Tensie Whelan reflects on 25 years at the vanguard of environmentalism as she urges a big shift in thinking that isn’t happening fast enough – particularly within governments.
Twenty-five years as a long time to be at the forefront of any movement. But battling the challenges associated with driving sustainability along supply chains, through boardrooms and into consumerism can take its toll. Just ask Tensie Whelan.
As president of the Rainforest Alliance, the global non-profit working hard to conserve biodiversity and promote sustainable best practice in agriculture, she bemoans the constant “fighting for pennies” her organization needs to catalyse business, governments, consumers and producers doing the right thing is “wearing”. It’s a “typical non-profit response” she admits, “but there’s so much money being spent on doing the wrong things”.
But the work of the Rainforest Alliance is crucial. It understands the health of landscapes like few others and works with farmers, foresters and tourism businesses to help conserve natural resources, ensuring the long-term economic health of communities.
You might have seen the organization’s logo on products in your supermarket. Well, in order for a farm or forestry organization to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification, or for a tourism business to be verified, it has to meet rigorous standards.
It then helps to link these certified farms and forests to the emerging market of conscientious consumers using it’s famous green frog seal of approval.
I caught up with Tensie on Skype from her base in the US to better understand the organization’s successes, frustrations and ongoing challenges as it strives to improve the livelihoods of those that most need help the world over.
You’ve been involved in the environmental movement, in one way, shape or form for many years now. How do you feel about where we stand today with so many pressures, economically, socially, environmentally? What sort of progress is being made?
The progress over the last 10 years has been exponential, when you consider what went before.
But it’s also not fast enough. We have seen a paradigm shift in a significant number of businesses, but we’re not seeing that shift in the government sector.
And, according to our data, we’re also seeing a shift of values of citizens and consumers in many countries. But that is not necessarily translating into action.
Today, up to 14% of the world’s cocoa and tea supply is now under sustainable management. That’s a tipping point, right? That is significant. But, there’s still 86% to go. So, we are no longer niche but we are nowhere near there yet.
You mention that we haven’t seen governments keep pace with the shift made by business. Does that matter? Do we need governments to lead the shift?
We have managed to go around government because we have found it so impossible – and there’s a lot you can do without them.
But if we want a step change, you need governments to create a level playing field, with good regulation that is enforced and positive incentives for sustainable production and consumption. But governments are not only neutral but are actually providing incentives and support for non-sustainable production. And they are not enforcing regulation – regulation that does not exist for the most part.
We can continue to have incremental change. But we are not going to have the step change we want without government support.
And how has the Rainforest Alliance’s approach to protecting biodiversity and creating sustainable livelihoods changed over the years? What have you been doing differently these last few years?
Largely, our work is about redesigning outmoded land-use practices. People have ways of growing bananas, for example, that were first designed 200 years ago for a world that no longer exists.
But as we are learning to redesign – looking at the economic, environment and social aspects – what also asking, what’s missing? What’s holding people back?
For example, in the agricultural sector, the huge barrier and something having a big impact on people and the environment is the fact that many small farmers in the developing world have no financial literacy. They are operating at a loss – and even if you help them to generate better yields, give them better market access and improve environmental conservation, they struggle to access the financial support that will allow them to invest well.
So we are currently looking at how we can help them – particularly women who are the active investors in the family – to get those financial literacy tools to access credit.
Similarly, you can improve water quality and reduce water use by changing farming practices. But at some point you need some technologies which are not readily available to these farmers.
We also want to support the pre-competitive engagement across sectors and within landscapes to get achieve more of that step change without government involvement.
And how is that cross-sector collaboration going? It’s a tough nut to crack.
It is getting increasingly easier these last five years because companies recognise that they can’t do it on your own.
Plus, there is a real disadvantage for a company making loads of sustainability investments versus those that are not. So, it’s in their interests to get people engaged.
Within sectors, it is beginning to happen. When you get people working together in an industry-based coalition, you often go towards lowest common denominator because you are negotiating among people at different levels. Although we do support that approach, it can lead to the creation of a less robust program and companies stay there.
But across sectors, we are interested in developing a net positive impact. I have just created a CEO forum from across sectors to think about what a 10-year plan might look like within a particular community, thinking about deforestation impacts, water quality and society; how can we engage local governments to get the right funding and how does the supply chain support that.
One of the toughest challenges in driving change along the value chain is that growing gap between the leading businesses and the laggards. For every Kingfisher, there are 100,000s of businesses that just don’t get it.
Yes, that’s right. The biggest opportunity and challenge is to get the emerging country leaders engaged. We are beginning to see that happen in China, Brazil and India. But it is something that needs to be addressed.
And a lot of your work requires an emerging enlightened consumer base to grow quickly. Are we starting to see that happen? Do consumers really care and environmental issues?
Yes and no. If you look at the data, it says people are thinking about it – and that data is consistent across countries, not just in the developed world. So, there is a value shift in consumers – from mindless to mindful consumerism. People are interested less in luxury and exclusiveness and more in authenticity, values and purpose-driven brands.
But they don’t call it environmentalism or sustainability. Climate change is not at the top of their priorities. But they are really caring more and more about wellbeing, community and the planet.
They want to do the right thing when it’s made easy for them. We call them the ‘Vocal Globalists’ – the 35% of the people out there, beyond the 10% true greens, that we need to reach out to, but not in the traditional activist way.
What about the role of the media play in trying to initiative this consumer shift? You were once a journalist. Does the media have a role to merely reflect the reality of what’s going on out there, or does it need to do more to make a difference?
As a recovering journalist, I have always felt annoyed by the media’s focus on being ostensibly neutral when in fact there’s no such thing.
There is a focus on constantly trying to find controversy to elevate a story. When I talk to the traditional media, they say don’t talk about the great positive stuff, tell me about the bad stuff. But people are sick of bad stuff; they turn off and it’s overwhelming. It’s an abdication of responsibility by the media; they need to find ways of making the positive stuff interesting.
There needs to be clarity between advocacy and reporting, but media can do a much better job in creating more accessible and useful information for people about what is happening out there.
Wow, you just pushed my button!
You’ve been with the Rainforest Alliance since 1990. What are you most proud of in that time?
The real transformation that I see in industry – from the illiterate cocoa farmer in West Africa with one hectare of land who is now showing me how he is protecting water and wildlife and increasing his yields. He’s incredibly proud of that.
Then there’s the trader in the middle, the commodity broker, who previously saw this as purely a transaction but is now engaged and supporting those farmers and feeling proud about it.
Then there’s the CEO of a company who has instigated this work and who has been out to the field. Previously, when the cocoa arrived in the factory, all they cared about was the quality and the price. Now he or she thinks about the farmers, is proud of what they are doing and talks about it to their family.
That kind of shift in peoples’ thinking is incredibly inspiring and I feel humbled and proud to be part of that transformation.
For more on the work of the Rainforest Alliance, check out the website.