An Afternoon with Global Sustainability Icon, Sir Jonathon Porritt

We sat down with Jonathon Porritt, UK's leading environmental icon on 23 January 2018 to talk about sustainability in the world today. 

1) Could you tell us a little bit about what you do at Sime Darby?

For the last 6 or 7 years now, I have been the independent sustainability advisor to Sime Darby when it was a Group and now at Sime Darby Plantation. We essentially work with Sime Darby to cover quite a lot of broad sustainability agenda. Many people still don’t understand that sustainability is not the same as the environment. It is a much broader concept. It is about risk and opportunity, economics, socio economic concerns, human rights, labour conditions as well as about resources, environment, and climates. Our role covers quite a wide area, for instance this year, we are looking at labour rights, climate resilience, making plantations more resilient to the rapidly changing climate and how the governance of sustainability inside the new company will operate. My role is to work with Tan Sri Bakke and the senior managers to help embed sustainability across the company.

2) What were the challenges when you first started your journey in sustainability?

Plantation was already beginning to address sustainability issues; change in climate, water, the whole notion about how companies need to reflect the best practice such as human rights. It was not a fully developed sustainability agenda then, so it was our duty to tie all these things together and make it part of a wider integrated strategy. However, it really has to be owned by the people of the company for the strategies to work.
There’s a very comprehensive reporting system in the company now and it’s very thorough. The Sime Darby Sustainability Report is highly respected because of the level of detail they go into, and the performance reporting against the targets that have been set for the company.

3) Some people say that palm oil and sustainability is not going to work. What are your thoughts on that?

I find it very frustrating that this debate is so polarised. It’s obvious that the real difference we should be looking at is the difference between companies that are producing palm oil sustainably and companies that are not producing palm oil sustainably. There’s no good having a general attack on the palm oil industry as a whole because that doesn’t really help anybody. Palm oil is a critical raw material, critical ingredient in literally thousands of products around the world. It outperforms all the other competitor edible oils.

For me the real story is how do you make palm oil available to the world on a sustainable basis? And not should we stop using palm oil?
It will be the worst possible thing for land use if we stop using palm oil. There are a number of alternatives, canola, grape seed, sunflower oil, soybean oil. However, they are not going to give you sustainability benefits if you shift over to those alternatives.

None of the big palm oil companies today condone to deforestation, they are all committed to what is called no-deforestation and no exploitation. These companies are very much in the public eye, they are exposed to a lot of criticisms and have to deal with them on a daily basis. Our role is to remind people that there are consequences when you make choices, in society there are sustainability consequences, and that is what we are trying to sought out now.

4) Are the environmental groups convinced of your arguments?

I talk to them a lot about this and to be fair, they do recognize that palm oil is going to continue to be used in large volumes for many purposes in our society. Environmental organisations recognise that it is a really valuable raw material and they hope that the certification process under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) will provide more certified sustainable products for the western markets especially in America and Europe.

However, if you look at the total global market, only 20% of the total traded volume in palm oil is certified as sustainable. I would like to see that figure being pushed up so that consumers would have the reassurance in the use of that product, they’re not causing environmental damage or deforestation.

5) You’ve worn so many hats throughout your career, a politician, advisor to government and companies, an author, a speaker, which of these roles is the most challenging?

I’ve spent nine years as chair of the sustainable development commission in the UK between 2000 and 2009. That was undoubtedly the most challenging role I’ve ever had. Advising politicians and advising governments is really difficult. They are reluctant to take on board much of the advice, they are focused on short-term issues, they are always what you call firefighting, they are always doing something because it’s in the public eye. They are bad at focusing on long term challenges, in both environmental and social perspectives.

Although we have made some progress over that 9-year period, it was still very frustrating. You have to endlessly repeat things.

For instance, there is now a hugely robust evidence that people’s mental and physical health is improved if they can have access to nature. Over the last 30 years, one piece of scientific research after another has demonstrated that this is in fact true. We compiled a database and spent 4 years in the department of health suggesting that they needed to change some of their practices, in the National Health Service to reflect these elements. Sometimes, evidence alone is not enough, you have to find ways to get politicians to do the good things we need to do for the natural world, for the society, for the communities, etc. by reminding them that at the end of the day, they are only there because voters put them there.

I find it much harder advising politicians then I have advising companies, because in a way, companies can very quickly see what the data looks like. They can understand how it can impact their business.

6) What would you recommend to governments that it is possible to have that push towards prosperity for all as well as sustainability?

You have to start with the basics; energy, infrastructure and land. If you look at the building blocks of prosperity in any country, essentially you have to have an energy system that enables an economy to thrive, a strategy for infrastructure, housing, sewage, water quality and you need to have an approach to using land to be managed productively indefinitely into the future. In each of the three huge areas, it is perfectly possible to reconcile good economic development with sustainability.

We need to move away from our use of fossil fuels and we have to start doing two things. We need to use energy far more efficiently than we do at the moment and we have to use far more renewable energy than we do at the moment. As the use of fossil fuels decline, the use of renewable energy increases. Pretty much everywhere in the world now, this is really beginning to happen at scale. Not fast enough here in Malaysia and Indonesia in my opinion, I would to see a much more strategic commitment in using renewable energy. We have to stop thinking that people are going to stay poor for us to protect the environment. In fact, if we had a different energy system, that is efficient, everyone’s quality of life will improve while protecting the environment at the same time. So you are doing the two things at the same time.

What we are realising now is that in each of these different areas, there are ways of developing policy that are good for prosperity in the long run but protect the natural environment. We cannot continue writing off the environment as the price to pay for economic growth. That will just lead people to a complete and utter misery as the basic foundations of life collapse.

7) What are the moments that keep you motivated to continue to do this and moments when you think things are never going to change?

When I was director of Friends of the Earth in the 1980s, we had an extremely active campaign for bottle deposit schemes to allow people to bring bottles back. The price that you paid for a particular product, there was an element that you will get in return. It works really well, and the proof about the effectiveness of the policy is very robust. We did not succeed in our campaign in the 1980s, and the UK government now has decided that it still is not going to introduce bottle deposit schemes. So still no progress after 30 years. I do get disheartened when these things happen.

But things are moving in the right direction. I have to say that the world is much more aware now than it was in the 1970s. The most heartening for me is the awareness amongst young people because that will be the thing that will change it as more and more young people will say that this is not how we want to live our lives. This isn’t what we see as progress. We don’t accept continuous trashing of the planet as an acceptable price to pay for an improved material standard living. Young people all over the world will not up with this on an indefinite basis. I am hugely encouraged by that as I think politicians will change as younger people take on positions of responsibility and authority, both in the economy and politics, it will much easier to implement more environment friendly policy.

8) Are you still hopeful about the future or do you think that we are running out of time and space?

I am still hopeful. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I wasn’t still hopeful. It will all become despairing to think that it was already too late. I’ve always believed that there is a window of time in which we have the opportunity to do things in an intelligent, thoughtful and caring way before it becomes a panic driven response. I’m worried about what will happen at that point because our democratic systems will be at risk, human rights could be downgraded, and governments could end up doing things in an autocratic manner.

The window of time for me is not just about bringing in new technology or better policies, it is using that window of time to ensure that the genius of the human species actually produces a sustainable way of living on this planet and does it democratically. I’m not sure how big that window of time is and that has always been a challenge for me as a sustainability practitioner. How much time do we have? The group of people that is asking that question now more than any other groups is the climate scientists. They are looking at the pattern of accelerated change now all over the world particularly in the Arctic and Antarctic where the change processes are far more dramatic. They are saying that we need to start to do things in the next 10 to 15 years. More and more climate scientists every year are warning that the window is shrinking. The space available to us to do the smart things on this planet is diminishing. I’m not sure if enough politicians are understanding the urgency of this issue. They have to do more to address the issues of climate change, eliminate fossil fuels and energy efficiency. However, things are very complacent and people think that we have years and years to do this but we don’t. We have to start taking actions now and take them fast. Eventually, we will learn to live sustainably on this planet one way or the other as we are left with no choice.

For me it’s great that Sime Darby has a real interest in innovation and how it can, not just continue to be a responsible producer but how can it look to a completely different way of building a sustainable industry, improve productivity through genomics, improve management on the plantation so you eliminate the use of chemical inputs that are unnecessary part of the process. Every company in whatever business has to think about innovation for a sustainable future. And why young people should stay hopeful is that innovation stories get more and more exciting every year.
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