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Forming Bonds Between Businesses and Advocates

9 March 2016 at 10:16 am
Ellie Cooper
While corporations and advocacy groups often appear to be on opposing sides, advocates are keen to build relationships with businesses to achieve change. Ellie Cooper investigates.

Ellie Cooper | 9 March 2016 at 10:16 am


Forming Bonds Between Businesses and Advocates
9 March 2016 at 10:16 am

While corporations and advocacy groups often appear to be on opposing sides, advocates are keen to build relationships with businesses to achieve change. Ellie Cooper investigates.

Founder and President of Palm Oil Investigations, Lorinda Jane, started her grassroots organisation by accident three years ago when her Facebook post linking a burnt orangutan to Australian food products went viral.

Within a few days she had 15,000 followers and now has more than 180,000.

Her organisation seeks to educate on the impacts of the unregulated production of palm oil, which is used in food products.  It also opposes deforestation in the quest for palm oil.

Despite the power her community following commands, Jane said relationships with brands were “extremely important”.

“It keeps us informed as to how they’re moving with their supply [of palm oil]… so we know when they’ve shifted, we know whether they’re going forwards and we know whether they’re going backwards,” Jane said.

“And if they do get in touch with us and they do comply and they do take our advice in regard to what they need to do, we will 100 per cent get behind that brand and support them through that journey. If they avoid us, they pretty much become a target.

“As much as we give them a bit of a beating, we have a very good relationship with the majority of brands.

“They hate us when we target them, but they’re extremely forthcoming. They comply with what we request of them.”

While Palm Oil Investigations does not advocate for boycotting palm oil, it does campaign for all oils to be clearly listed on food products and encourages brands to switch to a sustainable supply.

To achieve this, Jane said that she needs to gain the trust of businesses.

“I think that is a very, very important step to regulating supply. We’re dealing with the end product, not many people are dealing with the end product,” she said

“It’s really important to build a strong relationship and a trust between a group like ourselves and the brand, there’s got to be that trust there so that they’ll listen to you.

“There’s no point going in with a big stick, they’re just going to avoid your calls, but if you can build that strong relationship then you’ve got a better chance of getting those brands to do the right thing, hear what you’re saying and follow what you’re asking them to do.”

CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), Kelly O’Shanassy, also said that working with businesses was an important aspect of championing ecological sustainability.

“There’s lots of different theories of change across environmental organisations and other NGOs about how you create the change, and some don’t work at all with business and seek to identify the problems of business,” O’Shanassy said.

“And then there’s some that understand that you need to work with the leading businesses within sectors in order to create change in the whole sector.

“To be honest you probably need all of those approaches to create the change in the first place.

“We have a bit of a theory that you want to work really productively with the companies that are committed to delivering the changes that we need to see.”

As many corporations work to improve some of their environmental practices at the same time as continuing to cause damage, this complicates the relationship for advocacy organisations.

O’Shanassy said the ACF must support the positive changes a company makes, while continuing to place pressure on them.   

“For example, AGL is Australia’s biggest polluting company, but also one of Australia’s biggest renewable energy companies. Their new CEO is publically committed to shutting down their coal plants and transitioning to 100 per cent clean energy,” she said.

“So what we do is recognise their levels of pollution and that they need to change that, but also work with them to make that change happen.

“We just released a report on Australia’s 10 biggest polluters and AGL topped the list, but we’re also hoping to work with AGL on a leadership forum about the energy transformation that’s needed in this country to get business leaders to speak out positively for the changes that are needed.

“Without that business voice, with just the community voice, you really are missing a pretty significant voice to get the changes we want.”  

Lorinda Jane said that many brands have changed their behaviour because of Palm Oil Investigations campaigning.

“We have had Arnott’s shift their supply a lot earlier than what was expected. We put a lot of pressure on them,” she said.

“Lindt have shifted to fully segregated supply. We placed a lot of pressure on them as well.

“There’s been a lot of smaller brands that have ensured that their palm oil is fully certified – Ecostore would be one, they’re a New Zealand brand.

“We recently were contacted by Snack Brands Australia, they’ve shifted now to fully segregated supply.

“When a brand does shift we’re really the first ones they ring to let us know they have made that shift.”

Like O’Shanassy, Jane said that working with corporations can become complex. She works closely with some of Australia’s major supermarkets, but as their actions fluctuate so does the nature of their relationship.

“We had quite a lengthy meeting with Coles probably a couple of months into us starting… currently we’re not really happy with they way that they’re doing things, we’re starting to put on a bit of pressure there,” she said.

“Woolworths contacted us to include us as one of their stakeholders in regards to their palm oil supply, but they’ve gotten really slack and have dropped off in letting us know where they’re at, so we’ve stepped up the pressure with Woolworths as well.

“We have a very good relationship with Aldi and we know exactly where their certification is tipping at so they’re now getting our full support to continue their journey.

“They’re labelling the certification status on their products and that’s where there’s a lot of problems with Coles and Woolworths. They’re labelling the palm oil but they’re not correctly labelling the certification status.”

Jane said that, along with campaigning, an important part of her organisation’s work is to educate brands about palm oil, and she encouraged them to get in contact.

She said that, while many companies want to do the right thing, there are many pitfalls of the sustainable palm oil certification process.

“What they can do is contact us and let us know what supply they’re using, and not to be frightened to do that and we can check whether it’s certified,” she said.

“The problem with the RSPO [Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil] certification process is there’s a lot of gaps and holes in that process, so many of the brands, especially the smaller manufacturers, may think they’re doing the right thing and they think they’re using the certified supply but when you actually track back to the source and understand the supply chains that’s not quite the case.

“We do encourage the brands to contact us, and we will help them with their supply and check whether its certified, check the source, check where it’s coming from, and if it’s not ethical or certified we can point them in the right direction and help them on that journey.”

O’Shanassy said that her advice to corporations would be to avoid greenwashing.

“Communities are pretty smart and they know when they’re being greenwashed too, they know when a business is saying one thing and doing another,” she said.

“My advice would be to never, ever do that because you cannot outsmart communities, they will hold you to account for the impact that you have.”

Instead, she said that corporates should take a shared value approach, and link environmental and social objectives to the core business purpose.

“What businesses need to do is make sure their sustainability plan and their business plan are exactly the same thing, so they’re not saying one thing on sustainability and doing another thing to make money,” she said.

“So many people would have, for example, received from their bank ‘do the right thing by the environment and sign up for paperless statements’, yet that same bank might invest in forest logging.

“I don’t really care if an energy company changes its lightbulbs to be energy efficient, I care where the energy company gets its energy from.

“They can actually make a profit by doing the right thing by the community and doing the right thing by the environment.

“It’s completely possible to solve climate change and have energy companies flourish and return a profit to their shareholders, but they have to be willing to do it.”  

Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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