Corporate Social Responsibility Under Fire
In 1913, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt set off on an expedition to explore an uncharted river in the most remote part of the Amazonian rainforest. The focus of the expedition was a river then called the River of Doubt (now called the Roosevelt River). Colonel Rondon, after whom the state of Rondonia is named, had recently discovered the headwaters of the river. He was eager to explore it with Roosevelt.
The expedition got off to a bad start. The party quickly discovered that they were ill-equipped for the journey. But the expedition also enjoyed good luck. They lived to tell the story of survival.
A century after the expedition, a number of companies find themselves navigating unchartered waters of a different kind. Under pressure from consumers, board members and other stakeholders, several global corporations are making commitments to deforestation-free supply chains. The road is filled with smoke and mirrors. Some companies are trying to do the right thing, while others are cloaking their misdeeds with greenwashing and blatant lies.
In Roosevelt’s era, tropical forests were the focus of exploration and discovery. Governments and museums sponsored expeditions to inventory their riches, both economic and biological. Having spent the last century exploiting those riches, we’re now focused on protecting the tropical forests that are still standing. Even now, new species are discovered regularly, so the collections assembled through expeditions such as Roosevelt’s are still not complete. A recent front-page story in the Washington Post describes caves used by prehistoric peoples in Brazil that remain unexplored.
Just about every week, a new scholarly article is published telling us that tropical forest ecosystems are even more important for human wellbeing than we had previously thought.
- A CIFOR study published last year documents that households in and around forests derive on average more than a fifth of their incomes from wild forest products.
- A recent paper shows that deforestation in Indonesia is associated with increasing incidence of malaria.
- A new meta-analysis shows how deforestation can affect rainfall at continental scales.
- And not least, the most recent analysis indicates that if we stopped deforestation, and allowed damaged forests to grow back, it could mitigate some 24-30 percent of current global climate emissions.
So even as our ability to track the loss of forests gets better and better, our appreciation of their value to local communities, to national economies, and to global climate stability continues to grow.
Theodore Roosevelt was a champion of conservation in his day, and his Amazon expedition contributed to knowledge about tropical forests in an era when many of their values were still unknown. What we know today makes stopping deforestation – the objective of the contemporary journey toward deforestation-free supply chains – a moral imperative for our generation.
An interesting similarity between the River of Doubt expedition and the effort to get deforestation out of supply chains has to do with overcoming doubt. The River of Doubt was so-named because it was questionable whether or not it really was a tributary of the Amazon. But the name “Doubt” had at least two other more figurative applications in the context of the River of Doubt expedition.
The first had to do with Roosevelt’s state of mind. Teddy Roosevelt was a widely admired, larger-than-life man who had served two terms as President of the United States. But in 1913, he was demoralized and depressed by his loss to Woodrow Wilson in the presidential election of 1912. I don’t think you have to range too far into pop psychology to imagine that he might have felt that after his humiliating defeat, he had something to prove. And maybe this feeling contributed to his eagerness to join the River of Doubt expedition.
It might not be too much of stretch to suggest that many of the corporate leaders who now champion forest conservation have had their moments of being demoralized and depressed too — when they’ve been demonized for their association with tropical deforestation. No one wants to be vilified in videos that go viral, linking your brand to images of scorched earth and orphaned baby orangutans. So maybe a willingness to sign up to ambitious commitments is in part about proving who you are and what you stand for amidst doubt, which can be a powerful motivation.
The second figurative application of the word “doubt” is connected to what happened to Roosevelt when he returned from New York, half-dead from his exertions, only to face people who doubted that he had actually completed the expedition as he had claimed. I can’t help but see a similarity to challenges of transparency, traceability, and verification that the corporate community is now facing to prove that their commitments to stopping deforestation are actually being implemented. Teddy Roosevelt would feel their pain. Even his legacy required a third-party audit in the form of second expedition to prove what he’d accomplished.
Corporate officials should harness the energy that comes from having something to prove, and not be irritated when society requires proof of success.
Many companies have been similarly courageous in making commitments to deforestation-free supply chains without having a clear map. And with that comes uncertainty about whether the capacities of their organizations, their suppliers, and their support systems would be up to the task.
But once supply chain commitments are made, there’s no turning back. Activist NGOs and the media are doing a good job of alerting investors, buyers, and ultimate consumers to the linkages between commodities and deforestation. Society’s norms have changed, and there’s really no alternative but to meet their rising expectations. Greenwashing is not a leadership strategy and savvy consumers are cutting through the smoke and mirrors associated with offsets and green certificates.
For example, McDonald’s recently announced its commitment to eliminating deforestation throughout its supply chain. McDonald’s notes that, “this commitment does not imply full traceability, but focuses on visibility to the raw material origin, in other words, knowing where and how our raw materials are sourced. We will work with suppliers and expert advisors to determine the appropriate level of visibility and traceability needed for each product to ensure responsible production at origin.”
By avoiding the issue of “full traceability,” McDonalds is blowing smoke. Plus, it must define its commitment to endangered species, which is lacking in most deforestation commitments. A simple attestation statement from suppliers is not true multi-tier supplier or third-party management. This statement also fails to address the issue of endangered species and wildlife extinction.
Attention also has been given to respecting the rights of indigenous communities. For example, by ensuring that Free, Prior, and Informed Consent is obtained in advance of agricultural development on their territories.
Companies are risking their reputations through these commitments. NGOs are endorsing some of these corporate commitments, which puts their reputations on the line. Further fraud and destruction threatens the futures of all stakeholders, including endangered species, communities and cultures. We’re all counting on corporate social responsibility now more than ever.
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