23 Aug 18 | Opinion
There is nothing quite like the pressure of time to focus the mind. And that has been the strategy of choice for companies as they get to grips with the negative social and environmental impacts happening along their supply chains – and not least around deforestation. Many companies have made commitments with deadlines to reduce or eliminate the forest impacts linked to the agricultural commodities that underpin their businesses.
But the recent announcement that the world’s 12 biggest chocolate and cocoa companies have united to jointly eradicate deforestation in the cocoa supply chain was notable for the absence of any given timeframe. Yes, the collaboration has devised a framework to stick to, as well as an investment plan, but there is no deadline to achieving the ultimate ambition.
The problem with deadlines, of course, is that the clock keeps ticking.
A new report by Supply Change, a Forest Trends Initiative, tracks more than 400 companies that have made around 760 commitments to stop deforestation in the supply chains of palm oil, soy, timber and pulp, and cattle.
Many of these promises and goals have a set deadline of 2020, which is challenging given the complexities involved in reformulating entire systems. Moreover, as the Supply Change data suggests, relative newcomers are looking to achieve by the end of the decade what the early pioneers have taken many years to do.
This is a situation that raises a lot of questions. Are companies biting off more than they can chew? Or are they merely cutting corners to meet their goals?
The ground does appear to be shifting. Around a third of deforestation pledges that have been made in the last two years have no target date at all. But that is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Scott Poynton, founder of TFT.
He argues that, on the one hand, deadlines can be good at driving action because “you’ve put a hard stake in the ground”. This opens the way to verification, where NGOs, for example, can check and report on progress, as can companies themselves.
Action is necessary
But, on the other hand, Poynton argues, “Companies can set a deadline without fully understanding the necessary action required to achieve it. They jump in meaningfully and honestly but then hit a brick wall. Then, NGOs who want fast action attack the company for greenwashing or for not being serious enough.”
In other words, by making commitments with deadlines, companies put themselves at risk of campaigner attack if they can’t meet the deadline. So, Poynton says, what tends to happen is that companies assume that they don't really know how long it will take and so set deadlines that are way off. This gives them wriggle room. “The trouble is, with wriggle room, action gets delayed.”
Deforestation commitments for 2020, or even 2025, are in danger of becoming meaningless unless companies improve levels of transparency and disclosure. Again, the Supply Change study found one in five deforestation commitments have a target date that is past due – or never had a target date at all – and has never had progress information available. Meanwhile, a third of the 447 companies with commitments have at least one commitment that is dormant.
Providing information about the commitments – along with the public disclosure of progress towards meeting them – will “ensure the goals don’t fall into neglect, especially as many deforestation commitments approach their target deadlines”, according to Supply Change’s Stephen Donofrio.
For Poynton, it is much more realistic for companies to focus on actual changes in behaviour, and acknowledge that they might take some time to implement. “The key is to make a strong commitment that can be verified,” he adds. “Make it clear and then acknowledge that while you’re going to jump in fully and immediately, you don’t know and will not know until you engage, what the complexities are.”
The most important thing is an undertaking to be transparent, and for regular and open reporting on progress, Poynton stresses. “If companies report fully and frequently then all their stakeholders can see that, even though they’ve not set any deadline, they’re working desperately seriously to meet their commitments.”