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Almost Everything You Buy Is Killing Tropical Forests. Now What?

Allie Goldstein

More than 300 companies have now pledged to purge deforestation from their supply chains, but what does it take to convert those words into action? Scott Poynton, founder of The Forest Trust, takes companies down that path, step by step.

16 March 2016 | Allie Goldstein of Ecosystem Marketplace spent a month avoiding the “big four” agricultural drivers of deforestation – palm oil, soy, beef, and pulp & paper – in a consumption experiment that was documented in The Washington Post. The article, which you can read here, concludes that the onus to break the link between everyday products and deforestation should not be on consumers; it should fall on companies that make the stuff and the governments that regulate them. In this Q&A, Goldstein talks with Scott Poynton, founder of TFT (The Forest Trust), who works with major companies to do just that.

Allie Goldstein: Tell me a little about your background and why you decided to found TFT.

ScoScott Poyntontt Poynton: I was part of a research project in Vietnam trying to find the best ways to reforest areas of the Mekong Delta and we were doing all of this interesting research to determine the best species to plant, where to plant them. A Taiwanese company came in with vast amounts of money and convinced the province that they should give them a huge area of land to plant eucalyptus. So I watched them plow up this land, they pumped all this acid into the waterways and it killed all the fish, and of course two years later all the trees were dead anyway. It just made me realize that businesses can be really stupid, but what a good force they could be if they had done it in a different way.

AG: You say on your website that TFT’s framework is to get companies to define their own goals that align with their own values, and then meet those goals. So you don’t come with a prescriptive idea about what the goals should be, necessarily.

SP: That’s right. We believe people are generally good. Negative consequences do happen due to the way companies run their business, but once you help them understand those negative consequences and how they can be avoided – in fact how they can be turned into positive things – our experience is that most companies go for that. I think if you help people understand what the possible paths look like, they generally pick the one that’s responsible.

AG: How does no or low deforestation come up in those conversations?

SP: One example is our work with Nestlé. When Greenpeace campaigned against Nestlé, they reacted very strongly saying, ‘We don’t want to kill orangutans, that’s not who we are.’ And so we said, ‘Okay, if you don’t want to be responsible for killing orangutans, you better make sure that the palm oil you buy is not linked to deforestation.’ My book [Beyond Certification, available for free download here] describes how that sort of values-based approach leads to a lot of innovation.

AG: Where does the title of your book come from?

 SP: I’ve seen so many people say, ‘If not certification, then what?’ It’s very clear to me that we need to start thinking about the ‘then what?’ because certification isn’t transforming the industries it was set up to transform. We’re facing six degrees [Celsuis] of climate change, and if we’re going to rely on this tool, which after 20 years actually hasn’t achieved what people had hoped, we’re not going to make it. So we need to go beyond certification and look at a different way of working.

AG: It struck me when doing this consumption experiment over the last month that it was very hard to find products that were labeled in a way that meant no deforestation. RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) doesn’t necessarily mean no deforestation, so that label didn’t help me. But even if there were a clear certification system, I wonder why you even have the option to buy something that contributes to tropical deforestation?

SP: Well, exactly. This is one of the arguments put forward by the people who put forward so much effort to grow organic food. Why do they have to spend all the money to prove they’re not putting pesticides on plants? It’s one of those things where people are going to look back in 50 or 100 years’ time and say, ‘What the hell were we thinking?’

AG: Do you see consumer pressure as an important part of pushing companies towards sustainability in their supply chains?

SP: A bit, and growing, but from a low base. I think companies are concerned about their reputation, and they don’t want to be linked to deforestation but it’s really because they don’t want Greenpeace or some other NGO like RAN [Rainforest Action Network] hanging off a building or running a campaign against them. I don’t think, especially in the States, that [companies are] getting a lot of pressure from consumers.

AG: Traceability is much easier said than done. Can you describe step-by-step the process by which a company actually goes about tackling that for palm oil?

SP: They know who they buy from, and they go and talk to them and say, ‘Who do you buy from?’ And sometimes [the suppliers] don’t know. And so [the buyers] say, ‘Well, you need to know.’ You’ve basically got to work step-by-step back up into your supply chain. And if you’ve got a supplier who says ‘I don’t know,’ they’ve got to work it out. People are changing the way they buy palm oil so that they can do traceability. What’s happening now is that the traders are now getting asked by everyone, so they’re having to change their systems.

AG: How do they change their systems?

SP: They have to stop buying on the spot, they have to stop buying just on paper. They have to have a much closer relationship with the companies they buy from, and actually physically know where the [palm] oil comes from. And that’s the difference.

We’ve seen a Nestlé buyer pick up the phone and call a trader and say, ‘Okay, I’m moving my [palm] oil away from company X for three months, can you pick up this volume? But if you pick it up, I need to know where it comes from. Can you do that?’ A $5 million transaction in 30 seconds. So if the companies really, really want to know and are putting their policies into practice, money speaks.

AG: Can you point to an example of a company that you think has really transformed its sourcing to reduce deforestation?

SP: On the brand side, I think Ferrero Russia who make Nutella have done an exceptional job. I think Nestlé are doing a great job. On the trading and the growing side, I think Wilmar are doing very well. Golden Agri-Resources, we suspended them last year, but they responded to that very strongly and they’re really accelerating their program now.

AG: What do you think has allowed certain companies to be successful?

SP: I think it’s their determination. The leaders of the company banging their fists on the table and saying, ‘No, we don’t want to be linked to these bad things. Get out there and sort it out.’ That is the absolute key.

AG: So once you do all this traceability stuff and you find out where your palm or your soy or whatever it is comes from, what do you see as the major ways that you actually make sure that you’re not clearing tropical forests to produce those products?

SP: We talk about values first, then transparency, then transformation. You’ve got to get engaged with your suppliers. You start giving businesses increased orders because you’ve found that they’re not deforesting and they’ve got good relationships with communities. You don’t take away all the business from the non-compliant suppliers because then you’ve got no leverage. [Instead] you say, ‘We need you to change your behavior, we can give you a bit of support. And we’ll keep an eye on that, and if we find you’re making progress, we’ll increase your orders.’ And it’s working. Heaven forbid I wish it were going a lot faster, but we find our members are making genuine progress.

AG: Unilever and Marks & Spencer recently made an announcement that they would prioritize sourcing from states and jurisdictions that have strong no-deforestation policies in place. It was celebrated as scaling up and sending a signal at a larger political scale. Is that a strategy that you’re looking at? Do you think it’s a potentially effective one?

SP: I think it could be. It’s not straightforward. There are a lot of political jurisdictions out there, states, provinces, who want development. They get taxes from areas of palm oil, they get money paid to them as incentives to give out palm oil licenses. So it’s a nice announcement, but implementing it is going to be a challenge. I’m very cynical about some of these announcements.

AG: Companies tend to get press at the time when they make the commitment, but five years later when they’re supposed to have met that commitment, there’s no one necessarily following up and saying, ‘Hey, you didn’t meet this commitment that you got all this positive attention for.’

SP: I agree. We’re trying to get our suppliers to give an update every quarter on how it’s going. That’s a challenge, companies don’t like it. But we’re saying, that’s the only way. You’ve got to tell the world where you’re buying your palm oil from and let people judge. If you say to the community, ‘Look we’ve set this target, but we’re having challenges to reach it because of X, Y, and Z,’ some bright person may have solved X, Y and Z, and they might tell you [how they did it]. By sharing information, you have a greater chance of actually reaching your goals.

AG: I think that’s a really interesting point, because as a consumer, I’m actually more interested in the story and if you’ve made a mistake, understanding why it happened. I’m interested in the long-term plan and vision.

SP: Yes, cheap headlines aren’t very helpful. We want to know, how are you going on the journey?

AG: So, this no deforestation experiment was very difficult. I had to avoid whole categories of food, and I switched over all my soaps, and on and on and on. I couldn’t find a single laundry detergent that didn’t have palm oil. Do you envision a point in the near or far future when an experiment like mine would be much easier?

SP: I hope so. It’s difficult to put a date on when that could be. I suspect that you probably could have bought more products that aren’t linked to deforestation, but at the moment the challenge is to give you that information at the point of sale. I think you’ve got to get to a situation where you buy on the basis of brand. [As a consumer] you could say, ‘Well I know that company X is working on this, I understand that this company is moving in that direction.’ And then you need NGOs to keep them on their toes, to be asking the right questions, to be pushing them. Because consumers can’t take that responsibility. The companies that we’re working with are going as fast as they can, they’re going 100 miles an hour.

Editor’s note: TFT recently launched a transparency hub that provides information about their members’ progress. You can also keep tabs at Supply-Change.org, a project of Forest Trends and our partners.

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