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Dancing With Devils

We don't need governments or the UN to regulate these exceptional transformations, we just need to dance with the "devils" and help them to move their businesses and supply chains over the sustainability bridge to a better place.
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St Patrick's Day 2010 I received an excited Skype message from a friend of dark green political persuasion. "Check out this website!" he urged. "Greenpeace are going to hit Nestlé for palm oil; it's going to be ugly!"

I clicked on the URL he'd sent and sure enough, there was a website with a countdown to 12pm and a short message to "stay tuned." There was no hint of what was to come. I had a couple of hours to wait and dutifully went back to the site from time to time, my anticipation building as the hour drew near.

Then 12pm came and yes, it was ugly. Probably the most powerful one minute campaign video ever produced rolled out across the airwaves; an office worker bloodily munching on an orangutan's finger found neatly wrapped in his Nestlé Kit Kat.

Greenpeace had done its homework and the site and video went instantly viral. People began hitting the Nestlé Facebook page, attacking the company for its alleged role in forest destruction. There was more pain some weeks later when Greenpeace activists raided Nestlé's AGM. Nestlé were under pressure, but why?

Nestlé's Chairman had committed the company to a No Deforestation policy; the first time any company of any size, shape or form anywhere in the world had made such a commitment. They were applying due diligence to their palm oil supply chain and had made strong policy commitments on sourcing sustainable palm oil; they were far from idle and were serious about their commitments. Shouldn't they have been heroes? Instead, here they were being branded as the Devil himself on blogs and internet sites around the world.

Their error was that they didn't have full visibility, right down to the extraction level, of the on-ground performance of the palm oil companies from whom they were buying. They had bought a small amount of oil from an Indonesian company that Greenpeace were campaigning against. Other companies had similar buying links, but Nestlé is an important brand. Get Nestlé moving and you change the market.

Nestlé got moving. Two months after the campaign broke; Nestlé and TFT announced a partnership committing Nestlé to getting that visibility and to implementing a program that would remove deforestation from its entire global product offer; no small undertaking. Nestlé announced Responsible Sourcing Guidelines (RSGs) to ensure forest protection. The response was universally positive. Greenpeace expressed support and optimism; the global press likewise and those thousands of citizens who had expressed their concern on social media sites when the campaign broke agreed to lay down their keyboards to give the partnership space to work.

Where are we 12 months on?

Here's the good news -- we've come an enormously long way. Nestlé now has supply chain maps for almost all of its palm oil buy and a supplier assessment process that not only helps palm oil traders and growers understand where they're failing with respect to stopping deforestation but that goes beyond that to partner with them to guide their transformation into a No Deforestation supplier.

Here's the incredible news -- on February 9th, Golden Agri Resources (GAR), the very same palm oil grower Nestlé bought from to get itself into hot water with Greenpeace, announced a commitment to exclude all deforestation from its products. GAR's Forest Conservation Policy mirrors Nestlé's RSGs and is a startling demonstration of how large companies, like Nestlé, can indeed lead change even in the complete absence of government regulations or UN conventions requiring them to do so.

The less good news is that across the palm oil industry in general we've still got work to do. Forests are being cleared, indigenous and local communities are being impacted but GAR's announcement shows there's hope. The palm oil industry is providing jobs and services to millions of people in remote and poverty stricken regions. It provides a cheap food for billions of the world's poorest people. This is the palm oil dilemma and its one we have to solve; saying "don't use palm oil" isn't going to achieve anything.

Industry wide transformation is the key to the palm oil dilemma as well as other product stories that aren't meeting our sustainability aspirations. And key to that is pressure from supply chain partners who are themselves seeking change. But people -- and whole industries -- generally don't change unless they're uncomfortable. Yes, individual companies can lead but to change an entire industry out of long held practices usually needs more intense pressure. One of the few agents of discomfort we have at our disposal is NGO campaigns. That's a shame because they really are brutal and do demonize companies and the people within them; often companies who are working at solutions but haven't quite nailed it yet. But in the absence of companies taking the full journey by themselves, either through their own policies or through regulation, we do need something to push change. So Greenpeace and other NGOs have a critical role to play here as the global voice of change, the agents of discomfort. But campaigns alone can't get companies over the bridge to a better place. They help them see the bridge and perhaps the map for the journey across it, but -- usually -- someone needs to help the company over; to dance with the so-called "devils" and help them transform their business practice.

When TFT started working on garden furniture supply chains 12 years ago we were asked how we could bring ourselves to work with such abhorrent companies. In a stunningly effective campaign, another NGO -- Global Witness -- was highlighting that the beautiful garden furniture flooding from retail stores into homes across Europe was made completely from illegal timber linked to human rights abuses, deforestation, biodiversity loss and social upheaval. It was a grim story. TFT's response was that we'd happily dance with the devil if the devil was serious about getting forests better managed. It worked. After only a few years' effort, almost all of the garden furniture traded in Europe was made from sustainably sourced wood.

We showed then and Nestlé has shown now that dancing with the imagined "devils" of environmental campaigns is the only way to bring real change. Many folk would love to see these "devils" put out of business but that rarely, if ever happens and even if it did, it wouldn't change the industry. Our experience tells us that mostly these companies and the people within them aren't devils at all; demonized yes, but seldom truly evil folk intent on destroying the planet. The campaigns open their eyes to issues they didn't previously see and their response generally is to pull up their sleeves and work to change things. Time and time again, from forests and factories in Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, China and India to retail stores and product suppliers across the globe, we've seen the "devils" leading their industry to a new place.

So, one year on from the brutal Greenpeace campaign, we should take a moment to pause and look back on what was then a shocking time for Nestlé and the folk within it. But we should also be thankful that the campaign happened -- Nestlé is. Learning from the palm oil campaign, it has now changed its entire global procurement process to embed due diligence and transformation processes and it feels much more certain it's meeting its own policy of Creating Shared Value. It can be sure that when the campaigners come knocking next time, the only story they'll find is one of responsible products and natural resource stewardship. Indeed, Nestlé is being acknowledged as the industry leader. That is a direct result of the campaign and it's terrific. We should all feel extremely positive by what's been achieved in such a short time -- GAR's announcement will change the global palm oil industry. We don't need governments or the UN to regulate these exceptional transformations, we just need to dance with the "devils" and help them to move their businesses and supply chains over the sustainability bridge to a better place.

Look for a campaign near you and support it next time you're out and about. But don't forget to also support the search for a dance partner for your local "devil"; without one, your campaign may go nowhere.

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