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Dilemma: encouraging continuous improvement or endorsement greenwash?

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CSR Asia
Rikke Netterstrom
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A few weeks ago, WWF was attacked by the international NGO Global Witness in a widely publicised report Pandering to the loggers. It is a case which raises some important dilemmas about the choice that NGOs (and others) have to make between carrot and stick.

The story is relatively simple: In 2009, WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN) signed up a major timber producer from Sarawak – Ta Ann - as a member. WWF clearly saw this as a success, and probably the first positive step in engaging in a region often accused of being riddled with issues around illegal deforestation and losses of biodiversity. The news was widely published by WWF, on their Malaysia website, and as front-page news of the organisation’s Heart of Borneo newsletter.

However, Global Witness and a number of Borneo-based grassroots organisations are not convinced about the sincerity of Ta Ann, and see this engagement as a sell-out by the world’s largest conservation NGO. The press release from Global Witness states that “major Malaysian logging company Ta Ann Holdings Berhad, which is a paying member of the scheme, has forest operations destroying rainforest at the equivalent rate of 20 football pitches a day, including orang-utan habitat within the boundaries of WWF’s own ‘Heart of Borneo’ project.”  In addition, Global Witness states that “this investigation raises bigger questions about the underlying strategy and efficacy of such voluntary schemes. To protect the world’s remaining forests and avoid duping consumers, initiatives should focus on reducing overall demand rather than certify ever-expanding areas of forest being felled”.

The story has been covered by global media – and has been picked up by mainstream media and NGO sites alike. On the social networks, activists are raging – claiming that the GFTN membership fee is the modern-day equal to 30 pieces of silver. A more insightful comment, I think is “one cannot say that their association with criminals is only for non-criminal activities only”.

As a long-standing supporter of voluntary schemes such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, I find the questions raised very complex. Such voluntary schemes are often instrumental in bringing rogues to the table, and bring about change. WWF clearly felt that they had achieved a breakthrough in Sarawak, and it could be seen as a really brave move to take on one of the more insular industries in the region. Perhaps the communications could have been more measured – in the WWF Heart of Borneo newsletter, the heading “Responsible forestry comes to Sarawak” did seem to imply an endorsement.
For those of us involved in promoting good practice with companies, there is a fine line between endorsement of greenwash and support of companies in the early stages of improvement. Do we refuse to work with those who have done wrong in the past, or operate in areas industries of which we do not approve? Without solid partnerships and access to advice for such companies, this will clearly prevent the major changes that are needed to protect the planet.
When making this call, it might be worth applying the three “old” AccountAbility principles:
  • Materiality: Is the company willing to address the most pressing and relevant issues first?
  • Responsiveness: Is the company willing to engage and respond to critical voices?
  • Completeness: Is the company willing to work towards improving all their main activities, and not just cherry-pick a few easy wins?
Until such commitments are made, perhaps it is best to keep a low profile on public partnerships and endorsements. Organisations like WWF, which clearly operates in the “carrot business”, have to make sure that such treats are a reward for robust commitments, and not selective promises. There will always be watchdogs, such as Global Witness, whose job it is to threaten with a stick. They won’t go away, but upfront evidence of improvement will make the blows less damaging.


A note from the editor of ForestIndustries.EU:

You might be interested in reading our article on that issue as well: Global Witness against WWF: The struggle for power has broken out now


Extpub | by Dr. Radut