point you reach a point compatible with a certification standard. If the standard is weak, then you’ll pass that point pretty rapidly. The problem is that many companies stop there, lauded by NGOs as sustainable, as heroes. Why go further? There’s that question again. We want companies to keep going, way beyond weak standards. The FSC is probably the strongest standard but there has been a lot of innovation since it was developed and last reviewed and it needs to constantly change to keep up. It probably does the best of all the certification standards with that review, ‘keeping up’ process, but it still lags. With VT TV, companies can add things to their values/policy statements at a moment’s notice, innovation springs forth! I see certification akin to a marketing tool. In Australia, when you buy 24 cans of beer, in some places, you get an extra 6 cans thrown on top for free. It’s marketing. Certification is the same as the 6 cans. It helps people prove they’ve reached a milestone, and gives them a bonus for doing so. That’s all.
Mongabay: There is a lot invested in current certification systems so a new approach is going to face strong opposition. What happens to the certification business if VT TV catches on?
Scott Poynton: VT TV has already caught on and we’re already getting grief from some in the business of certification; the opposition is growing. This includes from NGOs – and let’s remember some get a lot of cash from donors to push certification and participate in certification scheme development – and from one of the leading certification bodies. When people get threatened, they can turn nasty and we’re seeing some of this emerging. Beyond Certification thinking challenges the status quo and certification is a multi-million dollar business. Because people are now investigating other ways of stating their targets and of verifying their performance against their values, those in the business of certification have the most to lose as businesses and communities look to other, less expensive and potentially more credible ways to verify how they’re going.
I don’t think certification will ever disappear but already the focus has shifted dramatically away from the question of whether you’re certified or not to whether you’re meeting the values stated in your policy. The shift is well underway.
Hillside deforested for an oil palm plantation in Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Mongabay: While “deforestation-free” commitments are still very new, so far companies are falling short on monitoring and verification, seemingly dependent on civil society to report breaches, especially with regard to third party suppliers. That seems to put a lot of the burden to monitor compliance on NGOs, especially local NGOs that typically operate on comparatively tiny budgets. Is that fair? And what are ways to address this issue?
Scott Poynton: One of the positive things about the VT TV approach is that multi-stakeholder involvement can and must happen through every step of the process, not just at standard setting. I think it’s hugely positive that NGOs, especially local NGOs are getting involved at every step of the process. Companies are doing their own monitoring and verification but there are often thousands of suppliers to check. Once companies with these commitments are transparent about their supply base, it opens the opportunity for others to check on performance against the commitments.
It’s seldom written up by the companies or reported by NGOs when a supplier agrees to turn off the machines but this is happening; it just doesn’t capture headlines. Some of our members have met with hundreds of suppliers in single meetings to explain the policies, offer support for capacity building and studies and to urge suppliers to come on board . This is a critical part of the change process. Suppliers are listening and machines are being turned off or at least moved out of forest areas. But there remains some suppliers who aren’t turning off their machines and local NGOs, the real eyes and ears on the ground, are empowered to point out breaches. This is terrific and something that doesn’t happen under certification systems. Now that companies are saying “we don’t want to be linked to deforestation” for example, local NGOs can say “Hold on, this company that supplies you is deforesting” and the company can check. These breaches, when reported, create a lot of news, a lot of unhappiness and anger and the companies are often accused of trashing their policies. But as we see companies reacting positively to this information, engaging with suppliers, getting machines turned off, HCS and HCV studies done OR choosing to suspend purchases when a supplier refuses to act to protect the forest, trust and belief is slowly growing that the companies are serious. It’s the norm that there was mistrust and disbelief in company sincerity but we’re seeing change coming in this area. And to be fair, there haven’t been hundreds of cases of policy breaches. It just seems that whenever there is one, NGOs and concerned folk jump straight to accusing the company of evil and greenwashing about their true commitments. I’ve always said that it’s not the policy breach that should define the company, but rather how it reacts to that breach and so far, we’re seeing VT TV companies reacting well.
The real challenge in this space is going to be identifying breaches of No Exploitation policies. It’s impossible to spot these from satellite imagery and also not easy for NGOs to wander in and speak to workers for example. Local communities, yes, that’s more easy but it does require NGOs with a strong understanding of local issues. Again, this is where we really need to support the local NGOs to be able to get into the field to do this critical work. Stopping deforestation is difficult enough but is more straightforward than social issues; that’s the next frontier. Again though, now that companies are clear and transparent about what they’re committing to, it’s easier for local NGOs, communities, experts, whoever to hold them to account. This is the big step forward offered by the VT TV approach.
Regarding the burden question, yes, in one way that’s right – local NGOs have scarce resources – BUT on the other hand, local NGOs are actually feeling empowered by these commitments because for years they have been sending complaints to RSPO for example with no follow up action. When a story hits Mongabay, people notice and companies take action or fail to at their peril. So I think local NGOs are feeling more engaged and more empowered through this process.
On the question of budgets, TFT along with our members, are launching a new initiative to secure funds for this monitoring work. It isn’t right that companies get this valuable information free of charge nor that Foundations should foot the bill. But local NGOs are wary of companies paying them directly for the monitoring work for fear of conflict of interest but also of losing their independence. Quite right. So we’re setting up an organization called Grass Roots that will have an escrow fund to take company contributions that will then be disbursed to local NGOs to fund the verification work. It will cover their salaries, operating costs, new equipment (such as drones) and they will be encouraged to go to the field and report what they find, publicly as well as directly to TFT and our members. This will really empower their local efforts and their local voices. We’re excited by this because we feel that building the capacity of local NGOs is hugely important.
The other thing we’re doing is extending our Centre for Social Excellence that started some 7 years ago in the Congo Basin to Indonesia. Our aim with the CSE is to build capacity amongst companies, local NGOs and other institutions by offering short courses but also by training young graduates in a broad range of social issues so that they can become future staff of these organizations. So in this case, the VT TV model highlighted very powerfully where we need more capacity and we’re responding, with financial support from TFT members and a number of inspired donors, to fill the gap. So far, no certification scheme has reacted in this way to build local capacity.
Rainforest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Mongabay: Where do you think the major commodity sectors that directly drive deforestation will stand in 2030? Will clearance of natural forests be a thing of the past?
Scott Poynton: There is a lot of excitement around all these No Deforestation commitments; I feel it too. But we have to be realistic that so much of the deforestation still happening in many places is through encroachment by local communities and sometimes “mafia” funded operators. Some NGOs argue that it’s the communities’ right to encroach because the forest was traditionally theirs through customary rights systems. OK, but that will not help us answer the deforestation question. And we can’t deny these communities the right to prosper and develop; illegal operators, of course, we must try to stop that, but where this points is that companies and communities must work closely together. And this is where building capacity within local NGOs is critical. International NGOs engage in this area too and when they do the voice of local community and NGO members who favor an approach contradictory to the view of the international NGOs, who often come with funding for their local partners, can be overpowered. International NGOs will recoil in horror at such a statement and yes, they’ve done great work over generations to support local NGOs. But again, 20 years into certification and there are few local NGOs operating anywhere in the world on anything but a shoestring budget gleaned for them by international NGOs in many cases. This has to change. If companies and communities and their representatives are to work together to solve these problems, then more budget needs to be found to support the communities and their representatives. That’s where the funding coming through from the companies will be critical.
Beyond Certification (free download).
There is huge complexity here but we favor the local approach wherever possible. In many areas, that’s not strongly developed and the lack of a strong local NGO community is often used as a reason to bring in certification bodies. Think of where local NGOs might be today had we spent the millions paid to international certification bodies to fund capacity building programs for these grass roots organizations!
So…clearance of natural forests is not yet solved but I do believe that a VT TV approach stands a greater chance of dealing with the issue than certification which has totally failed to deal with this complex, wicked problem. Someone might innovate beyond VT TV and really nail this issue. I hope so, because it’s that innovative thinking that we need, and that the book seeks to stimulate, if we’re going to make it.
The work that’s done in the next 3-5 years on these deforestation and exploitation issues will be critical to reaching the goal of stopping deforestation. We’ll never stop it completely, not even by 2030 which is anyway way too late, but if we can get people working together, based on a common set of shared values, then we stand a better chance than blindly clinging to command/control processes that have so far failed spectacularly to stem the destruction.