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WWF scandal (part 2): Corporate capture, commodities and carbon trading

A recent article asks whether corporations have captured big conservation? The subheading could have read, “Do bears shit in the woods?”

In the article, “Way Beyond Greenwashing: Have Corporations Captured Big Conservation?”, Jonathan Latham takes on big conservation’s role in setting up certification schemes for commodities, including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels and the Better Sugar Cane Initiative (Bonsucro). He points out the low and ambiguous standards, such as the request for companies to “volunteer to obey the law”, under the RTRS.

Latham argues that WWF and other big conservation organisations have become too close to corporations, including having corporate representatives on their boards. The “market transformation” that WWF is persuing through its commodity roundtables is extremely industry friendly. “The key question then becomes: did these boards in fact instigate market transformation? Did it come from the very top?”

Latham’s article is excellent and well worth reading if you haven’t done so already.

In the article, Latham refers to a presentation by Jason Clay, Vice President for Market Transformation at WWF US, given in March 2011. Clay’s presentation outlines WWF’s strategy on REDD: bundling commodities and carbon trading.

In 2010, WWF received a total of €56 million (about US$68 million) from corporations. That’s about 11% of WWF’s total income. It’s peanuts, of course, as Clay points out in his presentation. In its 50 years of existence, WWF has raised and spent more than US$10 billion, which is “less than most major companies spend on messaging within one year”, Clay says.

“Who’s gonna win that battle? It’s not gonna be the NGOs, that put all their money into a single advertisement that shows once against the onslaught of others. So we’ve gotta work out how to work with others.”

WWF has produced a map of the world showing 35 priority regions “from a biodiversity and ecosystem services point of view”. WWF then analysed the threats in terms of 15 commodities produced from these regions, including palm oil, pulp and paper, sawn wood, soy, beef and so on. (Strangely absent are oil, gas, coal or any other mined commodities.) WWF then looked at how to influence the environmental impact of these products. There are about 7 billion people on the planet (Clay calls them “consumers”), speaking 7,000 languages. There are 1.4 billion producers of the 15 commodities. But only 300-500 companies control 70-80% of the trade in each of the 15 commodities. “Working with 300-500 companies could be a lot easier than working with 7 billion consumers or 1.4 billion producers,” Clay says.

WWF spent four years researching these commodity traders and found that the 100 largest companies are involved in 25% of the trade in all 15 commodities. And that 25% of demand leverages 40-50% of production, “because producers will change to sell into those markets”, Clay says.

But contacting companies individually takes too long. So WWF decided instead to “work with groups”. Hence the “Commodity Roundtables” that WWF has been setting up, to create what Clay describes as “credible standards that companies can buy products against”.

“We developed the FSC, we developed the MSC, the Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council. We’ve since done it for almost all those other commodities.”

WWF’s goal is to have 25% of global production of these commodities to be certified by 2020. Clay’s slide makes it look simple:

But as a look at some of the problems with FSC shows, there are serious problems with the certification approach. And FSC is probably the best of these certification systems. That’s not an endorsement of FSC, by the way, just a recognition that the others are even worse.

Clay and WWF are proposing making a bad situation very much worse. In his 2011 talk, Clay mentions environmental externalities. “One of the problems is that we don’t pay the price of anything we buy, because we don’t pay for environmental externalities. So how can we bring externalities back into pricing?” Clay asks. His answer is to bring carbon into the supply chains.

“Why don’t they buy carbon and commodities at the same time? Why don’t they reward farmers for actually sequestering carbon, or avoiding carbon, or changing the trajectory of carbon intensity of the products they make?”

The argument is that because the commodity roundtables include language about reducing deforestation, there exists the possibility of selling the carbon not emitted bundled into the price of the commodity.

In September 2011, a three-day workshop took place in the University of San Diego, California, USA: “The Role of Commodity Roundtables & Avoided Forest Conversion in Subnational REDD+”. It was organised by the National Wildlife Federation, the Governors Climate and Forests Task Force, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, the Agriculture Synergies Project, the Tropical Forest Group and Amigos da Terra (which has nothing to do with Friends of the Earth). Several WWF representatives spoke at the workshop.

Obviously, there are problems with the suggestion of bundling carbon and commodities, not least of which is working out how much carbon is associated with each commodity and determining what the difference might have been if the commodity had been produced outside the vague rules of the commodity roundtable. Then there’s the fact that the rules are not policed particularly closely. And the fact that trading in something that cannot be measured accurately is an extremely high risk investment. Nevertheless, WWF is ploughing on. In his presentation, Clay explained that,

“We’ve just now got some money from the Dutch government, to do assessments of these crops to see how much carbon different farmers in different parts of the world producing these would have to sell with their commodity. Is it one tonne of carbon with every tonne of sugar cane? Is it half a tonne? Is it three tonnes? We need to have an idea of what those numbers are and then we need to draft and peer review a kind of financial approach to how you would do this.”

Clay argues that we can start with carbon, because there already is a carbon market. He appears blissfully unaware of the on-going meltdown in carbon markets. Once the carbon is traded with these commodities, Clay suggests moving on to water, pollinators and biodiversity. “We can widdle away at it, and we can add more things to the price,” he says.

At the end of his presentation Clay asks “Who will manage the planet?” While Clay answers that we all have to, it is obvious from his presentation that Clay and WWF are proposing that corporations, commodity traders and carbon traders should manage the planet. Anyone else think that this is a recipe for disaster?

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  1. Excellent posting, Chris, thanks very much for this.

    Jason Clay and his colleagues can put whatever spin they like on their ‘work’ with corporations – but anyone with any intelligence can see that this is really all about lining WWF’s coffers with corporate loot. The sad fact is that even the FSC has made no real and empirically demonstrable impact in terms of protecting the world’s forests – all it has done in fact is to legitimise continued logging in places where loggers should have been kicked out decades ago.

    And in terms of using consumerist/certification mechanisms to help ‘pay the real price’ for commodities, WWF knows that this is pure myth too: there has never been a premium price for FSC certified timber, and they’re now beginning to find that exactly the same applies to other certification schemes, such as RSPO and the RTRS.

    So why would WWF persist for so long with something that a/ doesn’t work and b/ doesn’t even help capture the ‘externalities’ of commodity production? Because these schemes are an essential part of their mafia-like protection racket, that’s why. The possibility of consumer boycotts, shareholder action (helpfully organised by well-intended organisations such as Greenpeace) and governmental regulation is the threat; the ‘protection’ is to ‘join the WWF club’, get certified, and show the world what a caring corporation you are by working with WWF. Oh, and by the way, there is a ‘joining fee’, and extra donations are gratefully received…

    When the history comes to be written about how the planet’s biodiversity and climate finally got destroyed, it is likely to be the decision of WWF and other like-minded organisations to abandon pressure on governments for better environmental regulation, instead choosing to be self-profiting green mobsters, that will be seen as the turning point – when the planet started to lose any chance of surviving.

  2. Your better solution is to wait for government to legislate conservation? And which countries would you suggest are showing inspirational leadership in this area? The legislative solution would be great — but government is at least 10 years behind progressive companies. I much prefer a pragmatic, solutions oriented approach — imperfect as it may at times be — than just throwing rocks from the sidelines.

    You started by commenting on Lantham’s ariticle. His solution is ‘organic and local’. Well, after 30 years of promoting organic, it has maybe 1% market share. Which planet is that going to save?

  3. @PW

    Yes, the answer is for government to legislate for environmental protection and conservation.

    You seem to have a rather dim understanding of the history of environmental protection. Funnily enough, the reason we in ‘developed’ countries have air fit to breathe, water fit to drink, food that generally does not poison us, and mostly no longer rampant destruction of the few wildlife habitats we had left, is because governments legislated throughout the 20th century to control the actions of companies. Relying on companies themselves – some of whom would no doubt have considered themselves to be ‘progressive’ at the time – was not a notable success. And it never will be, no matter how much greenwash WWF provides to them, (for a price).

    If WWF thinks it can really be effective in transforming the world’s major commodity chains, then why doesn’t it apply that same effectiveness in either promoting stronger legislation, or promoting the ‘local and organic’ approach? The answer is obvious: because neither of those provide opportunities to cosy-up to big rich companies and take their cash off them.

  4. This is only a small suggestion but hopefully if we all support it it will become like a tidal wave.

    If Dolphin Friendly foods and FSC products are a symbol of responsible product use…why can’t we brainstorm a short and direct term for using Palm Oil products….such as

    “Forest, Great Ape and life supporting Palm Oil”…..

    Seven words which can help stop the extinction process!

    In Peace,


  5. And I forgot to add this is a bottom up approach.

    Unfortunately the global education system has failed its citizen’s apart from the First World peoples…..we have failed because the mindset of government and corporations is to control by using the free resources in nature as a bandwagon of looting while its still available….That is why the price of the biodiversity of our biosphere can have no real objective value….We can only account for its value in a financial manner in relationship to what it would cost for an alternative source of “body corpus” or natural capital…for which of course there is no alternative….

    Back in history in 2006, the Secretariat for the Convention on Biodiversity attested that 97% of the global human population as a whole, 87% of government and corporation magnates and 57% of educators (where he obtained this reference…no doubt through the UN) had no idea of the ecological – human economic crisis we are now entering and more to the point of how to address our common future…yes our common future.

    The vast majority of humans may trust their educators but certainly not their governments and corporation magnates…..but before they can trust anyone to make a decision which they should be making they need to know the facts and not decisions by those whose existence is to use up the entire natural body corpus before it there is no more. At present we are concerned that 7 plus billion of us are entering a vortex of apocalypse and how the 9 billion in a few decades will address this when oil reserves too will be at an economic end defies current thinking….

    So the fundamental alternative is as stated in the “11th Hour”….is to begin again……Humanity can do wonders if we work openly and honestly with total responsibility, compassion and equality…..Let’s do it….and think Person-Planet as one!

    Oh and getting back to Palm Oil. Which level of science…(which is an testiong method of basic objective measurement which can be repeated indefinitely,) allows any economist to exclaim that palm oil production has an economic value greater than the biodiversity within natural rain forest…It doesn’t…..No single body can claim such nonsense. Only with UNEP attempting to inauguarate the Intergovernmental Scientific Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosytem Services can such a balance be met and current ecological evidence favours the natural forest over all aspects of human input economics by a factor of an unprecedented level….and that is even before the end of oil reserves!!!!!!!

    If anyone wishes to join a think tank on this fundamental issue please do not hesitate to ask Chris for my contact email.

  6. @PW – Thanks for this comment and thanks for the response @S Apele. WWF has set up a series of commodity roundtables that are very industry friendly – they were designed to be so and were set up together with the companies. That is a problem in itself, because it allows companies to greenwash their activities.

    But the next stage that Clay talks about is far worse: the idea of bundling roundtable commodities and carbon trading. It makes no sense whatsoever, in terms of economics, environmental protection or addressing climate change.

    The Munden Project is consulting firm – their staff includes a developer of commodities analysis systems, an entrepreneur in technology and finance and a commodities trader/banker. They love markets, derivatives, and commodities trading. But having looked at carbon trading, they point out that it’s not going to work. I suggest you take a look at The Munden Project’s reports – available on REDD-Monitor:

    March 2011: Munden Projectreport on REDD and Forest Carbon: “Forest carbon trading is unworkable as currently constructed”.

    December 2011: The Munden Project: “Investing in communities is the most effective way of reducing deforestation”.

    You say you prefer a “pragmatic, solutions oriented approach” which sounds great, but if that approach comes up with “solutions” that patently will not work (apart from letting corporations off the hook and benefiting WWF financially) then I think you’ve got to expect criticism.

  7. @S Apele, Lang

    this is yet another one-sided extremely narrow viewpoint, congratulations!
    first of all, please show me which developed countries have wonderful “air fit to breathe!” do you live in northern Canada perhaps? lucky! Most developed countries have little left to preserve, and government is worthless to do anything about it and nearly always bows to business (um, how about 1 example among many others….
    and unlike your razor thin ignorant perspective, WWF is a wee bit more open minded. In fact, it’s diverse network, encompassing many views and strategies. I am no fan of Mr. Clay (though I have to admit, it does make a bit of sense to try and tackle 100 corporations vs. 7 billion people? unless you all plan on quintupling your donations to help WWF change the world?), please admit that he is but one of 5,000 WWF employees worldwide, in one of 100+ countries, blah blah blah. look it up.
    Just because Mr. Clay believes in one strategy it does not mean WWF is anti-organic farming or any thing else you are so giddy to criticize. Perhaps before you dream up another scandal around someone actually trying to do some good, use a fraction of that energy and do some research? …
    or let’s see, there was WWF’s prominent role in last week’s “Wir haben es Satt!” demo in Berlin for sustainable agriculture

  8. @aurelgrooves

    Yes, President Obama has been rolling back air pollution standards – under pressure from the corporations you seem to love so much!

    If you live in any major North American or European city, then the chances are that you will not be dying of smog this winter (whereas you might have done in the 1940s or 1950s), because governments regulated against air pollution. You will probably not worry about the risk of dying from cancer due to pesticide residues in drinking water, because governments regulated water quality standards. Ditto food standards. Ditto bathing water standards. Ditto protection of the most endangered habitats. These are all empirically demonstrable facts.

    And in the same time, voluntary/consumer action has achieved what, exactly?

    And do you really think that, despite being itself a multi-billion dollar multinational organisation, with its governing boards stuffed full of corporate executives, and with Mr Clay’s undoubted intelligence, WWF is totally unaware that voluntary corporate action is always the very last bulwark AGAINST governmental regulation – and in that sense is directly working with corporations against such regulation?

    Get in the real world, @aurelgrooves, not in the smoke-and-mirrors world of corporate/WWF public relations and fundraising.

    PS. Hooray for WWF supporting organic farming as a ‘policy position’: why haven’t they set up WWF-backed organic commodities’ trading groups, in the same way that they have for planet-destroying products such as palm oil and soya beans?

  9. you mean like this?

    it’s funny how you talk about all these wonderful clean standards, yet, when someone like WWF is trying to establish a standard, it’s wrong.

    WWF doesn’t love corporations any more than you do, it’s just that ignoring them or lambasting them on the internet doesn’t do much that is productive in changing them. Can you provide an example of where just badmouthing a company has forced them to change? whereas perhaps encouraging companies to adopt certain standards, building transparency is at least a step in a direction. step away from the conspiracy theory for just a minute and think about it.

  10. oh, and some examples of WWF working with governments and legislation, just so people here can at least see there’s another side to the conspiracy theory:


    there’s also all the FLEGT work and soon, an EU sustainable biomass initiative that will prohibit imports of biomass from areas that meet certain criteria, like forested in 2007, high conservation value etc…

  11. @aurelgrooves – Thanks for your comments. The focus of this post is WWF’s work on commodity roundtables and the proposal to bundle those commodities with carbon trading. I didn’t mention organic farming in the post. But thanks for all the links to WWF’s work on biodiversity and agriculture. The post does not argue that everything WWF does is bad. In Indonesia, WWF does some great campaigning work on APP, for example.

    Having said that, I think there is a serious conflict of interest with having members of corporations on the board of WWF. I agree with you that it makes sense to tackle 100 corporations. But my point is that WWF isn’t tackling anything. It’s cosying up to corporations, by working together with them in rountables and putting approximately zero pressure on them to change in any meaningful way. And it’s taking funding from the same corporations that it is working with.

    WWF’s support for commodity roundtables is failing to address deforestation or the infringement of the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples. To give a concrete example, last year Brimob evicted people at gun point from three settlements in Jambi, then bulldozed their houses. This took place on a 20,000 hectare oil palm concession operated by PT Asiatic Persada, a 51%-owned subsidiary of the Wilmar Group. Wilmar is on the board of the RSPO. WWF has been strangely silent on this issue.

    Clay’s suggestion of bundling carbon with roundtable commodities will make a bad situation much worse. And it is a WWF scandal, because although Clay is only one WWF employee, as Vice President of Market Transformation at WWF US, he’s in a very influential position in the organisation. And much of what he talks about has already happened – WWF helped set up FSC, MSC, RSPO, RTRS, RSB and Bonsucro. That is a significant part of WWF’s work. And it is deeply problematic.

    Maybe you should take up your argument with Jason Clay for undermining WWF’s work, rather than with REDD-Monitor and others who point out that there are problems with the way WWF works with corporations. Just a thought.

  12. @aurelgrooves

    I’m sorry, but you are comments are very poorly informed. It’s very easy to put an information page on ones website talking about something worthy like Fair Trade – but a very different thing to, for example, to organise huge commodity trading networks over 10 or 15 years, such as WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network (which is notable for the absence of ‘fair trade’ member companies).

    And as has been well documented by Global Witness and others, is precisely that the GFTN does NOT require adherence to rigorous standards (it doesn’t even require that member companies stop dealing in illegal wood, for heaven’s sake), nor is there much transparency in the rules and procedures, and none about the financial relationship between the member companies and WWF.

    None of which is to say that everything that WWF does is bad; there are surely good people doing good work there. If you knew anything about the subject you would know that many WWF staff themselves have grave doubts about initiatives such as the GFTN.

    As for “providing an example of where just badmouthing a company has forced them to change”, there are so many examples that I am not even going to bother to answer that – just look at the campaigning success lists of Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, Global Witness, Friends of the Earth etc etc etc.

  13. Oh. Look who is on the Board of Directors of WWF US:

    Lawrence H. Linden is the Founder and Trustee of the Linden Trust for Conservation, which uses state-of-the art financial advice and monetary support to build environmental markets and to structure and execute deals in conservation finance. In 2008, he retired as former General Partner and Managing Director of Goldman Sachs and Company, where he was a leader of the build-out of the technology, clearance and settlement, accounting, risk management and compliance infrastructure for the firm’s global expansion in the 1990’s.