Talk with the World Wildlife Fund
Presumably, the WWF's global brand recognition has something to do with the more than $1bn it has invested in 12,000 conservation projects since 1985.
Its noble causes include "saving endangered species, conserving the world's most precious natural places, and reducing our impact on the planet".
In a touchy-feely world consumers increasingly expect retailers and suppliers to occupy the moral high ground. Therefore, it doesn't surprise that many of them have partnered with the WWF in order to improve their corporate social image.
So all things bright and beautiful for trade creatures great and small?
Cuddly panda with sharp teeth
In summer 2011, Rewe collected funds for the WWF via a very successful animal sticker promotion and information campaign.
But later the same year, the NGO alleged that Aldi, Lidl, and others were not doing enough to promote the sustainable production of palm oil.
So how important is a thumbs up or down from the WWF, really? Is its approbation an absolute good?
Some activists worry that the WWF has become too entwined with the interests of big business sponsors; others claim that specific project work is counterproductive. Thankfully, Jim Leape chose not to dodge the bullets.
"We are quite vocal in the media"
Five or ten years ago, there was a lot of talk about corporate social responsibility (CSR), but it was almost in a philanthropic mode. Leading companies are now increasingly recognising that sustainability represents a core business interest.
They are turning to us because they have also realised that they should not only be looking at sustainability within their own operations, but also across the whole value chain from farmers and fishermen to factories and consumers.
What does that mean, for instance, for a major co-operation partner like Unilever?
When Unilever looks at its ecological footprint, they realise that some of this comes from within their operations. But for many product lines the heaviest part of their footprint may well be where sugar or palm oil is grown, or when consumers use detergent in a washing machine.
Isn’t there a danger that the WWF is being used by some companies as a fig leaf for 'green washing'?
We are focussed on making sure that this doesn’t happen in our partnerships. Firstly, we only engage with companies who are serious about sustainability and who are looking to lead on this issue in their sector.
We vet them as carefully as possible in advance and conduct a lot of due diligence so that we are confident of their genuine commitment.
Secondly, we build our partnerships around concrete and measurable goals which we believe will drive change within the sector. We also audit the co-operation carefully and use external valuations to measure progress.
WWF has partnered with Edeka since 2009 and deepened the relationship to include a broad range of sustainability goals since mid-2012. How do you see your role? Is the WWF a mere consultant whose advice can be ignored at will? And would you argue with Edeka publicly, if you disagreed on a fundamental issue?
Our contract with Edeka, as with other partners, is quite specific in that, if we disagree, we may do so — if necessary, publicly.
In the unlikely event that Edeka did something which was inacceptable, our first step, of course, would be to engage them directly in order to fix the problem. In a worst case scenario where a dispute couldn’t be resolved, we are completely free to speak to the media, or other parties, and to say what we think.
It is vitally important for us to be very clear about such independence, otherwise our partnerships would lack credibility.
Have you ever really dared to blow the whistle on a partner?
Yes. A few years ago, at the beginning of WWF’s partnership with Lafarge, the world’s largest cement company, we disagreed about a proposed 'super quarry' in Scotland. Obviously, we went to them first, but later we were quite vocal in the media about our concerns.
Rewe’s successful animal sticker promotion in 2011 generated funds for WWF. It also grew Rewe’s average spend, customer frequency, and revenues. This more than recouped company costs while giving Rewe the intangible benefit of a greener image. Are you happy with the quid pro quo? Wasn’t the advantage more on Rewe’s side than your own?
We got intangible benefits from it as well! This promotion was very popular and generated a lot of interest. Don’t forget that this was a great way to reach people and to raise awareness about nature and interest in conservation.
Reaching kids in stores with their parents is actually a great opportunity to bring such issues to the fore. We know that, when children get interested, it not only affects how they grow up, but it also creates awareness in the whole family.
This campaign was a great opportunity to reach a whole bunch of people via a new channel and to spark interest in wildlife and nature.
In autumn 2011, the WWF named and shamed Lidl, Aldi, and others for allegedly not doing enough to promote sustainably produced palm oil. Where do these companies now stand on your list?
This is a question I shall be more than happy to answer at the end of this year! We issue the palm oil sustainability score card every two years, so we’ll be able to see if they have reacted when the new one comes out.
Our hope, of course, is that these scorecards prompt action by companies, and that’s certainly been our experience in many cases. A lot of CEOs in the business have told me, off the record, that our score cards spur them into action, so they obviously make a real difference.
You also run energy saving projects etc. with Spar Austria and Migros. These were best-in-class retailers anyway as regards ecology etc. Is there a danger that you will only appeal to the enlightened and not to the wide boys in the trade?
I don’t think there’s a straight yes or no answer to this question. Collaboration can certainly drive sustainability within a sector. Leading companies can play a critical role in raising the bar and opening the stage for others to come in from the whole industry.
This doesn’t seem to be believed by everyone. In December, for instance, there were reports of protest at the German head-office of Unilever regarding the alleged conditions under which palm oil is grown for its “Rama” margarine brand. Have local people been driven from sustainable palm oil plantations?
Since this was a demonstration at Unilever, it might be better to talk to that company about this particular case.
But you work very closely with Unilever on this project. What is your take on the matter as their international co-operation partner?
We, of course, don’t grow palm oil, so let me explain what our role actually is. We helped start the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004 in partnership with many others, including the Malaysian Palm Oil Association and Unilever.
We did so because we believe that bringing together all stakeholders in order to forge agreement on sustainability standards and their achievement is the only effective way to move the sector forward and to change practice.
Today, the round table has more than a thousand members across the whole supply chain, including growers, producers, processors, and buyers from all over the world.
The RSPO is by definition a multi-stakeholder set-up, so no single entity is in control, and certainly not us. Naturally, then, we can’t control everything that happens there.
Some critics say that your RSPO certificate is a 'toothless tiger', and that supply continues to exceed demand. Hasn’t the WWF got a low score card?
RSPO has gotten off to an important start. It has established the basis for certification, for shifting the practice of growers, and for creating a market that rewards growers who do the right thing.
Thus, RSPO has begun the process of moving the sector towards sustainability, and it is already beginning to reduce the pressure on the rainforests of Borneo.
In many ways, however, it is still a work in progress, and I would not claim that everything has been worked out. We recognise that RSPO still has issues to address. Therefore, we engage continuously with other stakeholders in reviewing the principles and criteria for RSPO certification.
For instance, we are looking at stronger requirements for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as new standards for human rights and anti-corruption. We are also working on improving the accountability of the certification process to ensure that standards are implemented.
In June 2011, German TV channel ARD aired a documentary claiming that the WWF works with corporations such as Monsanto and that you provide sustainability certification in exchange for donations. Isn’t this greenwashing a company involved with genetically-modified food?
I would be very surprised if Monsanto had a greenwashing benefit from us because we don’t have a cooperation with them and they don’t contribute donations.
Many of the allegations in the ARD programme, I should note, were just plain wrong. The WWF does not provide sustainability certification to any business for any product. What we have done is bring all the interests together around an issue to pursue sustainability and social justice.
Certification against a standard can be part of such a process — and here we are always concerned that the standards continually improve and that all the processes are public, independent and audited.
Prince Charles, the President of the WWF in the UK, is said to be a keen hunter. Why do you tolerate that nobles and other wealthy supporters of WWF continue to hunt?
You underestimate the huge pluses they bring. Figures like Prince Philip and Prince Charles in the UK, as well as royalty in other countries, have actually been quite important in drawing public attention to the cause of conservation and in creating support.
They have also made substantial contributions to conservation in their own right; think, for instance, of Prince Charles’s internationally acclaimed conservation work in the Duchy of Cornwall.
You should also remember that we have never claimed to be an anti-hunting organisation. In fact, we were founded by conservation-minded hunters. What is important to us, however, is that hunting is sustainable and consistent with helping wildlife populations.
Given neo-colonial sensitivities, are you quite sure that an organisation like the WWF is projecting the right image when your wealthier supporters shoot game on nature reserves?
Firstly, it is critically important that where sustainable hunting is allowed it accrues to the benefit of local communities. We have worked very hard in several parts of the world to ensure that this is the case.
Secondly, all of us here strongly believe that people in leadership positions at WWF should not be hunting endangered animals such as elephants.
Would that view be shared by King Juan Carlos I of Spain?
When the incident occurred to which you seem to be referring, the WWF in Spain changed its by-laws to end his honorary presidency in July 2012.
What would you say to those cynics who believe that human greed will inevitably thrust Planet Earth past the tipping point, whatever the WWF and similar NGOs do?
If you look at the trends on graphs which chart the pressure we are putting on the planet, you will see a series of what are often called 'hockey sticks'.
Whether one looks at CO² emissions, the rate of deforestation, or fishing, you have a long period of low levels and then suddenly they’ve all gone through the roof over the last 50 years.
That’s a pretty daunting prospect! It tells you that the human race is really up against it, and that we really risk pushing the earth past a number of critical tipping points. But we can also see it as a challenge where we must create some good hockey-sticks of our own.
So where are the solutions?
We must start with projects which can really take off and go exponential in a positive way. One of these is working with leading companies to improve their sustainability and carbon footprint. It takes just a few industry leaders to really shift things and their initiatives can catch fire in whole sectors and beyond.
I believe that it is part of our overall mission at the WWF to find such possibilities. We must ask ourselves every day: What can we set in motion which will catalyse an exponential shift and ultimately help create a future where people live in harmony with nature?