Corporate sustainability shouldn’t be an unknown entity (commentary)

  • Aida Greenbury, former Managing Director of Sustainability at APP Group and currently a board member and advisor to several organizations, including Mongabay, says companies really need to embrace sustainability principles in the way they operate.
  • Taking the plantation sector as an example, Greenbury argues that companies should not view the environment and the well-being of local communities as ‘us versus them’ issues, but rather as opportunities to transform the way they do business. .
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Something fun has happened in the past two months. A few high-level members of the economic chamber of a local branch of a forest certification body tried to prevent me from joining the chamber. They would have said that based on my public communications and my engagement, I should be classified as an environmentalist instead of someone who supports economic development.

It’s almost laughable considering I’ve spent half of my life working for companies, one of my roles being that of managing director in one of the largest groups of forestry, pulp and wood companies. papers.

As soon as I left the corporate world, I admit having met a strange reception from several of the actors with whom I used to work in close collaboration when I was part of the private sector. Most of my fellow actors from the private sector, NGOs, the media, even some governments started to look puzzled when they looked at me. This was mostly caused by some rather vocal opinions I expressed on public platforms about the importance of sustainability, largely zero deforestation and forest conservation. Suddenly I became an “unknown entity”.

My social media “attackers” have ranged from radical NGOs, which were my staunch critics for ten years (including Mongabay), to corporations, especially plantation and palm oil companies, and government supporters. But I’m not writing this article to talk about myself, I’ll write about it some other time.

The expression “you are with us or against us”, made particularly famous by former US President Bush in 2001, rings very loud here. It has become more obvious to me that someone who publicly supports forest conservation and transparency, who criticizes deforestation of native forests, monoculture plantations, peatland drainage, and dubious government lobbyists, absolutely cannot be. a supporter of economic progress.

To be honest, I’ve had my share of connections with people working for companies who believe that corporate life is all about making big bucks at all costs, fucking drills, and exploiting the community. for the benefit of shareholders. These types of people, generally uninitiated individuals who are insecure about their job, are unfortunately chosen by many companies because of their undeniable loyalty.

As a result, the world appears to be black and white. Where is it?

Forest illegally cleared for oil palm in Riau province.  Photo by Rhett A Butler
Forest illegally cleared for planting in Riau province. Photo by Rhett A Butler

Over five years ago, I told several people that companies need to change course, especially in this case with the way companies deal with communities in large-scale plantations. I said that local communities can no longer be treated as mere providers of cheap labor, charity items and photo ops, and burdens. When you think about it, how many benefits have been gained from local communities by businesses, from plantation owners and factories to consumer goods companies? I’m not just talking about the benefits of land and property rights, but also their rights to environmental services and forest, river and peatland livelihoods, and other values. The only way forward is to make peace with local communities and to create, maintain and integrate a business-community partnership into responsible businesses. We need to give back, figuratively and literally. Treat communities as equal business partners. Returning assets to local communities and ensuring sustainable operations are preferable to maintaining abandoned assets that could become future liabilities. These responsibilities could range from endless social conflicts to land degradation due to expansion.

How many millions of hectares of forest and land need to be converted to monoculture plantations? If we think that we can harvest the wood endlessly from these hygienic plantations, often covered with herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, from monocultures, then we are deluding ourselves. Forest fires, floods, local temperature rise and drought, land subsidence and epidemics are evidence of the unsustainable practice to name a few. Again, to keep the balance we need to give back what we have taken. First, of course, deforestation, clearing of native forests and drainage of peatlands must stop. There are more responsible practices that can be adopted. On peatlands, for example, local flood tolerant species should be planted instead of exotic ones.

How much forest should we give back to conservation? How much land needs to be reconverted to a level close to its natural state before? Perhaps we shouldn’t focus on quantity, as presented by the concept of half-land or planting trees en masse as a natural solution. We may use other guidelines such as the Planetary Boundaries Framework, which has been published by the Stockholm Resilience Center to define our safe operating space.

The forest industry or plantations and their value chain actors can begin to take a closer look at the three planetary boundaries as an example: biogeochemical flows, earth system change and biosphere integrity or l ‘functional integrity of ecosystems. This business can begin by examining the landscape on which a business operates, or sourcing materials, and focus on restoring critical areas of the landscape that are critical to ensuring ecosystem integrity and providing environmental benefits. These restoration areas could include riparian, sloping or steep areas, peatlands, and habitats critical to the survival of key species. What might appear to be “green” work, could be the savior that helps ensure a sustainable supply of raw material.

We are all very familiar with the many environmental pledges and voluntary commitments from governments and companies, but unfortunately this does not come with transparency on the implementation side, such as proof of zero deforestation. The transformation will not work without transparency, as it will be just another unnecessary PR exercise with our investment and future generations at stake.

These, of course, are not easy to do. It could be expensive too. Responsible companies should view this, by performing appropriate long-term cost analyzes, not as a greenwash opportunity, but as an investment strategy for sustainable operations. After all, a good long-term cost analysis should be the foundation of any successful business.

Natural forest and acacia plantation on the island of Sumatra.  Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Natural forest and acacia plantation on the island of Sumatra. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

It is possible for companies to act responsibly, advocate for transparency, forest conservation and the protection of community rights, because it is simply the only way to survive these days.

It is neither black and white nor an unknown entity.

Aida Greenbury is the former Managing Director of Sustainability at APP Group, now based in Sydney, Australia, and a board member and advisor to several organizations including Mongabay.

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