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Faces of slavefreetrade: An interview with our mentor, Scott Poynton

Faces of slavefreetrade: An interview with our mentor, Scott Poynton

As slavefreetrade reaches the end of our birthday month, we sat down with our mentor, Scott Poynton to walk us through his inspiring work in the field of sustainable forestry and combating human rights abuses. Scott discusses how he developed The Forest Trust (TFT), as well as his latest venture in building a community of change-makers through The Pond Foundation.  He also shares with us some words of advice and encouragement for the team at slavefreetrade.

Could you share what got you interested [in the field of sustainable forestry] in the first place?

When I was 15, I came alongside an interview on the radio of an old man who spoke of his work traveling around the world trying to conserve forests, plant trees, and grow new forests. It was a half an hour broadcast and by the end of that, I knew that I was going to follow through in his footsteps. He spoke of his work in the Sahara and in the Judean hills, planting trees with communities to try and hold back the desert. 

What are some of the challenges that you faced when you were growing The Forest Trust?

When I started the first fund in 1999, there really were no companies investing serious amounts of their money to solve supply chain issues. We initially came in looking at deforestation, illegal logging, forest destruction but very quickly those things collided with human rights issues. For example, when we started The Forest Trust (TFT, previously the Tropical Forest Trust), wood was being ripped off from Cambodia, trucked over the border into Vietnam and made into furniture to be sent to Europe. There were human rights abuses for the local communities there! That wasn’t the focus initially, it was all on deforestation in Cambodia and so the big challenge that I faced was to try and help companies to understand that they had a responsibility. Companies were saving costs through their use of illegal wood with an absence of proper forest management and human rights compliance. Companies used to put the blame on suppliers, but took no steps or made investments to make sure that they are not linked to such violations. So the big hurdle that I have faced and I think a lot of NGOs also faced was to get companies to take ownership of those distant problems in their supply chain that they didn’t even know existed. When NGOs highlighted such problems it was a big shock to many but their response was what can we do about it?

But my answer was you can do plenty about it! Visiting the factories, figuring out where they are buying the wood from, and establishing transparent communication with the right traders are just a few steps. What we found was that the system of wood was so entrenched in illegal logging and human rights abuses, that change [on the ground] was absolutely impossible. The big change that made all of this possible was for the retailers and their suppliers here in Europe to take action in properly investing and having better management practices. The NGO campaign was so powerful in helping retailers and their suppliers understand that they owned part of the problem. Hence, we can change the system!

The big change that made all of this possible was for the retailers and their suppliers here in Europe to take action in properly investing and having better management practices. The NGO campaign was so powerful in helping retailers and their suppliers understand that they owned part of the problem. Hence, we can change the system!

What are some of the biggest pushbacks you would get normally when you started raising those questions for the first time with your European retail counterparts?

I think they didn’t know and certainly they didn’t like investing money in areas they weren’t aware of. So, my biggest pushback when I first started going around to the owners of companies to propose that we set up this Tropical Forest Trust, was to inspire these people to take a leap of faith and invest. Also, in reality we didn’t have enough information to solve such problems, and being open and honest about that helped build trust. You have to be open to the unseen or the unforeseen, instead of going in with this preconceived notion that if we do A it will lead to B and so on till we eventually reach Z and the problem will be solved. I think if you take that approach, you can work through most problems. 

While carrying out consumer research to develop our consumer app, slavefreetrade found that one barrier to conscious consumption has been the gap between intent and behaviour. Based on your experience, could you share with us some insights on how to bridge that gap between good intent and real action? 

In my work, I haven’t worked directly with consumers. What I’ve done is worked with the leaders of the companies involved in the supply chain. But they’re responding to those consumers. And many leaders of companies say, “My customers aren’t asking for it, therefore why would I do it?” 

To that, I say, “Forget about everyone else in the equation for a second. What do you want to do? Who are you as a person? Do you want to be linked to slave labour?” So the way I’ve been able to help people cross that bridge is to invite them to look in the mirror. The reality is that so few of the people I’ve ever spoken to, don’t care about [slavelabour]. Beyond the PR or marketing or campaigns, my experience has been – and I have a lot of faith in this – that people are essentially good. [But what is happening] is a consequence of how they do business, because that was how business has always been done. When I sit down with leaders of companies, they tell me that they’re against [labour abuses and other negative human rights impact of business], but their suppliers and their consumers are not asking about it either. And so, if they do business the way I suggest, they worry that their business will become less competitive price-wise, because their costs will go up. They worry that they might lose their customers, that customers would switch towards competitors that still carry out bad practices, but are consequently able to keep prices low. These are real fears that people have.

I tell them to hold on to the intent. Universally, the answer from company leaders has been no, they do not want to be linked to slave labour. Good, so now look at the question of price competitiveness [vis-a-vis competitors] as a separate problem. This is now a problem of innovation and introducing competitive practices in your supply chain. Pay your workers the right amount, guarantee them great working conditions, and then, go and have a talk with them! You would find that they are pretty innovative people and they might be able to give you suggestions on how to innovate your business. 

Pay your workers the right amount, guarantee them great working conditions, and then, go and have a talk with them! You would find that they are pretty innovative people and they might be able to give you suggestions on how to innovate your business. 

I was working with the TFT in 48 countries with some of the world’s largest companies, representing around 20 different commodities and generating a trillion dollars worth of supply chain transactions. So the idea that they would work with the TFT and make themselves uncompetitive was utter nonsense. They didn’t make themselves uncompetitive because the changes that were being made actually unleashed innovation and allowed these companies to find creative solutions up and down the supply chain, with all of their stakeholders. They made it happen and were able through innovation, to absorb that cost difference. And these companies enjoyed benefits as well, in terms of brand recognition, improved communications and receiving better ratings on NGO surveys. So, it’s been a great journey of change and innovation as much as values. But the values come first.

[Companies] didn’t make themselves uncompetitive because the changes that were being made actually unleashed innovation and allowed them to find creative solutions up and down the supply chain, with all of their stakeholders.

That’s really heartening and hopeful. That leads us to the next venture that you’ve started, The Pond Foundation. It’s an initiative aimed at building a community of change-makers. How do you create engagement and how has The Pond Foundation been able to shape this community?

The Pond Foundation is really exciting for me, because I’m trying to build that community of people who are out in the world trying to bring positive change in whatever context – it may just be in a one-on-one relationship, it could be at the community, regional or national level, it could be globally. 

I’ve been involved in a lot of interesting and global change-making processes. So my hope is to be able to share some of the things that I’ve learned and to provide a space where others can share their experiences too. The idea of The Pond Foundation is to create this space where we can support business-leaders to be more responsible, and where we can have education through sharing the knowledge that I and others have learned. The Pond Foundation also works with people and teams to build skills and knowledge. 

So there is The Pond Community, we’re two months in and so far there are about 170 members and it seems to be growing quite rapidly. The idea is that it provides people with the opportunity to find calm, because one of the key things I’ve learned is that you have to stay calm throughout this change-making process. If you see terrible things and react in anger, you can quickly limit your ability to bring about change. But if you can stay calm amidst the chaos and start sharing lessons with each other, we can create change.

 If you can stay calm amidst the chaos and start sharing lessons with each other, we can create change. 

My frustration was that although I worked with so many companies during my time at TFT, there were so many more companies that we needed to be working with. And there’s just not enough hours in a day to do it, right? But through The Pond Foundation, imagine if the 170 people in the community today grow to a thousand, and each one of them are working with 10 companies. Suddenly, all of these amazing people can share lessons, go out into their communities and start implementing these practices that were found to be successful. That’s a path for accelerating change. We need to supercharge change and that’s really the objective of The Pond Foundation.

You’ve been associated with slavefreetrade for a while now. What is it about slavefreetrade that excites you the most personally?

It’s the opportunity to do something really important in the world and I think that slavefreetrade’s embrace of technology is critical. If slavefreetrade was going around company by company, just talking to one person here and there, then it would be a different pace of journey. But what I’m excited about is the technology that slavefreetrade is developing, that will allow its work, its mission and the change it’s seeking to bring, to get scaled up very quickly. 

It’s interesting because on the counter-side i think there’s too much belief that technology will solve the world’s problems. I believe that ultimately, technology is a tool for human interaction. People are looking for the next big technological breakthrough and in many ways, that makes sense. But it’s humans who will solve the world’s problems, not tech and robots. We can use technology as a tool to help us do that, and this is very much the philosophy that I feel is present in slavefreetrade. slavefreetrade is very much a human-to-human programme but it has got the vision to use the technology that it’s developing to help human conversations go to scale. And that’s what I love about it. 

 slavefreetrade is very much a human-to-human programme but it has got the vision to use the technology that it’s developing to help human conversations go to scale. And that’s what I love about it.

We know that slavery is a huge problem in the world, still. It affects so many people’s lives in such a terrible way, and for that reason, I’m driven by the mission of slavefreetrade. I’m also driven by the human-led but technologically-supported way that the organisation is going about bringing change. I think it has the potential to have a huge impact on the world. That’s my mission in life, so I’m really pleased and excited to be associated with slavefreetrade.

All the wisdom that you’ve given us so far at slavefreetrade has really helped us to grow. It’s great to have you as a mentor, and we truly appreciate that. Before we sign off, as slavefreetrade reaches two years, what would be your advice to all of slavefreetrade’s team-members? 

The people at slavefreetrade are a special bunch of people – you’re volunteers and you’re doing this because you believe in it, this is a passion for you. I’m captured by the amazing commitment of everyone here at slavefreetrade. We all hanker for that magic moment when we have a breakthrough, and all the work takes off and goes to scale, but the reality of life is that these things tend to take longer than we dream of. So, [my advice would be] to just keep going. In a way, slavefreetrade’s mission is like a long marathon and I urge everyone to have faith that the good work that you’re all doing will bear fruit. It will happen, keep going!

(*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)