“My first electronic encounter with Scott Poynton goes way back to ‘2016’. I remember watching a beautiful, intense and informative documentary on Haiti, it’s called – “In Haiti: A road trip documentary“. This movie is gripping to the core, I was so absorbed in the stillness of time, completely unperturbed by any possible sound in the vicinity. The moment it ended, I quickly hopped on to its film-makers, and, I found ‘Florian Wiesner’ (the director of this movie), born in Haiti from a Haitian mother and a German father. I was intrigued and the next thing I know was – I wanted to talk, my inquisitive mind was swinging between the extremes. Fascinated with people that I am, I researched more, that’s what led me to Scott Poynton, the underlying thread here being, Florian Wiesner works for The Forest Trust and Scott is the Founder of The Forest Trust (TFT). By this time, my inquisitiveness had reached its pinnacle…
As I hovered over TFT, I was enlightened with this sheer brilliance of collective minds, human beings camouflaged with ‘Rocks’ and ‘Earthworms’ as TFT puts across for ‘transforming dead matter into living soil to help revive the tree and the whole ecosystem’. Suddenly, it was no more an information about Florian or Scott, it was a vision, cognitive similarities or purposeful inter-relatedness between human beings and environment that I was digging into. It was ‘the Ecosystem’, ‘the Mother Earth’, ‘the sustainability’ that I was prying on. I was running through forests and how, they should be protected against illegal logging and supply, I was diving into the consequential waters of climate change. The pieces were falling in place and I could understand, how it’s all connected, the world’s best and leading organizations using elements of environment against environment, and how TFT was helping eradicate this practice. What dawned on me was a realization (from the perspective of a consumer) – do we ever, even casually, think about the various products we use in our daily routine? Where are they manufactured? What are the standard of procedures followed? If there are any illegal practices involved? What about child labor? What about the sustainability policies? The answer is NO! (Well, mostly NO). Simply because, we are so overwhelmed by the comfort they provide, we do not participate into these minute details. Fortunately, at The Forest Trust (TFT), visionary Scott Poynton and his equally committed team does that for us.”
Scott Poynton is an Australian forester. When he was 15-years-old, he heard a radio interview with forester Richard St. Barbe Baker, enthralled by how Baker had used poetry and science to tell stories, Scott dedicated his life to become a forester. He graduated from the Australian National University School of Forestry in 1987, gained practical forestry experience working in Tasmania for two years before studying a Masters of Forestry at Oxford. In 1999, he founded The Forest Trust (TFT), and since then, he is relentlessly working towards creating sustainable environmental policies for some of the world’s leading organizations. He is the author of the book “Beyond Certification”. Scott has openly spoken about the need to move beyond certification process, he says, “While the ‘Certification’ process sounds great in theory, but, so often the standards are weak or the auditing process isn’t done correctly or could even be corrupted.”
Today, after months of exhaustively reading and understanding his work, I am so honored to invite him on Real Life Heroes – By Manvi.
Manvi: Why TFT, what is your sense of realization behind creating TFT?
Scott: I created TFT with our Founding members – ScanCom and six European retailers – because we needed a membership based organization that companies could rally to. When they wanted to show they were serious, they would apply to join TFT. As TFT didn’t engage in green-washing, but, rather acted with serious intent in the forest to change practices, joining TFT became a sign that a company was serious and ready to go beyond normal practice.
TFT is more than this though. For me, TFT is a statement of who I am, of what makes me ‘ME’. It says that we need serious action to change our global trajectory, to avoid a planetary crisis and TFT is the vehicle I created to put that dream into practice.
Manvi: You have spoken and written so much about ‘Certification’, and, the need to move beyond it. What is it?
Scott: Certification is a system where someone has developed a standard and then companies, farmers, individuals try to reach that standard by changing and developing their management approach. Then an auditor comes in to check and audit the organization/individual against the set standard. If they meet the set parameters that are listed in the standard, then they can be “certified” against the standard.
Manvi: In your book Beyond Certification, you are critical of the process of ‘Certification’ citing its many disadvantages that you cannot afford to ignore. How far according to you is the VT-TV (Values, Transparency, Transformation and Verification) model feasible?
Scott: I think the VT-TV model is feasible, else for sure I wouldn’t have proposed it. My experience is that when company leaders tap into their deeper values, beyond profit making, they can bring enormous change to the way their business and even the whole sector they operate in performs.
Manvi: Is it because of its channeling (Various NGO, locals, suppliers involved) that you feel this model is much better?
Scott: This model is better because it engages people in a deeper way to what’s happening on the ground. If you stay in your head and think only profit and loss, or risk management and compliance, you will be blind to the bigger issues you may be creating. If you say – I don’t want to be linked to slave labor, or deforestation, or whatever, and this is something you fundamentally believe in, then you will do everything you can to ensure your operations aren’t linked to such things. But, if you sign up to a certification scheme, you’re outsourcing those values to another organization. You’re not saying what you believe, you’re merely jumping on board what others have said is good practice. It’s subtly but also hugely different. If something goes wrong with a certified producer, you can blame the certification scheme. Yet if one of your suppliers is involved with slave labor and you’ve said you don’t want slave labor, then you’re directly implicated, directly involved in finding the solution. It’s a different motivation, a different starting point with different intent and it drives dramatically different action.
Manvi: For nearly 20 years, the policy of certification was being religiously followed, even now it is being followed by some companies. You proposed change i.e. moving beyond certification with the help of VT-TV model, do you have an assurance over the fact that organizations will not find a way to make profits (through wrong means) out of this policy eventually when its largely adopted?
Scott: No, there is never any assurance of such things, but, what we can do, through the Verification process, is engage a broad section of society – those affected by a company’s operations – to tell us how they think the company is going. If a company is paying lip service to its values, then listening to the people directly and immediately affected by its operations will reveal very quickly if it’s not walking the talk.
Manvi: I am curious to know; how do you evaluate the Environmental and Sustainability Policies of a company?
Scott: Well, I read them and I get a feeling for whether they’re ambitious enough based on what I know or experts are saying to be the key issues in the industry. We need the policies to be comprehensive and to be committing companies to grappling with the big issues, with ambitious timelines.
Manvi: Upon evaluation, if you find any loophole, how does TFT rectify it?
Scott: We speak to the companies and tell them “Not good enough!” and then, give suggestions where they could do better. It’s a collaborative approach, not one where we use a stick but ultimately, if the company doesn’t share our ambition, we will not work with them.
Manvi: For e.g. ScanCom – you mentioned in your book that with the help of TFT they prepared a policy which clearly stated that they would exclude all illegal wood from its products. How do you ensure that they follow what they have stated?
Scott: In ScanCom’s case, I went to work for the company! I became their Managing Director in Vietnam and so was the person responsible for implementing the policy. Obviously, I can’t do that as a rule so we work with them, helping them to implement their policy and we monitor and evaluate, with them, and with other stakeholders how they’re doing.
Manvi: Do you regularly inspect their working conditions? The reason I am asking this is – This is precisely the problem with ‘Certification’, once anything is certified – it is deemed to be right or at least not judged anymore, which means the organizations can easily get to their way of working after some time…
Scott: Yes, Exactly right. Certification audits happen once per year and the company has ample time to get everything in order. This is not our approach. We visit the companies in our members’ supply chains frequently through the year, usually with very short notice, to check on progress.
Manvi: You have mentioned ‘Wilmar International’ in your book. I also read an article about them where they say that they acknowledge their environmental issues and the suppliers have been told to follow – ‘No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation Policy’. You have investigated their case, so, what is the situation now (considering the size of the company and the fact that, it is one of the major palm oil suppliers, it will take enormous time and rigorous efforts to clean up)?
Scott: Notwithstanding what some NGOs say, I think Wilmar are doing well. They’ve invested hugely in the implementation of their policies and while there remains much work to do, the company is going for it.
Manvi: When these giant size companies destroy a particular forest by illegally cutting woods or exploit the local people around using their faulty environmental policies, what happens to these resources, are they never replenished again?
Scott: Sadly, usually not!
Manvi: If they are not, then who takes the responsibility of replenishing these forests?
Scott: Well, in my view, the company should do that. There are few cases where it happens but our TFT members in Indonesia are doing this. They are looking at creating new forests and investing heavily to protect the ones that still exist.
Manvi: You mentioned your experience with India and China was eye-opening, and I read another story where – a new chook pen appeared to have been falsely labelled as FSC wood in China. I have two questions – How far do you think independent verification is feasible? and, do you have an estimate on how many companies in India and China don’t follow the norms?
Scott: The way we do it now, it’s not feasible at all because it isn’t truly independent. The myth of independent third-party audit underpins all certification schemes and is their biggest fault. All auditors are conflicted. Regarding your second question, I don’t, but it would be the majority in my view. That’s not because they’re bad, it’s because the system allows it. I would say, it almost encourages it i.e. breaking the norms.
Manvi: Do you also require governmental support in your work?
Scott: We don’t but the more we can get governments involved the better. It’s urgently needed actually.
Manvi: I feel everything is connected, especially in India, for e.g. a giant organization is illegally cutting off the entire forest, is it possible that the state government is not even aware about it? I don’t think so, and when the companies show them ‘Certification’, do they further not investigate and simply give a ‘Go-Ahead’?
Scott: Yes, sadly, there are all sorts of ways companies can get away with bad behavior. There is a lot of corruption out there and in saying that, I’m not being critical of India and China alone. It exists in many places, even in Western democracies.
Manvi: What is the core value of VT-TV model and how far do you see it going?
Scott: The core value is that it starts and finishes with core values! It starts with what the person fundamentally believes. If we all operated from that point, and left the ego out of it, and stopped judging others, I think the world would be a better place.
On a lighter note
Manvi: How did you start Cooee! podcasts, Tell us more about it? What was the main aim and why the name ‘Cooee!’?
Scott: Haha!! Good question!
So… I started Cooee! Podcasts because every day, as I do my work, I meet so many incredible and inspiring people. These are usually unsung people, unsung heroes, doing interesting things that no one knows about. These are people who do things to help others but don’t expect anything in return. So often I meet such people and I think, “Wow!”
I started Cooee! Podcasts because I wanted to share these stories, these people and their work with the world. If I get inspired, others might be inspired too and the more people we can inspire, the greater chance we have of changing the things that are killing us.
So really, Cooee! Podcasts are one of the ways I hope to bring inspiration to the people who listen.
Manvi: Why the name Cooee!?
Scott: Cooee is a shout used in Australia, usually in the bush, to attract attention, find missing people, or indicate one’s own location. When done correctly—loudly and shrilly—a call of “cooee” can carry over a considerable distance. The distance one’s cooee call travels can be a matter of competitive pride. It is also known as a call of help, which can blend in with different natural sounds in the bush.
Manvi: Thank you Scott for being with me and sharing your story!
Scott: Most Welcome!
You can know more about our ‘Hero’ Scott @