Toby Webb speaks to the Rainforest Alliance’s Chris Wille

Chris Wille is chief of agriculture at the Rainforest Alliance. He worked for several US state conservation agencies, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society, before moving to Costa Rica with the Rainforest Alliance in 1989. In 2010, Ethical Corporation presented Wille with its first-ever lifetime achievement award in sustainable business.

Toby Webb: As a pioneer of sustainable agriculture, what are the key lessons you have learned in persuading business leaders of the value of sustainability action?

Chris Wille: Business people, whether producers, traders, manufacturers or retailers, were not interested at first. Chiquita took the leap when it was seen as risky to allow hawk-eyed, standards-bearing, local environmentalists onto company operations, in this case banana plantations. But the company quickly saw the benefits on farms, and that convinced them to continue. For example, in the first 10 years of implementing the standards in central and South America, it recorded overall productivity gains of 27% and cost reductions of 12%.

Many business leaders like hard data. The Rainforest Alliance has assembled a team of scientists to gather verifiable numbers about programme impacts. But data isn’t enough to excite everyone: stories from the field and project site visits are all motivating.

Smart companies want to know about the risks and efficiency opportunities in their supply chains. They need assurance that the producers of their raw materials – eg coffee, cocoa, tea, paper fibre – are going to be able to continue supplying the quantities and qualities they need in the face of increased competition for water, land, workers, credit and environmental services, climate change, migrating populations and political unrest. They want stewardship programmes that fit their particular needs, integrate into their business model, make sense to their stakeholders and efficiently deliver verifiable results.

TW: Do you believe in a consumer sustainability revolution, or will it be corporate-led, with pressure from civil society?

CW: There is a well-documented gap between what we consumers say we want and how we act. There is a trend in some countries of increased awareness and concern, a public increasingly uncomfortable with continued poverty, inequity, human-rights abuses and environmental degradation. But we can’t wait for consumers to drive sustainability. Consumer products companies understand the need for conservation for the health and durability of their businesses. We want them to be rewarded in the marketplace too, and we’ll continue to encourage the purchase of responsibly produced goods.

Certification is the best framework for determining training needs, providing training, packaging incentives for producers, third-party assessments of progress and setbacks, endorsement and implementation of company commitments to sustainability, and as an antidote to greenwashing.

Standards should be stout, practical and applicable enough to make a difference. To be effective, a certification programme must include training and technical assistance, local support, incentives for continual improvement, monitoring and evaluation, trust and pride building, tangible benefits for producers, and a local legal framework that does not counter conservation.

TW: How can companies educate people outside their sustainability teams?

CW: Get honest information about the progress, impacts, setbacks and challenges and give colleagues the full story. Explain the long-term strategy and make connections to their daily jobs. Use all the internal communications channels available and invent more.

Ensure that the sustainability programme is seen as a company-wide initiative, not the province of the marketing or CR department. Bring in enviros and human rights activists to speak at staff meetings. Circulate data and stories from the field.

Provide context and news: how many line workers in coffee companies know about the crisis in the coffeelands? And how many know that coffee farms can contribute to democracy, equality, thriving communities as well as levels of wildlife abundance comparable to rainforests?

TW: How do you view commodity traders on sustainability?

CW: With some exceptions, traders have pretended that sustainability is the responsibility of everyone else in the supply chain. Those that deal in coffee, tea and cocoa – the most certified farm products – are more progressive than those that manage the invisible commodities such as sugar, soy and palm oil.

Years ago, coffee trader Ecom saw sustainability as a business opportunity and began reorganising to provide supply chain services to companies that wanted to know more about the beans they were buying. The Rainforest Alliance trains the field staff of traders who in turn train farmers. Traders manage some groups of smallholders, allowing them to get certification at low cost.

We’ve started a responsible cattle ranching programme in the tropics and found companies eager to be pioneers in trading certified sustainable beef. But the big players in sugar, soy and palm oil are asleep at the wheel.

Toby Webb is founder of Ethical Corporation and Stakeholder Intelligence. He blogs at

CR Pioneer  NGO  Rainforest Alliance  Sustainability experts 

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