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The Inside View

5 ways that NGOs stunt sustainability

When do nonprofits and activist groups go astray? Lack of reality about the the marketplace is just one sign.

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

Before I blast the NGO community, let me say I consider them as a good friend. Friends tell each other when their collar is twisted, when kale is stuck in their front teeth. This is the spirit of this column.

Last week I wrote about my favorite sustainability experience: the Amazon soy moratorium. Now, I write about my least favorite and most frustrating endeavor: the quest for sustainable palm oil. It’s a case study of how NOT to create transformational change.

This is not about finger-pointing and blaming. I believe the NGOs involved with this are very well intended. However, they need a wake-up call because they are unwittingly suffering four common sins that stymie sustainability progress.

Just 10 percent of palm is purchased as certified sustainable today — 14 years since the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) formally was initiated in 2002.

Just 10 percent of palm is purchased as certified sustainable today — 14 years since the RSPO formally was initiated in 2002.

Sure, companies can do more, yet many have made commitments for zero deforestation and set specific sustainable palm oil goals. They need NGO help to get there.

Certainly, governments play a big role, too. Suffice to say, they are imperfect. Yes, economic development is winning over environmental preservation. Eighty-five percent of palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, where citizens see palm production as their pathway from tin shacks to modern homes with tiles and toilets. NGOs need to guide them in this delicate environmental/economic balance.

The most tangible and fixable part is the proliferation of NGOs not practicing what they preach to companies. The palm NGOs are not aligned, not working collaboratively and not showing flexibility. This creates havoc and paralysis in the marketplace.

Let’s look at the five common ways of NGOs gone astray:

1. Demonization

You’d think from following the common NGO narrative that palm oil is one of the most environmentally destructive crops of all time. In fact, its ecological impacts are the cream of the crop versus others oils. According to the CI report on Palm Oil (PDF) (a great, pragmatic guide for companies):

"Oil palm trees are incredibly efficient, yielding more oil on the same amount of land than any other leading oil crop — four to 10 times more than soy, rapeseed (canola) or sunflower."

According to an outstanding Guardian in-depth journalistic report, alternatives to palm oil use two to eight times more fertilizers and five to 10 times more pesticides.

OK, this doesn’t mean we ignore the impacts on orangutans, climate change and deforestation. But don’t demonize a product that has so many positive attributes. Don’t you realize you’ll infuriate the people that grow and produce this stuff? Then they stiffen up and resist.

2. Perfectionism

RSPO has been picked apart as imperfect. It is.

But it’s a good, legitimate, inclusive effort that NGOs should support and build upon. NGOs should use the "slippery slope" principle more. Get something started, and see it improve over time.

All would benefit from digesting and implementing Dr. Cialdini’s Six Principles of Persuasion.

His fourth principle, "Consistency," describes how asking for a small commitment can lead to a bigger one. When homeowners are asked to put a small postcard in their window promoting safe driving in the neighborhood, they are 400 percent more willing to put larger signs on their lawn a few weeks later. Consider the RSPO a postcard and let it grow from there.

3. Complexism

Perfectionism produces "complexism" as well. I made the word up, because there is no term for how relentless, detailed-oriented, scientific and exhaustive NGOs sometimes can be when it comes to developing sustainability standards, principles and metrics. Businesses say the simpler the better. NGOs say the thicker the better. The RSPO tries to make them happy by producing a set of standards that only an expert can comprehend.

There is no term for how relentless, detailed-oriented, scientific and exhaustive NGOs sometimes can be when it comes to developing sustainability standards, principles and metrics.

Go see the RSPO Principles and Criteria (PDF), all 71 pages of it. I can see the corporate purchasing manager relishing this.

4. Lack of marketplace reality

You can’t treat every product, crop or material the same way. Coffee, beef and diamonds are different from palm oil, mostly because palm could be the most invisible, far-removed ingredient in existence. Check out any label for your favorite bakery or personal care item. Palm is far down the list, and much of palm is converted to more than 100 derivatives and oleo chemicals, confusing purchasers even more. Here are just the "As":

  • Alcohol Ether Sulfates

  • Alcohol Ethoxylates

  • Alcohol Sulfates
  • Alkylpolyglycoside (APG)
  • Alpha-linolenic Acid
  • Ascorbic Acid

You can’t pressure Western companies who are only 15 percent of the palm oil marketplace and expect systemic change. Most of palm is used in Asia.

You can’t just go after big brands and expect them to manage a supply chain that has them seven stages removed, starting with the smallholders, to mills, then plantations, to storage facilities, refineries, ingredient manufacturers and then product manufacturers, then into a final product a retailer sells, such as ice cream, a granola bar or shampoo — with palm as a minute ingredient.

5. Disjointed direction

The last thing we need is competition over the rules of the game, and then to change the rules. That’s what this 14-year sustainable palm oil journey often feels like.

NGOs have promulgated various sustainable palm alternatives. They are using too many sticks and not enough carrots.

Imagine a world in which the top 15 NGOs working on sustainable palm oil agree on the approach, principles and measures. This would instill corporate and governmental confidence on a unified direction for all to move forward together.

On the bright side, the table is set for a sustainable palm tipping point.

On the bright side, the table is set for a sustainable palm tipping point. Traders and processors, representing 80 percent of the trade for palm, have made commitments, so the challenge is to implement these commitments with a positive, collaborative and market-friendly support from the NGO community. Allow for more flexibility on how to get there. Encourage innovation, too.

Palm is not the enemy. It is how it is grown and managed that counts.

If you keep beating up Western companies trying to make this work, they eventually will walk away. Or companies will clean up their supply chains, exit bad relationships and go with a few big players. This will not solve the problem and it will just create a niche, premium market.

Sustainable palm should be the norm, the default, not a niche.

OK, my friends. I’ve let you know your fly is open. Now is the time to shift to a positive approach, steeped in market practicality, with an aligned view of the future. 

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