Reuters reported that Unilever is considering buying Palm Oil from Greenpeace target Sinar Mas again. Not surprisingly, Greenpeace is asking Unilever to not go down this road as they just plain don’t trust Sinar Mas. A bit of background – Greenpeace accuses Sinar Mas (and their subsidiaries) of cutting down rainforests to plant more Palm Oil to keep up with the unstoppable appetite of large food companies (and others) – themselves trying to supply us consumers with those goods we perceive ‘we just cannot do without’. The fight between Greenpeace and Sinar Mas is interesting but three CSR and Sustainability issues stand out for me – apart from deforestation.
Firstly, why would Unilever even consider this? The Greenpeace targeting of Sinar Mas will not go away no matter what the independent auditors find. Independent audits have serious flaws (limited access, resources, links with local groups etc) that will make it easy for Greenpeace to shoot it down no matter what happens. Do Unilever really need Sinar Mas this badly that they are willing to take the brunt of a Greenpeace attack? Especially because Unilever said they might buy from Sinar Mas even if they don’t pass the audit – as long as Sinar Mas promises to clean up their act. Unilever is really playing a dangerous game with Greenpeace here. Greenpeace have highlighted the leadership role of Unilever in their campaign and all that goodwill will be flushed down the drain the minute they start buying from Sinar Mas again. I find it an odd decision and would love to know about the business pressures that made them decide this as that might help me understand the point of conflict between sustainability and business reality in this case. Whatever the case, I think the Unilever reputation will take a serious knock if they start buying from Sinar Mas again – no matter what the auditors have to say.
Secondly, and more in defense of Unilever, should responsible companies not put pressure on their suppliers to become more sustainable? Is Unilever not doing the right thing here? Instead of walking away completely, Unilever is using their influence over suppliers to force them to become more sustainable. That is what we ask companies to do – influence suppliers. The clothing, textile and footwear industry (and leaders such as Nike, Timberland and Levi’s) have used their influence to drive change in manufacturers. It’s not perfect but we can at least agree that it is so much better than the working conditions and human rights issues back in the 80s and 90s. Instead of attacking Unilever should Greenpeace (and other activists) not acknowledge that Unilever is trying to use their size for good?
Thirdly, why aren’t they talking to each other? Why isn’t Greenpeace more involved in the audit? Should Greenpeace not work with Unilever to define what that sustainability look like? It would be a breath of fresh air if Unilever and Greenpeace engaged before the Unilever decision to define what the audit should look like, where and what they should investigate and agree on a set of principles – including the independent role of Greenpeace. Instead of doing real stakeholder engagement on this Unilever and Sinar Mas had discussions and agreed on the principles and the auditors – leaving out key stakeholders in the process.
This just seems so unnecessary. Unilever is a good company doing some excellent work in sustainability – a good business with a good impact on development. And they’ve done some innovative work in stakeholder engagement with Oxfam and others. Greenpeace knows that and have said as much in the past. These two don’t need to fight. There are bigger fish to fry. It’s just such a missed opportunity.
(On a completely separate note. I wonder how the Unilever drive for Allanblackia is coming along. They had some high hopes for this tree as they claimed it was more environmentally friendly than Palm Oil and could be of even better use in soaps and spreads. Unilever has done some interesting work trying to make Allanblackia more economically viable. I just hope it doesn’t turn into another Palm Oil nightmare for this world. Early reports indicated that Allanblackia might be one key answer in getting us off our Palm Oil addiction but we’re still waiting.)