Green bullies on the warpath
Deeply questionable tactics by environmental activists are taking away choices for consumers and business. The coupled collapse of trade barriers in developed countries and the globalisation of supply chains, creating export opportunities for developing countries, has understandably driven consumer awareness of the impact their purchasing has had on the world's poor during the past 20 years.
In response, there has been a push by global activist groups for consumers to voluntarily demand, and business to adopt, "ethical" regulations reflecting the environmental, social and economic impact of producing a product. Consumers can then identify these products through a recognisable logo certifying that from the extraction or production of the basic commodity ingredients through to their final retail sale, they have met non-governmental organisation-defined "ethical" standards.
The first mainstream scheme was the 1980s incarnation of Dutch group Max Havelaar's Fairtrade. The scheme targeted coffee and encouraged consumers to pay voluntarily a few extra cents a cup, on the understanding the mark-up would be passed through to growers in higher commodity prices.At the time growers faced low prices because of a global oversupply from developing world producers allowed to grow the sought-after commodity following the collapse of international regulation that locked them out.
The merits and efficacy of the scheme continue to be debated. But it wasn't long before Fairtrade's voluntary appeasement of the conscience of coffee aficionados became a political tool.
In 2005 Oxfam International's Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup report advocated that Fairtrade certification for coffee should become mandatory. It didn't succeed and the market has corrected itself as farm consolidation and increased consumer demand have delivered higher coffee prices.
Oxfam's effort to create NGO-endorsed regulation is being replicated with the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, using far more subversive tactics.
Allegations of collusion by green activist groups to push businesses into certification schemes have traditionally been a speculative, connect-the-dots exercise. But the recently published book Good Cop/Bad Cop: Environmental NGOs and their Strategies toward Business shows green groups are gloating about their collusive efforts.
The head of research for Greenpeace, Kert Davies, wrote in his chapter about his employer that "Greenpeace is willing to play the role of good cop or bad cop in partnership with organisations". In particular, Davies argues that Greenpeace's "reputation for radical actions positions it particularly well to play the bad cop that can drive organisations to partner with [environmental] groups that seem more middle-of-the-road".
It certainly has been the experience of Australian and US businesses targeted over the products they stock. A report, Empires of Collusion, by a US-based consumer group, last year found bad cop NGOs, including Greenpeace, targeted office-stationery retailers through the media and political action about the paper they stocked for sale and its origins. The bad cops argued that stopping criticism required stocking only Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper products. Faced with sustained attacks, targeted businesses complied by then partnering with middle-of-the-road good cops such as WWF, which signed businesses up to stock only products approved by the certification schemes they founded and effectively own. In the process WWF also regularly licenses its logo's use on products and collects royalties for the honour.
Once a business has been pushed into these schemes, the obligations on it progressively rise, and with them so do costs, with no real avenue to leave.
The strategy works. Another chapter in Good Cop/Bad Cop by one of WWF's senior program managers outlines how in the "uncommon case where [certification] commitments have not been met [WWF has] expelled a company from its programs and publicly shared its concerns".
And the role played by the good cops is no less insidious. According to WWF analysis, it is actively targeting the full supply chain, having identified that "100 companies control 25 per cent of the trade of all commodities . . . affecting around 50 per cent of all production" and it is much easier to target them than to change the habits of six billion consumers. WWF's objective is to have "75 per cent of global purchases of WWF priority commodities sourced from WWF priority places".
And that won't occur voluntarily; government regulation is the next step.
Recent legislative experiences in Australia show progress is already being made. There are two bills before the federal parliament that legally require products be certified to avoid discrimination if imported into Australia.
A bill supported by South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon, the Greens and, oddly, the opposition, sought to require the commonly used oil from the fruit of the palm tree to be labelled separately from vegetable oils. Before its passage through the Senate, the bill required that ingredients certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil be labelled differently, to shame manufacturers from using the non-certified variant. At least the bill still allows business and consumers choice.
By comparison, the government-sponsored Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill compels the certification of the origin of imported wood into Australia, effectively requiring compliance with Forest Stewardship Council standards.
These examples highlight a worrying trend.
Activist NGOs are targeting the global supply chain and forcing businesses to adopt standards that increase prices to avoid public criticism, taking away both business and consumer choice.