The Greenmailing of Primary Producers

Environmental non-government organisations, or ENGOs, are gaining increased influence over the way Australia’s vital primary products are harvested and marketed. The ways in which they are doing this put into question the future role of government, science and rational resource management in Australian primary production.

One of the ENGOs’ major strategies has been the establishment of “certification” schemes, whereby primary producers must enter costly arrangements to prove to the satisfaction of the particular ENGO that their production methods and outcomes meet certain standards of environmental sustainability. Thus primary producers can effectively be forced to pay money to continue in business by signing up to the ENGO’s preferred sustainability body.

One of the ENGOs’ most successful tactics has been to pressure companies occupying strategic positions in the supply chain, such as dominant consumer goods manufacturers and retailers, to adopt its certification standards. In Australia, we already see ENGO “sustainability certification” bodies established or projected in a number of primary production areas—for example, forestry, fishing, and now beef. I believe they raise issues of fundamental importance about how Australia will be governed in future—certainly about how food, fibre and timber products will be harvested.

The growth of these certification bodies highlights an apparent abdication of responsibility by the current federal government for making important decisions about primary production. It also represents a direct attack on science and the role of scientists in decision-making in primary production and other areas. It also belittles the role of experienced resource managers and potentially sidelines them.

We are all familiar with references to “big business” as a general term for wealthy and influential business organisations. Now, in Australia, we are seeing the rise of “big environment”: a large, wealthy network of environmental activists. How wealthy was shown by a Canberra Times article in December, 2009, that reported that, in that year, Australia’s four largest environmental groups had spent a total of $70 million, much of it for political lobbying and shaping public opinion.

Under this Labor government, we have seen “big environment” grow more and more powerful and influential. Environmental activists now seem to be orchestrating much of Labor’s policy on primary industries and natural resources.

I raised this issue recently in the Senate in relation to the Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill. The penalties in the Bill include $33,000 for an individual and $165,000 for a corporation for offences such as importing regulated timber products and or processing raw logs without complying with the due diligence requirements. Those fines no doubt will act as a strong incentive to comply with the due diligence requirements. The Bill says the regulations may provide for due diligence requirements in relation to timber products to be satisfied by compliance with, amongst other things, “rules or processes established or accredited by an industry or certifying body”.

These certifying bodies no doubt will include the Forest Stewardship Council, a body supported by a number of radical green groups. Members of the Forest Stewardship Council’s ruling General Assembly include Greenpeace, the Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Friends of the Earth and the WWF.

Industry people tell me that timber producers, exporters or importers—possibly faced with having to construct a whole new system to meet the requirements of this legislation—would feel forced to join a sustainable forest management certification scheme. Our importers and domestic processors might also decide it is necessary to handle only logs certified through such a scheme.

Where this is the case, it is vital that they have more than one certifying body to choose from. It would be a nightmare if the only organisation in the market able to anoint timber products as sustainably produced was someone like the Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC forces timber producers to go through an expensive series of steps to have their products accepted by the FSC as “sustainable”.

In the case of the Australian timber industry, those industry groups and businesses that do choose to go for a certification scheme for their products at least have an option apart from the green-NGO-dominated FSC. This is a body called the Australian Forestry Standard Limited, or AFS. AFS says it covers by far the majority of certified forests in Australia: more than 10 million hectares, certified under Australian Standard 4707: The Australian Standard for Sustainable Forest Management. However, businesses throughout the supply chain—from loggers right through to the final end-user—are already under constant pressure to use only FSC-certified timber.

One company that has felt this pressure is Ta Ann Tasmania. It uses timber harvested by others that was previously destined for the woodchipper. Ta Ann adds value by slicing these logs into valuable veneer for plywood production. The timber is sourced from re-growth and plantation.

Environmental activists are conducting what my Tasmanian colleague, Senator Eric Abetz, described in the Senate in August as

a deceptive campaign to cruel the markets of Ta Ann around the world, prejudicing Tasmanian jobs when the unemployment rate in Tasmania is well over seven per cent, and heading north. Ta Ann’s reputation is being defamed, and their markets drying up.

One example was when an activist group called Markets for Change flew to London before the Olympic Games and persuaded a company buying plywood for a basketball court there not to use Ta Ann products they had previously agreed to purchase. A spokesman for the London contractor was quoted in the media as saying: 

The reason we’ve stopped or we’ve suspended purchasing from Ta Ann is mainly because of the controversy around the logging in Tasmanian forestry. The NGOs will have to be happy with any changes that they can make to enable the product to be purchased by us again.

The Olympic basketball court represented one contract. Far more serious for Ta Ann has been the persistent lobbying by Markets for Change of the company’s overseas customers for flooring products, especially in Japan. I understand this has directly cost the company a significant percentage of its market there, which must directly affect jobs in Tasmania.

It is no surprise, then, to see media reports that Ta Ann’s board of directors could decide to close down its operations in Tasmania. This is a company that last year injected $45 million into the Tasmanian economy and employs a hundred people.

As well as conducting its ongoing campaign against Ta Ann, the Markets for Change activists are also targeting retail chain Harvey Norman. Harvey Norman is selling furniture made from sustainable Tasmanian timber, but that’s not good enough for Markets for Change.

Both Ta Ann and Harvey Norman products are certified by the Australian Forestry Standard—but, of course, for Markets for Change and their fellow activists, that is not the right certifying body. The Markets for Change website tells businesses, like Ta Ann and Harvey Norman, what they should do: “Give preference to plantation products with full Forest Stewardship Council certification.” So, there we are: trying to force producers and buyers into using the Forest Stewardship Council.

It is a familiar pattern. In July 2011, Greenpeace activists climbed a construction crane on the Central Park development in Sydney in a protest over the use of plywood that the organisation claimed was sourced illegally. Soon after, Greenpeace trumpeted the news that the developer had promised not to use any timber that was not certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

The examples I have used here relate to timber and timber products. However, the aims of ENGOs go far, far beyond just timber. In Australia, we have already seen the formation of the Forest Stewardship Council for timber products, the Marine Stewardship Council for wild-caught seafood, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council for farmed fish, and now a so-called round table for beef production. These are all initiatives of the World Wildlife Fund, or Worldwide Fund for Nature, or WWF.

WWF International deals with commodities including beef, bio-energy, cotton, dairy, farmed fish, palm oil, pulp and paper, soy, sugar cane, timber and wild-caught fish. It focuses on businesses such as processing companies, commodity traders, manufacturers, retailers and banks, urging them to deal only with producers endorsed by WWF. The support of those key businesses of course applies pressure on primary producers to comply and join the ENGO certification scheme.

It is by no means far-fetched to say that WWF and other ENGOs fully intend that eventually all food and fibre products harvested in Australia will be forced to go through one of these lucrative “sustainability certification” schemes. Every food and fibre product. Every single one. These schemes cost individual producers thousands of dollars for the initial certification process and then regular costs for auditing.

Someone who has studied the impact of such sustainability certification schemes worldwide is Alan Oxley. He was previously Australian Ambassador to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, the predecessor to the World Trade Organisation. This is what he has said: 

WWF has made no secret of its strategy to pressure companies occupying strategic positions in the supply chain, such as dominant consumer goods manufacturers and retailers, to adopt its certification standards. Other NGOs, like Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, are aggressively attacking brand names and leading products of major companies to incentivise them to join the strategy …

ENGOs will also engage a method often referred to as “greenmail” to force companies into certification. “Greenmail” involves action to devalue the public perception of a brand name or company reputation of producers and retailers through advocacy campaigns aimed at consumers and processors. Running negative campaigns against brand labels with significant market position is common. The aim is to pressure these businesses to align with or adopt certification systems developed by NGOs. Once the company adopts that system, it has become an agent for delivering the sustainability values of the NGO. By these means, ENGOs are able to influence, and even control, the supply chain. 

When they hear that statement, perhaps Australian cattle producers can understand why WWF has been so keen to include McDonald’s, the largest single buyer of Australian beef, and JBS, our largest single beef processor, on its Australian Round Table for Sustainable Beef. WWF sees this round table as a first step towards pushing Australian cattle producers into another one of its costly sustainability certification schemes.

A couple of years ago, WWF US senior vice-president Jason Clay gave an interview explaining how WWF’s round tables work: 

We convene roundtables—meetings of all the members of a commodity’s value chain—everyone from producers, traders and manufacturers to brands and retailers, as well as scientists and non-governmental organisations. Together, we agree on the key impacts of producing a commodity—deforestation, water use, and so on—then design standards to minimise these impacts, which are ultimately certified by an independent third party. The participants publicly commit to producing, buying and selling within these standards, to be part of the commodity roundtable, forming a chain of sustainability.

Of course, to succeed at this “greenmail”, and devalue the public perception of the brand name or company reputation of producers, the ENGOs first have to convince the Australian public and international buyers that current practices—in forestry or fisheries or beef or other commodities—are environmentally unsustainable.

How can they possibly do that? Australian primary producers maintain production methods and standards that are amongst the very highest in the world from an environmental point of view.

Well, the ENGOs can get away with it because—while the Labor government continues to insist on stringent environmental standards from our primary producers, it says and does nothing to defend them. Instead, being politically captive to the Greens and to radical green policies, it surrenders at the first sign of manufactured outrage. Instead of governing on the basis of good science, sound management principles and common sense, this government is managed by social media. For this government, science can be trumped by emotion, fact by opinion, and rational management by 140-character Twitter messages.

This is the government that responded to a tele­vision program by shutting down Australia’s live cattle export trade. That cost our cattle industry many millions of dollars, and is still hurting cattle producers and related business operators throughout northern Australia. Then, of course, later, realising the enormous harm they had done by such an emotionally-driven reaction, the government reversed the decision.

This is the government that encouraged efficient harvesting of fish in southern waters and agreed to the use of a large international trawler, then, panicking at some of the reaction to the vessel’s arrival, banned its operation. What that did was unjustly cast doubt over Australia’s fisheries management and fisheries science. In fact, our fisheries science and fisheries management are among the very best in the world.

This is the government that gave in to the slick, well-funded lobbying campaign of international environmental activists and closed much of the almost one million square kilometre Coral Sea region to most forms of fishing, a ban that was completely unnecessary.

This is the government that allows ENGO activists to use deceitful public campaigns to target timber suppliers operating sustainably in well-managed forests. This government stands on the sidelines and watches. It does nothing to defend sustainable businesses providing vital Australian jobs. It allows damaging campaigns to be waged against markets for sustainable Australian products here and overseas without lifting a finger or saying a word to help protect the jobs of Australian workers.                

Who is running this country? Clearly, not the current government. It looks more like mob rule. Scientists and resource managers must be seething with anger and frustration as sound long-term advice is overruled by expedient short-term politics. What we see from some green groups in fact is anti-science. Science is complex and rational. The ENGO messages are inevitably simple and emotional: “Save this, save that, save the other … donate now.” 

What’s to be done? The government must speak out on behalf of Australia’s primary producers and the sustainability of their farming, forestry and fishing practices. Then it must take action to back up those words. It must support our wealth-creating, job-creating primary industries in the marketplace. In other words, it must refute the lies the ENGOs are telling about our primary producers.

Then, these ENGOs must be made accountable. For example, the government should urgently re-examine the exemption of ENGOs from the secondary boycott provision of the Consumer and Competition Act, for example where ENGOs encourage the boycott of products not carrying the “sustainability certification” label they prefer.

The government should also examine what looks to be a free ride for activists who take apparently illegal actions but use the excuse that they were protecting the environment.

And why do these “big environment” organisations—who seem able to spend millions and millions of dollars lobbying government and running advertising, PR and social media campaigns to influence public opinion—enjoy tax-free charity status? In most cases, they can massively out-spend the companies they campaign against, companies who must comply with taxation and other rules that simply do not apply to the ENGOs.

I believe Australians need to be alerted to what is at stake here. Australia’s agricultural, forestry and fisheries industries have a gross value of production of some $50 billion. That is a huge amount of money. It is a very attractive target for ENGO strategies designed to extract money from primary industries and other businesses in the supply chain—basically, extracting money for certification and branding schemes simply to allow them to continue harvesting and marketing their products.

Clearly, environmental non-government organisations like WWF, Greenpeace and others intend to move from one primary industry sector to the next to the next, “greenmailing” them or otherwise forcing them to comply with their favoured sustainability certification schemes. Their tactics should alarm all Australians.   

I believe these tactics raise questions of fundamental importance for the way government operates, for the maintenance of a genuine, informed democracy, and for the role of science in guiding and informing decision-making.

Senator Ron Boswell has been a Nationals senator for Queensland since 1983.

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