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Commercial values are a key driver of Zero Deforestation policies (commentary)

  • Zero Deforestation Policies (ZDPs) are mostly developed in response to campaigns and motivated by risk management and protection of commercial values, a new enquiry finds, although personal and company values do factor in.
  • ZDP implementation often focuses on integrating commercial values, reflecting a “quick-fix” approach.
  • Personal and company values have high potential to influence ZDP implementation, especially when people are genuinely committed to the purpose. People can be genuinely committed when they relate the ZDP to their own personal values or to company values, which they identify with and feel empowered to act on.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

According to a recent report created for the Prince of Wales’ Sustainability Institute, there are now more than 470 companies with commitments to ensure their company is not linked to deforestation. These are commonly known as Zero Deforestation Policies (ZDPs).

With increased small-scale deforestation in Amazonia, approximately 4,000 hectares recently cleared in Indonesian Papua for palm development, and increasing pressure on forests in Sub-Saharan Africa attributed to palm oil expansion, it is clear these policies are not (yet) having their intended impact. A recent investigation into the role of commercial, company, personal, and environmental values in ZDPs explores a less frequently considered contributing factor to why this is the case: the values of the corporate decision-makers who are responsible for implementing ZDPs.

Why look at the role of values in ZDPs? Because there is a mismatch between rate of forest loss and pace of policy, regulation, and technological developments to protect forests, and this discrepancy suggests it is worthwhile to consider more fundamental drivers of change in order to end deforestation. Values, commonly defined as the metrics we use to choose and rationalize actions and to appraise people and events, might be just such a fundamental driver.

Often-cited policy tools such as national forest preservation laws and reforestation programs, the UN’s REDD+ program, and laws to minimize illegal logging are slow, according to a 2017 study, and “non-binding with limited impact,” as a 2014 study found. Even when the policy, legislation, or regulation mechanism to stop deforestation is sound, effective prosecution is not commonly available, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization has found. Governments, particularly in tropical countries where deforestation is highest, are not yet fully embracing the need to end deforestation once and for all — strategy changes are urgently needed to address this, as an earlier commentary in Mongabay this year explains.

Turning to technology, a range of tools exist to implement and verify ZDP implementation. Currently popular services help companies trace their supply chain (e.g. Supply Shift and Blockchain) and monitor forest loss (e.g. Global Forest Watch and Starling). Still, deforestation is ongoing.

Companies, governments, and NGOs are asking the same question: Why aren’t we making progress on this issue? As one 2016 report states, “It’s not making the pledge’s (ZDPs) that’s the hard part, it’s keeping them.”

Oil palm plantation and forest in Costa Rica. Photo by Rhett Butler.

It is common sense that values are important indicators of people’s actions; this is also widely accepted in values theory. What triggers people to act on different values and the impact of this on forest protection remains relatively unknown. I conducted an enquiry, available through the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, in 2017 under the framework of a Master’s research thesis. My investigation explored the role of company values, commercial values, values of zero deforestation or environmental protection, and personal values, by asking where do values in ZDPs come from, how are values integrated into ZDPs, and how do values influence ZDP implementation?

Twenty-seven semi-structured interviews were conducted for the investigation, 19 with representatives from some of the world’s biggest agrifoods companies that have adopted ZDPs, and eight with people from organizations and research institutes working on this topic. Participants were working on a range of commodities, and came from some of the biggest players in the ZDP sphere: producer companies collectively responsible for more than two million hectares; trader companies with combined annual 2016 net sales greater than $202 billion; and brands present in over 191 countries, employing more than 500 000 people.

Interviews were conducted in accordance with standard interview guidance, and were then transcribed, coded, and analyzed following techniques of qualitative content analysis. Published written company values statements and ZDPs were also coded and analyzed, providing further data. This analysis technique involves firstly identifying general themes, and then narrowing these down to codes, to then compare the frequency of different codes’ appearance throughout the data set. To encourage people to speak freely on what can be sensitive and personal opinions, participant confidentiality was accorded. (A list of companies and organizations that study participants worked for is included in Appendix A of the full report.)

Results indicated that company and personal values drive ZDP development and implementation to a certain extent, but that commercial values in companies are by far the most important.

Most large companies operate on a basis of inertia, and they … focus on the financial pursuit of profit. When that wakeup call comes, in the form of intensifying pressure from customers and the media and investors, values do inform the response. – NGO

More specifically, the interviews exposed risk management as the main reason companies create ZDPs, aiming to protect commercial values of companies. Many ZDPs are adopted in response to NGO campaigns.

The Greenpeace campaign was really a wake-up call and a turning point about what we should be looking at … and how our values are related to the sourcing that we do. – Brand

As in many companies, I would say it (the ZDP) was developed in response to outside pressures. – Trader

The inherent focus on commercial value in corporate structures is limiting the role personal and company values could play in ZDP implementation. This risk-management, commercial-values-driven attitude is encouraging a demand for quick-fix, narrow-scope solutions, a 2011 study found. On a broader scale, it appears to be preventing fundamental change from occurring in companies, change required to create better long-term outcomes for the environment, society, and economies.

Tensions come around, you know businesses are designed to make profit. – Trader

Despite the evident focus on commercial values, many interviews revealed a connection between personal values and active implementation of ZDPs. All participants from companies said that ZDP implementation improves where there is alignment of personal, company, and environmental protection values. This suggests that true commitment of individuals and companies, as opposed to compliance, leads to better implementation of ZDPs. A truly committed person or company is passionate and energized to achieve goals and takes responsibility for the entire task, rather than just accomplishing their allocated activities.

To talk with smallholders, meet the mill operators, the palm oil growers, learning about the industry makes me feel like I have an obligation to do this. Gave me a connection. Being in the forest there, thinking about the connection between the forest and the palm oil plantation, and asking how can these two things coexist? It’s part of the obligation of industry to protect the natural environment. – Trader

Many participants in this research said that personal and company values can be better integrated into ZDPs if they are clearly identified, which is not always the case. A 2011 analysis of the characteristics of 180 environmental and social policies found that clearly defined core values and beliefs in companies can encourage a sustainability culture and generally indicate changed commercial practices, such as improved strategy development capacity and transparency.

The discussions highlighted a need for caution when approaching values related to ZDPs in order to reach out to non-commercial values in the right way. Some mentioned personal values of the CEO as important, others mentioned personal values of the upcoming generation as primary drivers, and others said they use alignment with well-established company values as leverage to push their ZDP both within the company and with external stakeholders.

In a corporate environment this is not something that we are familiar with, we are not at ease to talk about our personal values. – Brand

These findings suggest that the role of non–commercial values among all actors, especially corporate stakeholders, in the world of ZDPs, is often overlooked. This oversight is likely part of the answer to why we aren’t seeing the necessary progress on these commitments. Human values of environmental protection are ever-present in us as a species today, yet they need more recognition and space if they are to influence actions of individuals and companies alike.

How can we activate personal and company values of no deforestation other than through NGO campaigns that push companies into risk management mode? How can we avoid encouraging emphasis on commercial values and quick-fix approaches in ZDP implementation so that more fundamental transformation can occur? Finally, what can we do to encourage all actors to agree to take full responsibility for ZDP implementation — i.e. to be fully committed and not just compliant? It would seem it is vital that we now seek answers to these questions.

Deforestation for oil palm in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett Butler.


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Róisín Mortimer works on improving environmental and social outcomes of palm oil and other raw commodity supply chains for TFT, The Forest Trust, based in their headquarters in Switzerland. This research was conducted in 2017 while working at TFT as part of a Double Masters in Agroecology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the Institut supérieur d’agriculture Rhône Alpes (ISARA) Lyon, France.

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