We asked Paul Polman – chief executive of Unilever, a company that we have collaborated with for many years – to help us kick off 2013 with his thoughts about the Rainforest Alliance, our joint collaboration and the future of sustainable business.
Over the past quarter of a century the Rainforest Alliance has not only pioneered a vision of a more sustainable future, but also developed the practical mechanisms to help deliver it.
By providing farm, tourism and forestry enterprises with the financial incentives to manage their land sustainably, they have protected precious ecosystems, enhanced livelihoods and transformed the way crops are grown.
Most importantly perhaps, through its certification program, the Rainforest Alliance has brought sustainability to the mainstream consumer. Today, the ‘little green frog’ is widely recognized as a mark of ethical, responsible sourcing — providing people with the opportunity to consume differently — and to consciously engage in the creation of a better, more equitable future for all.
The Rainforest Alliance has demonstrated what can be achieved when you work in partnership — when you reconcile the needs of communities with those of habitats and champion solutions that recognize the interdependence of environmental, social and economic stability.
As was noted in their 25th anniversary report “Protecting Our Planet,” today 15 percent of the global banana trade, 9.4 percent of the world’s tea and 3.3 percent of the global coffee trade originate from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms.
These are remarkable achievements for which the organization should be very warmly congratulated. As the CEO of Unilever — which has worked with the Rainforest Alliance since 2007 — I would also like to personally thank the Rainforest Alliance for the part they have played in our journey to source all of our agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020, an area where we are making excellent progress.
And yet, while we can all be rightly proud of some of the achievements of the past quarter of a century, it is increasingly clear that time is not on our side. We simply do not have another 25 years to secure the Earth’s future.
Despite excellent work from the Rainforest Alliance and others, certified goods remain in the minority. The vast majority of commodities are still produced without any guarantee of their sustainability.
While the Rainforest Alliance’s work to demonstrate the interdependence of people and their environment has provided a glimpse of how humans can live in harmony with the planet, we are still a long way from achieving this vision of sustainable living.
And as populations grow, as people around the world aspire to a better quality of life, as farmland becomes more degraded and the effects of climate change more pronounced, so issues of food security, water scarcity and poverty will come into much sharper focus.
We must now build on our successes. We must use the tremendous momentum that the sustainable agriculture movement has created to scale up solutions and challenge a status quo where over 850 million people go hungry each day.
We know that the challenges are real and stark — but also that success is possible through our continued and determined efforts.
The current system is broken. Indeed, to think otherwise would be an injustice. As the gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider, millions are left struggling to earn a living and fulfill their everyday health and hygiene needs.
In many areas, girls and women remain marginalized, children are denied an education, human potential is left unrealized by a global system that favors the few.
It seems that this age of humans — the Anthropocene, as it is being called — is in danger of imploding, of combusting under the weight of our ever-growing
population and our ever greater demands. That is why we must ask ourselves what can be done to redress the balance and to restore equilibrium. For solutions we must revisit the systems we have created to sustain ourselves; un-pick, from the tangle of our past, the tools that will take us forward.
As demonstrated by the 2008 financial crisis, the anger of the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street movement, contemporary capitalism has been found wanting. Morally and ethically defunct, it has created huge extremes of wealth, significant debt for both individuals and governments, the creation of financial instruments which have questionable social value, and the unsustainable use of scarce physical and natural resources.
We must harness the positive elements of capitalism — the energy, enterprise and creativity that has been directly responsible for lifting nearly half a billion people out of poverty, for revolutionizing health and medical care and for the creation of digital technologies which are transforming the lives of people everywhere — and use these to create a new world order that provides for both the needs of growing populations and the health of the planet.
At Unilever, the challenge of doing business more responsibly — of giving to society rather than taking from it — has resulted in the creation of a new business model, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.
Spanning our entire portfolio of products and all the countries in which we operate, the Sustainable Living Plan sets out detailed actions to grow our brands, reduce costs, support our customers and open up new markets in a sustainable way.
Central to this vision is our commitment to take responsibility for our impact across our whole value chain — from the way we source our raw materials to our production methods and the way consumers use and dispose of our products. This is why our partnership with the Rainforest Alliance means so much to us.
We hope that by decoupling growth from environmental impact we will enable more people to benefit from the health, nutritional and hygiene benefits of our products without negatively impacting the planet.
We also believe that by expanding our sourcing and distribution networks to engage more smallholder farmers and small-scale distributors, we will be able to support equitable development and build economic resilience in under-served communities.
And yet, despite our efforts to improve yields and incomes through Rainforest Alliance certification we know we still have further to go to ensure that our interventions help to bring sustained change to the way people live their lives, feed their families and secure their futures.
You can read the second part of Paul Polman’s blog on Thursday, when he will discuss the role of women and government in sustainable agriculture, and the importance of setting challenging goals.